Friday, April 14, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Should I Cross Over to the Dark Side?

A quasi-admin reader writes:

I have a quick question for you: if you could do it all over again, would you? I ask because I’m facing a choice similar to one you seem to have made several years ago: I have 10 years teaching and quasi-administrating at a SLAC and now two as a 75%administrator at an R1. I’ve been offered a full time administrative position at a CC in my home town.

Here’s how I’m seeing the debate:

Pros:
--focus on education and teaching and not research and grant-getting;
--work with a huge variety of students, some just starting, some returning, some hoping for a last chance;
--chance to give something back to my home town (my mother graduated from this same CC 25 years ago);
--better job/life opportunities for my wife & daughter (my wife, highly educated and credentialed, has not, in two years, been able to find work out here)

Cons:
--lower pay for more work (they are offering roughly what I make here in 10 months for a 12 month contract);
--no time for research/writing (this I don’t know, only assume);
--crushing workload? (Again, this I don’t know)
--no chance to ever return to the world of 4 year schools (rumor or fact?)

Any thoughts would certainly be appreciated.


Well, there are really two questions here. Would I do it again, and what should you do? These are not the same.

I often think that if I knew at 21 what I know now, I would have taken a different route. That said, there was no earthly way I could have known that at 21. By the time I finished my Ph.D. (1990’s), the great job crash had hit. I took a faculty job at a for-profit tech school to support myself, tolerating a 45-hour annual teaching load. After several years of trying to get out, I realized that a 12-month, 45-hour teaching schedule just didn’t leave me the energy to write my way out of there. So I decided to administrate my way out of there. When a position opened, I went for it. Eventually, the strategy worked, and now I’m a full-time administrator at a community college, despite neither administration nor community colleges even being on my mental radar in grad school.

Then again, had I taken a different route, I might not have met The Wife, which would mean The Boy and The Girl would never have been born. A guy can make himself bonkers thinking like that.

Your situation is different. Since you don’t specify the nature of the position at the cc, I don’t know if it’s terminal (i.e. director of a center) or progressive (i.e. a deanship, a vice presidency, etc.). The position you have now sounds like it’s probably terminal, especially if your research productivity hasn’t been competitive with folks who’ve been doing that full-time for years now.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Tamara Draut’s book, it’s true that cc’s focus on teaching. If you believe strongly in teaching, that’s a legitimate plus. Don’t be misled, though; as a full-time administrator, you’re helping others teach. You have to satisfy your love of teaching vicariously. It’s still fulfilling, but it’s not the same as having your own classes. If you ever forget that, faculty will be more than willing to remind you, over and over again.

I’d discount the romantic reasons (“give something back”) and look more at the reality of the day-to-day job. At your current job, as you describe it, your wife’s talents are largely wasted, and your daughter’s life opportunities are constricted. I’m guessing from your summary that those are likely to be less true at the cc. Your current position is probably terminal, so your own career opportunities are also constricted. Whether the workload at the cc is backbreaking or not is situational; honestly, my cc is a much more civilized workplace than my previous college.

I don’t know whether cc experience forever bars you from returning to the four-year realm. (I haven’t tried.) If the statistics I’ve seen about administrative pipelines are true, I’d expect that taboo to fade quickly, if it hasn’t already. Since so many academic management positions come out of faculty, and so few f-t faculty have been hired for so long, many colleges are having terrible luck finding acceptable candidates for administrative positions. Given the length of the faculty hiring drought, I expect this trend to accelerate. As it does, barriers based solely on prestige snobbery will probably start to fall, since, at the end of the day, a good manager is a good manager. If you’re still fairly early in your career, I wouldn’t view the prospect of resume stain as a deal-breaker.

Maybe it’s the Gen X’er in me, but if you can live with the proportionately lower salary, I’d take the cc job. Your wife and daughter will have better shots at decent lives, which can only be to the good (and which will almost certainly improve the quality of your life, too). You’ve most likely topped out where you are now, so whatever dissatisfactions are driving you to look around won’t go away. If you can get past any internalized prestige snobbery (for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t talk about ‘giving something back’ at the interview! It’s insulting beyond belief.), and the pay is acceptable, the cc job probably puts you in a better long-term position, in terms of both career and family. That ain’t bad.

Faithful readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Comments:
Just a minor point: going over to admin doesn't have to mean not teaching. The former academic dean at my college religiously taught one section of math (often basic math) each semester. He did it in the evenings, and he was one of the finest, most dedicated math faculty we had. The man would actually spend his evenings at home (not that he had many of them) on the phone helping students work through math problems.

I think he was a much better dean than most because he never lost touch with what it 's like to be a student or a faculty member.

The current administrative dean at my cc also teaches a course per semester.
 
Can the questioner work tenure into his contract? You've commented on how the lack of tenure affects you in your job, and it might be something that he should think about.
 
My own take is to be very careful. Unless you have the support of the administrator to whom you report, almost anything you do will ne credited to someone else or turn into a "mistake." Try not to drift too far away from being a faculty member, because you might want to return. Take on challenges where there's an upside as well as some risk--avoid those that are seen as "sure" successes or that are lose-lose situations.

For what it's worth.
 
DD, your advice is quite good. I'm finishing up my first year as an administrator, and though it has been a bumpy ride, nothing quite compares to the mobility and experience of administration. This is the biggest surprise to me - finding admin work is much easier than finding teaching work. And on many levels, admin work is just as rewarding. When one counts the various forms of academic dysfunctionality, my job is never boring.

The questioner should ask his future employer about vacation time, reimbursement for conference attendance, teaching load, time away for on-going research, and how long the department has gone without an administrator. My sense is that administration has a steep learning curve, but it gets easier after each passing semester.
 
If you love teaching, if you want to make a difference to students, and especially if you have a low threshold for turf wars, idiotic upper level administrators, and a life devoted to meetings at which very little gets done, DON'T go into administration.

If you think being a mid-level administrator such as a dean will allow you to be a servant leader, clearing obstacles for an appreciative faculty and helping students, DON'T go into administration.

If you have any idealism left, DON'T go into administration.
 
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