When I moved into administration after being a professor, a colleague who had made the same move years before told me to brace for the loss of my faculty friends.
Impossible, I argued -- we attended regular Friday cocktail hours, had fought and won battles across campus, supported each other across the thorny paths leading to tenure and promotion. We’d been through it all, and those are precisely the kinds of experiences that make for lasting relationships.
I was wrong. My colleague was right.
About this time in my career, I began noticing for the first time the term “incivility” in higher ed news. Perhaps I noticed it because for the first time, it rang true. Where once I had been respected as a caring teacher and a hardworking colleague, I was now viewed with suspicion.
Now perceived as someone out for personal glory and set on bungling things for everyone else, I began finding it difficult to interact with my department (where I still taught one course a semester). After my move to the administration building, returning to my home department was like returning to the house of ex-in-laws after a bad divorce -- everyone froze, smiled stiffly and waited for me to leave. This office had been my home for over 15 years.
Inside Higher Ed recently reprinted a letter to the Financial Times advice column “Dear Lucy,” in which a disgruntled faculty member inquired, “Should I plot the downfall of our dean?” The offense that inspired this angry faculty member to ask the question was this: while traveling to Asia with a special delegation from his university’s business school, he had been forced to sit in coach. Directly in his line of sight was his dean, seated in the much more comfortable business class. For this, the dean must be destroyed.
While not all of us in the academy engage in this kind of career terrorism, we have all at least witnessed or been privy to such schemes and dark plots. I have myself experienced deep frustration as a faculty member, feeling underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. Certainly I would not have been pleased to be dragging an administrator along to a professional meeting, either. And I would have especially been dreading the stiff small talk at baggage claim, or the forced chat at the evening’s cocktail hour.
Also quite familiar was the willingness on the part of a faculty member to assign the worst motives to that seat placement and to wish on the dean the disaster of losing his job. The language “plot the downfall” contains a kind of professional violence too often at play in relationships between faculty and administrators. It’s an aspect of academic life of which we should not be proud.
Over lunch I once asked a professor friend whom I admired a great deal -- with impeccable scholarship, this superb teacher made one of the highest faculty salaries and enjoyed research release time and summers away -- if s/he really thought “all administrators were bad people.” The answer came back an unblinking, “Yes.”
I was an administrator at the time.
“Administrator” does not signify “human being” in scenarios like the one I just described. In such cases of deep suspicion administrators are assumed to be self-centered mismanagers or, worse, bloodless careerists. And certainly not committed to the institutions they serve. This is precisely the objectifying of others that we teach our students to recognize and reject. It is a powerful tool for excusing or justifying hostility toward an identity position. And it was certainly at play inside that airplane.
As an administrator I am precisely the same person I was when I was on the faculty. Same strengths, same weaknesses, same commitments to my family, identical professional goals. And to be fair, when I made the move to administration, I did not lose every friend, and my next administrative post included some very nice relationships with faculty colleagues.
But there is no question that once I became an administrator, simply by virtue of being an administrator, I fell under the suspicion of many. Was I seeking power? Would I continue to value teaching? Had I lost my mind? Was it mere greed driving my decision?
The truth is, on most campuses, there are not pots of money squirreled away under deans’ desks; we don’t enjoy giant travel budgets or outsize benefits packages. And we continue to possess whatever powers of ratiocination we enjoyed before.
What’s different: we carry responsibilities across a college or unit that force difficult decisions that are quite visible and affect many people, and that will often result in deep disappointments for some while satisfying (even rewarding) others. Many deans/provosts admit that these are jobs few would actually want if they knew beforehand what they were getting into, because it can be difficult to exist happily on a campus under a cloud of suspicion, making decisions that will destroy your credibility with one half of the campus one week and render you despised by the other half the next.
Yet I chose administration because of these difficulties; they suit me. I love higher education, am committed to student success, deeply respect faculty and research. Me? I’m a fine (not great) scholar and a respected teacher, but my heart is in the institutional project and has been for a long time.
And while I have endured much incivility in my new administrative life, it would not be fair to attribute the loss of true friendships to mere malice or professional pettiness. In truth, we tried to stay close at first, but whatever suspicions my faculty friends harbored about administration in general hung between us, squashing conversation.
Friday night debriefs over cocktails became impossible if I attended. There were things I couldn’t share, gossip I could no longer indulge in -- guessing other deans’ motives, parsing the language of the president’s latest missive. We have all known the fun of harmless gossip with colleagues; it’s part of being close friends at work. Sadly, the nature of academe itself, with its intractable tension between faculty and administration, had rendered me an outsider, and I could never go back.
Academe has become known for its internecine warring, as a place fraught and gossipy and deeply bifurcated. And often not a little ridiculous. Certainly the gentleman asking Lucy’s advice above works in a place like that.
If you are a career academic reading this, you recognize what I’m saying. You’ve been on one or both sides of this business. As an administrator who still believes in the higher education enterprise, I’d ask faculty to think next time the impulse to plot strikes, and to remember that many of us in administration are just as competent as we were as faculty, and no matter where we are seated on a plane, still as human.
After 15 years as a professor of English, Kellie Bean became an associate dean and then provost.
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