Monday, August 01, 2005


From Faculty to Administration, Part 2

In a previous entry, I mentioned the difference in cognitive style I noticed in moving from faculty to administration. (The short version: faculty prize nuance and complexity, leading to further questions, where administrators prize simplification and decisiveness, leading to action. Neither is better than the other; each is a reasonable reflection of an institutional role. Relatively few people, in my experience, are good at both.)

Here, I’ll do a commercial for crossing over to the dark side, and explore some of the ways to do it. (Maybe I should call myself Dean Darth? Hmm...)

If you’re a struggling grad student, adjunct, or young professor, the likeliest opportunities to become available will carry titles like ‘coordinator,’ ‘director,’ or ‘assistant/associate...’ Typically, ‘coordinators’ are full-time faculty who get release time and/or a stipend to oversee a subset of a curriculum or a department. (Example: if the prelaw program is housed in the poli sci department, one of the poli sci faculty would carry the title of prelaw coordinator.) Depending on the magnitude of the task, the budget and culture of the college, and the desperation of the institution’s need, the compensation for coordinators ranges from symbolic to minor.

The appeal of this role, I think, is threefold: the task itself can be appealing, it can break the monotony of teaching the same courses over and over again, and it can provide a taste of administrative work. If you’re getting tired of teaching, say, four sections of freshman comp every semester from now to eternity, the chance to coordinate the poetry journal should not be taken lightly.

Historically, as I understand it (and I haven’t seen any studies on this), faculty fought over these positions. This is no longer the case, due mostly to the adjuncting-out of the full-time ranks when someone retires. From what I’ve seen, most faculty who want to try administration do so before, say, fifty, so if a department is very top-heavy in age, it will probably have very few volunteers for these positions. With relatively few young’uns around, the pipeline is thin.

For the few young’uns who get in, this is actually good news. Options will become available.

(In some cases, some colleges have gone so far as to appoint adjuncts as coordinators. While that’s considerably riskier than I would want to be, since adjuncts are likelier to leave at any given moment, an adjunct who does this kind of task well makes a VERY attractive candidate for a full-time position in a department that needs people with administrative skills.)

‘Director’ and ‘Assistant/Associate...’ positions tend to be full-time in their own right. They are usually twelve-month positions with five day workweeks; their hours more closely resemble the typical office job than the typical faculty member. Sometimes they require or carry faculty rank, but they frequently don’t. (I’ve heard of universities that will hire Assistant Deans from wherever, but require faculty rank to move to Associate Dean or Dean. If you apply for an Assistant Dean position somewhere, be sure to ask about this. You may be bumping the ceiling sooner than you think.)
While tenured faculty like to dump on people in these roles, there is something to be said for them. They usually offer greater inter-institutional mobility than faculty roles do (other than the superstars). They offer a greater degree of intellectual freedom, ironically enough, and they often leave (most of) your evenings free. They are frequently more family-friendly than the tenure track, on which you can work any 80 hours a week you want. They also offer a chance to prove yourself administratively.

The usual route to a full academic deanship is through chairing a department. Here, too, the pipeline is becoming conspicuously thin at many colleges, as sustained failure to replace retirees has led to a real shortage of young full-timers (and an even greater shortage of young full-timers who are willing to consider a task that would slow their research agenda).

Department chairs carry faculty rank, and receive more release time and/or larger stipends than coordinators. They (usually) do the scutwork of the department, like taking care of book orders or making sure the phone bills get paid, and they often take the lead in recruitment (which, in practice, usually means interviewing and selecting adjuncts). In many colleges, they assign teaching schedules. They do the evaluations of department secretaries, and serve as ambassadors or interpreters between faculty and The Administration.

As a Dean, I’m amazed at how few full-time faculty would even consider being a chair. It’s a difficult job to do well, certainly, but good chairs are highly valued, and form the pool from which deans are drawn. They make a tremendous difference on the ground – a chair who selects adjuncts well and builds trust with them makes the college stronger. A bad chair can make everybody’s life miserable.

I’m annoyed at how many pieces in the Chronicle (and the blogosphere) assume that the options available to young Ph.D.’s boil down to tenure track faculty, visiting faculty, adjunct faculty, or leaving academia. It’s just not true. And once you’re full-time somewhere, the opportunities for adding arrows to your quiver are typically there for the asking. (And if they aren’t yet, they will be soon.)

That was actually how I started. I was full-time faculty, teaching the same courses over and over again and feeling myself getting into a rut. I went to my Dean and asked him for some administrative assignments, for variety’s sake. He looked at me like I had horns (apparently, nobody had ever asked for that before). I assured him that I was serious. He started tossing tasks my way within a few weeks, and I was on my way.

As a dean now, I can recognize just how out of the ordinary that was. One of my ongoing struggles is finding people to help with the various tasks that keep emerging. For someone from the faculty ranks to just volunteer, especially if that someone was capable and mostly sane, would be very, very welcome.

Simply put, the administrative job market is much friendlier than the faculty job market (outside of the really hot fields, like nursing). This will become increasingly true with retirements, since the usual pipeline for new administrators has been neglected for a generation. While you may have to put up with some attitude from the tenured ranks, you’ll also have the chance to make sure that some important decisions are made in rational, ethical ways. Put differently, if you don’t move into management, someone else will, and their decisions will affect you. The pointy-haired manager in Dilbert may be exaggerated, but he’s recognizable; if you’re saner than that, better you than him.

Next entry: the dangers.

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