Alt-Ac Challenges, Continued

A guest post by University of Iowa’s Wayne Jacobson.

August 30, 2015

Wayne Jacobson is Assessment Director in the Office of the Provost at the University of Iowa.  He holds a PhD in Adult Education from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Joshua Kim ended his August 27 column on Administrators vs. Alt-Acs with an inviting series of questions, and I’m responding to a few of them here:  

First, the column does a good job of recognizing alt-ac professionals in teaching, learning, and research-related roles, and I think it is also worth pointing out that we have alt-ac colleagues in other types of roles as well. To note just one example, many of our colleagues who provide various forms of student support hold terminal degrees, continue to do scholarly work, present at academic and professional conferences, and contribute to advancing their fields. Their scholarly work contributes to their professional roles on campus and also to the university’s broader academic mission.  We have many alt-ac allies throughout the university.

Second, I’ll add a few more alt-ac challenges to Josh’s list: To begin, I don’t think we can take if for granted that faculty always know what to do with us, and we often start with their skepticism. As Josh notes, we see ourselves collaborating with faculty in their work, but we cannot start with the assumption that faculty are always ready to value what we bring to the collaboration. I know many faculty and alt-ac people who have successfully bridged that gap, but I think we should be ready to start every collaboration recognizing that the faculty member may see us as just one more member of the support staff — “secretaries with PhDs,” as one of my alt-ac colleagues once put it. As Josh notes, it’s not the same kind of skepticism encountered by one-time faculty members who crossed over to the administrative side of the university.  Rather, we’re people who got the same kind of advanced degrees that faculty members have, but didn’t have the wherewithal (in the eyes of many) to join the faculty in the first place. It’s not our motives that are suspect, but our competence as potential partners in collaboration, and we need to become very skillful at meeting the challenge of demonstrating the intellectual substance and quality of the work that we do.

I also think there are times when the institution doesn’t know what to do with us. HR systems are often built around assumptions that faculty do academic work and staff do non-academic work. Thus, our job descriptions, titles, and performance review categories tend to reflect non-academic responsibilities. If we’re involved in research, it’s assumed to be in management roles (such as Grants & Contracts); if we’re involved in course design or program assessment, it’s assumed to be logistical (such as Tech Support). When annual reviews come around, it’s up to individual supervisors to find ways to bend HR categories to recognize the academic work of their alt-ac staff members, and to figure out how to comparably rate all the people in “Research Administrative Services III” positions (for example) in exactly the same terms, even though they’re all doing different kinds of work. Faculty who become administrators are still generally considered academics by the institution; alt-ac people face the challenge of establishing that we ever were.

And at times, we don’t know what to do with ourselves, either. Most of us can see the path that led to our careers only by looking back, and that’s fine as far as it goes. I’m in a great place, and it’s not less great because I couldn’t have predicted that I would be here one day.  However, it makes it harder to imagine what might be coming next. For example, faculty might imagine one day serving as department chair or joining the office of the Dean or Provost.  But if you are a Director of Instructional Technology, or Faculty Development, or Academic Advising, where do you go next? You can certainly continue to grow in any of those positions, but at a certain point opportunities for advancement at the university are fairly limited if you’re not starting as a faculty member.  Meanwhile, I’ve known alt-ac people at a number of institutions who held these types of senior positions, but got removed from them when a new senior administrator decided that a position with that much leadership responsibility on campus really should belong to a faculty member. Faculty who become administrators may see themselves on a pathway to further administrative roles, but many have academic homes to return to if they really want to. Our paths (forward or back) are far less clear.

I don’t intend these challenges to be taken as complaints. Count me in as one of Josh’s happy bunch of alt-ac colleagues. But I think these are real challenges for people in alt-ac positions, and could easily be overlooked if we think of an alt-ac position as just one more type of administrative role at the university.


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