'I Am Less Patient and Dress Better'

January 23, 2009

SEATTLE -- Stories abound in higher education about professors with short memories about faculty life once they are promoted into the dean's office or the administration building. Nothing is more galling to many professors than the sense that Dean Jones or Vice Provost Smith really should know better -- they were so nice, after all, when they had the (smaller) office next door and shared teaching duties.

It turns out that the transition from faculty member to administrator can be a bit traumatic on the other side, too. Research presented here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans, which is held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, looked at the attitudes of administrators on their transitions and how their new duties related to their roots on the faculty.

The research focused on applying the "role exit" theory of the sociologist Helen Ebaugh, who argued that many people's identities are as shaped by the positions they left as by the positions they enter. The "role residual" or "hangover identity" has a major impact, said Jeffrey Breese, a sociologist who is an associate dean at Marymount University in Virginia and who conducted the research through open-ended survey interviews with 62 members of the deans' association (and judging from nods in the large audience of deans here, a representative sample).

Overwhelmingly, he said that the deans consider their faculty roots (and, in many cases, their disciplinary backgrounds) keys to their identities. They perceive their faculty status as having given them more "credibility and empathy" in their administrative jobs, he said. He quoted a nursing professor-turned-administrator as saying "I don't know how they got along without a nurse in the position," given all the time spent on "therapeutic monitoring" of the faculty.

A key difference he found in the administrators surveyed was whether they took their first administrative job at a new college or at the institution where they had been working as a professor. The former were more likely to have sought out the position as part of looking for a new challenge or opportunity. The latter were more likely to have been drafted into administration or to be taking on the role out of a desire to serve their institution.

The two groups also face comments about the changes they made when moving to what those whose first job was at their home campus were more likely to call "the dark side." While people remark about clothing (more formal), personality changes, and lack of time of new administrators, those who didn't switch campuses feel more commentary and criticism since their former colleagues know that they used to wear jeans all the time. The title of the session -- "I Am Less Patient and Dress Better" -- is one dean's summation of his situation.

On the home front, the new administrators report complaints from family members about "dean's minutes," which one wife compared to "football minutes -- 3 minutes left in the game, but it takes 20 minutes to get through them."

What interests and activities do deans give up when they leave the faculty ranks? The top answers: scholarship and research, hobbies, teaching, and exercise and healthy eating.

In place of those activities, the new administrators report more interest in higher education generally, the curriculum, strategic planning and accreditation.

A life in which scholarship and exercise are replaced by accreditation and strategic planning.... "To an outside observer," quipped Breese, "this sounds like a fun-loving group of people."

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