The Distance Administrator

U. of Kentucky will allow director of CASTLE to run the educational technology outreach center from his own castle -- 700 miles away.
March 9, 2011

Three years after moving his family to Iowa, Scott McLeod faced a dilemma familiar to workers in many professions.

The Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), which McLeod ran out of Iowa State University, was being moved to the University of Kentucky, 700 miles away. Kentucky was offering McLeod a raise of nearly 50 percent in hopes of coaxing him to Lexington. (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

McLeod was interested but did not want to uproot his family. Directing CASTLE, which works with many regional schools to facilitate better use of technology in classrooms, had prompted an earlier relocation from Minnesota. “We have small kids, and we hadn’t been in Iowa for very long,” he says. “It just wasn’t the right time to go.”

But while a large part of CASTLE’s work involves regional advocacy and education, McLeod believed that his own work as an administrator of the center -- and as an associate professor of education, which was part of the job offer from Kentucky -- could be done remotely.

And so McLeod went from being a common case, that of a professional torn between his career and his family, to an uncommon case: a higher ed administrator who plans to work from home -- three states away. Beginning in the fall, McLeod is slated to run his center and teach his courses full-time from his current home in Ames, Iowa -- save a single monthly sojourn to Lexington to fulfill those duties that still require actual face time, which he believes are few.

While it has become common in higher education for college instructors to teach fully online, telecommuting appears to be rare among university employees who serve leadership roles -- as well as for non-adjunct professors who participate in governing duties, as McLeod will as an associate professor.

Some of McLeod’s future colleagues told the Lexington Herald-Leader they were skeptical that the new hire could manage all his responsibilities using just a telephone and a suite of Web 2.0 tools. “How can you be engaged and do service when you’re not here?” Debra Harley, a professor of special education and rehabilitation counseling, told the newspaper. “Electronic service doesn’t exist.”

McLeod disagrees. The “service” part of the job -- his responsibilities to the faculty and to his center -- break down into three parts, as McLeod sees it: service to the university, which means sitting on committees; service to the discipline, which means publishing articles, attending and coordinating conferences, and participating in national societies and organizations; and service to the community, through his work with CASTLE.

Of those, McLeod thinks telecommuting could pose problems only for the first -- and only if his colleagues on university committees refuse to take what he considers relatively simple steps to let him attend meetings virtually.

“Somebody can just fire up their laptop and hit the Skype button,” he says, adding that synchronous video conferencing is no longer considered odd in the realm of online education. “We do that all the time with students…. We seem to do that less when it comes to internal operations -- the meetings that we have. I think in the corporate world it’s not a big deal to whip up a conference call or video conference, but in academe it has to be some sort of special event.”

As for service to the discipline, McLeod says that writing articles, joining societies and participating in conferences are activities that can easily be done via the Web or the telephone -- ditto, as it turns out, with his day-to-day administrative duties at CASTLE. McLeod says he is confident that shoe-leather outreach among area schools and major strategy meetings with colleagues at Kentucky can be handled during his monthly visits to the campus. Apart from that, the job is mainly a lot of "knowledge work," writing, and coordination.

“Those of us who are very comfortable with these digital tools sort of recognize that it’s nice to walk down the hall and see coworkers, but how much do I lose if I call you via the webcam? For the most part, it’s not much,” McLeod says.

“It's not quite as good as face to face,” he says. “But from a productivity standpoint -- I want to hug my grandkids from time to time, but I don’t have to hug my coworkers.”

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (and himself a former telecommuter), says that higher education has few excuses left for being behind the curve on allowing employees to work from afar when it does not demonstrably hinder productivity.

“Smart colleges and universities and other organizations that want to boost productivity, retain talented employees, and reduce costs should be taking a hard look at a comprehensive teleworking policy that can be implemented strategically and appropriately on a job-by-job or department-by-department basis,” Draeger, then NASFAA’s vice president of public policy and advocacy, wrote in a 2009 op-ed for Inside Higher Ed.

“It is ironic that higher education, which has been so successful in implementing distance learning programs, has lagged so far behind in implementing distance-working programs for its employees,” he wrote.

Draeger says he does not think much has changed since then. He says higher education is perhaps still married to the model of face-to-face exchanges as a cultural ethos that extends from the lecture hall to the administrative ranks.

That may well change as online education keeps rising toward equal footing with the lecture hall, as it nearly has at many public universities. Still, telecommuting, like online teaching, will probably not find acceptance until universities create standard measures that they trust to assess how well the new way is working, Draeger says. Like online teaching and online learning, he says, telecommuting is not for everyone.

“You manage by results,” Draeger says. “You gauge and track productivity and effectiveness. Those things don’t go away. And if those things can be achieved off-site, to allow people to have a better personal- and work-life balance, why would you not strive for that?”

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