Thursday, June 08, 2006


Accidental Administrators

The Chronicle has a surprisingly intelligent piece on ‘accidental administrators’ – people who move into administration without ever really having planned to. It’s written as advice to folks who find themselves in that position, and the advice is actually good.

A few points I’ll add:

- Learn to anticipate random, groundless, indignant anger. When it hits you, which it will with dispiriting frequency, you’ll need to maintain a level demeanor while simultaneously talking your accuser down from high dudgeon and trying to figure out just how the hell he reached the conclusion he reached. It’s a delicate balance, since you’ll have to try to take seriously statements that, in your faculty role, would have prompted you either to leave the room or to ask if your interlocutor forgot his tinfoil hat. Don’t capitulate to it, but don’t inadvertently feed it by being too conspicuously dismissive (for example, by asking about the tinfoil hat).

- Try to suss out your supervisor’s intuitions. Although there’s a pleasant fantasy out there of managing ‘by the book,’ the reality is that there is no book, and there never will be. Situations come up that nobody could have foreseen, whether because external circumstances changed, or technology changed, or a weird permutation of a rule arose, or somebody forgot his tinfoil hat. (Pop quiz: you run across a professor in the hallway, and you’re 95% sure you smell alcohol on her breath. What do you do? Be prepared to be blamed, no matter what your answer.) When those situations come up, your supervisor will expect you to make the exact same judgment call s/he would have made. If you don’t know your supervisor’s point of view well enough, you will frequently get this wrong and lose political points. If you find that your supervisor’s intuitions are consistently wrong or objectionable, it’s time for something else or somewhere else.

- Intuitions are not the same as intentions. I had one vp whose stated intentions consistently contradicted his actions. After a while, I learned to observe his body language more than his words. Although many considered him a liar, I eventually reached the conclusion that he honestly believed what he said while he was saying it; he just thought that every single case he ever ran across was an exception. Some people just aren’t burdened with self-awareness.

- Pay attention to the difference between the org chart and actual practice. Sometimes a particular department will be the President’s pet, or a particular chair will be widely regarded as Lord and High Master of (whatever), or a vp’s secretary will make the actual decisions. Too literal a reading of the org chart will result in grave missteps, for which you will be blamed.

- Be prepared for faculty to suddenly treat you differently. I discovered this at my previous school, where I went from faculty to admin. Within weeks, I noticed that some faculty with whom I’d been comfortable were suddenly chilly towards me, and others who wouldn’t have given me the time of day suddenly found me endlessly interesting. People have issues with authority, and you often don’t see those issues coming until they’re there. Just don’t mistake brownnosing or phobias for truth.

- Beware the hollow yes.

- People will disappoint you. You will disappoint yourself. It’s just part of the job.

- Cultivate a life outside the job. It will keep you sane.

- Learn the boundaries of the possible, and forgive yourself for them. There are any number of changes I’d make if I were King of the College, but I’m not. There are any number of projects I’d start if I had infinite resources, but I don’t. I’ve found that many faculty seem to assume that deans are far more powerful than we actually are, which leads to both groundless fear and impossible expectations. Strive to leave it better than you found it; leave the fantasies of superpowers to others.

- Take solace in the big picture. Every college I’ve ever seen has had its share of, um, let’s go with ‘personalities.’ (This is also true of businesses.) The colleges function anyway. This is the beautiful paradox of institutions, which very, very few people appreciate. This is why I could never be an anarchist.

- An old boss of mine once said that you should always try to remain on speaking terms with the person you used to be. I see more truth in that, the longer I’m doing this. In my case, I choose to hang my hat on ethics; whatever mistakes I’ve made (and am currently making, and will make next…), they’re not the result of corruption or self-dealing. Whatever crap I’ve had to wade through in a given day, whatever names I’ve been called, whatever I’ve been accused of by others, I still see a good man in the mirror the next morning. If the day comes when that’s no longer true, it will be time to do something else.

Wow. I'm just finishing my undergrad and looking to go into administration after grad school. I'm going to save a copy of this post in my reading folder.

Oh, and I'm going to have to borrow this one "Some people just aren’t burdened with self-awareness." :)
Outstanding advice! -- jdgut
Fabulous advice!
You are right about people treating you differently. As a faculty member who took on some "assistant Dean" type responsibilities 2 yrs ago, most of the faculty shunned me. I guess I was "the enemy" to them. I have given it up as of August/ 06 and I could not be happier. It's not for me, I really hated it. Maybe in 10 yrs I'll want this but not now.
I still see a good man in the mirror the next morning. If the day comes when that’s no longer true, it will be time to do something else.

...because that opens up many, many much more lucrative possibilities!
Very good advice indeed. I have been lucky enough to avoid the "faculty treatment" problem. One promise I made myself 5 years ago was to continue to eat lunch with same group of faculty friends I ate with before becoming an administrator. I've been able to largely keep that promise and I think it's been a big contributor toward avoiding the "treatment" problem.
Ah, the trailing spouse! I was one. My, at that time, fiance' came to Regional University while I was finishing my dissertation up north. He was a here a year, then I came down after we got married. Two departments "interviewed" me but only one was a good fit with me and luckily they agreed! So I became a part-time Asst Professor with a full-time load (I regularly taught more students than ANY OTHER PERSON in the university). That went on for two years.

We had made a deal when we got engaged that the first one to get a job, we'd go there for 3 years (he beat out my offer at Harvard by 2 weeks). I kept my promise, hard as it was sometimes!! At the end of 3 years, we'd re-evaluate and if we both weren't happy and in TT jobs, we'd go on the market. So -- we did go on the market in year 3, because I was not happy and he was not happy for me.

When we began getting job interviews and had to be away from campus, we
dutifully followed protocol and (but a bit gleefully too) notified our department heads and our (shared) dean. After the fourth set of interviews at either the same school or schools in the same bigger/better) cities, I came back to a flyer in my mailbox advertising a TT position for -- "me." No one put it like that, but it fit me 110% and just about no one else on earth. Amazing, huh?

So my advice would be to make a promise to yourselves as a couple and then stick with it. Things really began to move for me to get a TT track job was when a former dean of this school, now a VPAA at a school in another state, offered me
a job sight unseen, based just on my vita. When I told him about my husband being an academic in a highly specialized (and hard to find) science discipline, he offered him the job too. We went for interviews and that really seemed to
shake things loose here. Never underestimate the power of academic rivalries! :) We're still here, 20+ years this fall.

But there are still people who refer to me as the "made up job person" because "they didn't want to lose your husband" (it took 4 years to fill the position he took - they WERE desperate!). I have learned to not reply to those kinds of people, at least not out loud! I have more than pulled my own weight on campus,
in both teaching, publications (3 books and counting, lots of articles, etc), and in campus service. I think I have always felt a bit "not good enough" and maybe have overcompensated. Oh well!

So -- can it be done? Yes, I'm proof of that. But it took work, a lot of luck to get those other interviews for both of us (so that we looked like we could/would seriously leave) and a whole lot of talking. Remember, ultimately the marriage
is the most important thing!!!
Excellent post -- your comments and advice are very cosistent with what I've experienced as a mostly accidental administrator. The remarks about random anger and being mindful of the boundary of the possible particularly struck a chord. And there certainly is no "book." One of the most surprising aspects of the job for me has been the number of truly bizarre situations that get thrown at me or other administrators to solve.

One bit of advice that I'd add to your excellent list is to try and listen for the real issue. This is particularly important when dealing with those delightful moments of random anger. In my experience, most of the time when someone expresses intense anger, the source of their anger usually isn't what they're complaining about at that moment. Sometimes it's pretty clear where the rage is coming from -- perhaps ongoing simmering mistrust of a colleague, or a slight or insult, either imagined or real, that occured in the past. Sometimes the outburst might be just a result of accumulated stress; teaching too many student and/or issues at home. And other times I have absolutely no idea what the real issue is. And it might be that the angry person has no idea either; he or she is just angry. These types of anger are the most difficult to deal with.
One other thought:

One mark of good leadership in any realm, but I think especially in academia, is that the boss should not think any task in the office is beneath him. Whenever my staff is engaged in a massive envelope stuffing or collating project, I always take some time to join in. Maybe it's only 30 mins or an hour, but it's something and the message it sends is far more valuable than the actual time.
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