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July 1 is fast approaching—that big date when most colleges and universities change fiscal years and faculty statuses. Some faculty members get promoted, some retire and others—the truly lucky ones—move into administration!

Sure, for some faculty members the thought of becoming an administrator conjures notions of moving over to the dark side (New Directions in Higher Education 2006 special volume), but this transition can appeal to those lucky faculty members who get a true taste for what we as staff do. Over all, it helps both groups understand each other in terms of their roles, their work, their priorities and their competing demands.

We have both experienced reporting to many bosses who have come from primarily faculty roles. We have noticed that it can be difficult for faculty members, who are often undersupported in this transition, to make the leap into administration. Most institutions do not provide on-the-job training for these roles. Some offer annual department chair training or workshops in the fall, but this is not always timely for those new to the role; for faculty members moving to associate dean or vice provost roles, there are even fewer resources.

Often, the faculty member feels an obligation to take on one of these positions, believing that they do not have a choice or that declining would negatively impact their current role. Additionally, they feel like middle managers straddling two worlds, managing the goals and expectations of those who now report to them along with the goals and expectations of more senior leadership (Frenkel, 2021).

The literature shows that one of the hardest parts about these roles is learning to manage staff (Smith, 2002). The average faculty member will likely never have to manage staff members, nor—and this is just a hunch—is it something they tend to dream about while in graduate school.

However, the numbers of academic staff are increasing despite mass resignations across industries, and there are increasingly more articles about staff treatment in higher education, especially post-pandemic. What can we do to prepare faculty managers for working with staff? How can they learn their new duties in a way that is less frustrating for all involved?

Throughout our time in our various jobs, reporting to vice provosts, deans and department chairs, we have seen what approaches have worked well, along with some that have not been as successful. Additionally, for this article we have asked some of our colleagues about their experiences becoming managers.

For example, we talked to a new department chair to learn about her relationship with the department administrator, who now reports to her. She said the reporting structure is “sort of funny, because she knows more about running the department than I do.”

That perfectly sums up this type of relationship, in our opinion, and helped guide us to three main areas of advice. Part I of our two-part series will touch upon the first area: people. The next article will discuss tips related to culture and structures and systems.


  • Challenge: Learning who does what! Most of the faculty-turned-administrators we spoke to cited the difficulty in learning what kind of work their teammates and other offices do. (Note: We will use the term “team” to indicate the staff members working with/reporting to the new administrator. For some roles, this may be a department or school.) It’s incredibly important to learn this, but most staff also recognize that it will take time.
    • Suggestion: Try going on a listening tour, a low-stakes, conversational way to get to know people on your team, build relationships and learn what duties they perform (see David D. Perlmutter’s Admin 101 series for The Chronicle; also see this blog post).
  • Challenge: Learning about offices. Higher ed loves its acronyms! Someone moving into a new role who hasn’t worked with certain offices before might need some help deciphering these codes. Additionally, we have often seen humanities faculty members need a crash course on how sponsored projects work, for example.
    • Suggestion: Rely on your staff members for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for a cheat sheet of all the offices with which you will need to work regularly. Lots of institutions have lists of offices and acronyms on their websites.
  • Challenge: Supporting your team. How can you learn to do this if you haven’t had to manage a team before? Often, this is the most difficult part for faculty members who become administrators.
    • Suggestion: Having weekly one-on-one meetings with your team can help build relationships and create a space for your staff to share any challenges they are having.
    • Asking, “What can I do to help?” is a simple but effective way to let your direct reports know you care and that you are there to support them. It is a good time to look for signs of burnout and work-life issues. These two articles explore reasons for burnout, how to recognize it and some suggested ideas for how to prevent it.

Jessica Pesce is the associate dean for faculty affairs, development and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in higher education from Boston College, an Ed.M. in higher education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.A. in classical archaeology from Tufts University and an A.B. in classics from Brown University. Jessica has served as an adjunct lecturer in higher education at a variety of institutions and is a former high school Latin teacher. Patrice Torcivia Prusko is director of learning design, technology and media at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University at Albany, an M.B.A. and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Union College. Patrice is a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and was previously an instructional designer at Cornell University and visiting assistant professor at SUNY Empire State University.

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