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.

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