Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Ask the Administrator: What's Your Motivation?

A new correspondent writes:

I've been doing some reading in economics lately and started wondering
about higher education. What are the incentives to do administration
well? Sure, there's personal satisfaction in a job well done. But what
about it more broadly? How does change work into this? Without a
simple goal like profit, I'm finding it hard to get even little
service changes in administration. Maybe I'm simply not understanding
the incentives at play? I understand (I think) the incentives at play
for faculty and students, but what about administrators?

I'm hoping for something grander than "keeping the doors open" but
maybe I should adjust my expectations in the recession.

It's a great question, but it presumes a lot. Most strikingly, it assumes that “do[ing] administration well” is a relatively transparent task. It isn't.

I'm frequently struck at the measures that people will use when assessing how good or bad a given dean or vp is. Frequently it comes down to a really vulgar materialism -- “I get what I want, so I've got no complaints.” These are the same people, typically, who adopt the “advocate” or “champion” model of deans, then wonder why they're constantly disappointed. They're getting it wrong. That's not the job.

I frequently envy the folks in the private sector, for whom measures of success and failure are relatively uncomplicated. Did the project make money, or not? (Yes, that's oversimplified, but at least there's an identifiable 'bottom line' to measure.) The jobs themselves are often hellaciously complex, but the underlying goal is fairly straightforward. Based on the last several years of results, for example, I'm fairly confident in saying that Honda has been better managed than Chrysler, and I say that with no privileged inside information about either.

In the non-profit world, this isn't true. Public colleges serve many and conflicting purposes, and many and conflicting publics. Handling that well involves first acknowledging the basic truth of the situation. The government wants low-cost, high-prestige, high-job-placement, low-maintenance institutions that generate economic growth and stay out of trouble. Students want that, plus plenty of choice, plus interesting amenities, plus plenty of good parking, and maybe some fairly predictable sorts of trouble. Faculty want low teaching and service loads, high salaries, life tenure, an untenably expansive definition of 'academic freedom,' and plenty of good parking. The public at large wants low taxes, low tuition, high prestige, high job placement, and sports. The accreditation agencies want copious paperwork, planning and assessment out the wazoo, and student learning outcomes for every little thing calculated to three decimal places. Destination colleges want well-prepared graduates, but not too many, and not so well-prepared that they compete favorably with native students. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Then there's the short-term/long-term decisionmaking. It's not unusual that doing the right thing for the long term involves some short-term unpleasantness. (We're facing that now.) If all you use is “what have you done for me lately?,” you're implicitly ignoring the long term. Colleges do this at their peril.

Just to keep things interesting, there are the cultural issues unique (or nearly so) to higher ed. The concept of 'shared governance' is nearly unknown outside of higher ed, and very poorly understood within it. The premium on 'process,' independent of result, has its merits, but it certainly slows the pace of change. One of my current headaches involves trying to negotiate between a state mandate with a 'fast track' for implementation and our local governance process, in which any meaningful change takes at least a year. How, exactly, I'm supposed to honor both 'get it done in a month' and 'respect our local yearlong processes' is left unspecified, because it's objectively impossible. But almost nobody outside of academic administration even sees the contradiction.

All of that said, I'll grant that there are plenty of 'thou shalt nots' for administrators, and some of them get violated with disheartening frequency. I file most of them under the “It's All About Me” fallacy. In some ways, administration is like film editing. Done well, you don't really notice it; things just sort of work. Done badly, it's painfully conspicuous.

So why should someone with a doctorate in a real discipline, a record of successful teaching, a relatively flexible schedule, and the respect of his peers step into a job in which success is partial and mostly vicarious, blame is ample, tools are absurdly inadequate to tasks, and the faculty immediately hold you in suspicion, if not contempt?

Sometimes I wonder that myself.

I'll start with the wrong reasons. Some people do it for money, or for the opportunity to feel important, or out of personal ambition. Yes, Presidents as a group are well-paid, but the dropoff below that level is pretty steep. (This is especially true in the cc sector.) If you're in it for the money, you'll make decisions based on their likely impact on your future career, rather than for the good of the college. Sometimes people succeed this way, but it's a parasitic kind of success. And in the entry-level administrative positions, the per-hour rate works out to be far less than what you made when you were on faculty.

The better administrators I've seen – and again, I'll admit that this is a subset of the whole – understand their role as subservient to the mission of the college. That's not the same as being subservient to any one subset of the college, as much as some would like that. It involves sublimating your own ego to get the various elements of the college to work in constructive and collaborative ways to benefit the whole. That's both ambiguous and imperative, and people who can handle both sides of that are few and far between. Doing the job well involves patience, belief in the mission, patience, a thick skin, patience, an ability to handle ambiguity, and patience. If you shoot from the lip, for heaven's sake, stay out of the dean's office.

The rewards are real, if subtle. If you take pleasure in problem-solving, you'll have plenty of opportunities for that. If you enjoy intellectual challenge, you'll find plenty. If you've seen idiot administrators do horrible things – and if you stick around long enough, you will – you'll take some satisfaction in knowing what you've prevented. Sometimes you can help foster the creation of something really positive, and actually see it bear fruit; that can be incredibly satisfying. Once in a while, you can even win respect through a particularly nice bit of problem-solving. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's worth savoring.

None of that lends itself to easy economic or statistical measure, for better or worse. But what gets me going isn't a bottom-line number; it's the satisfaction in seeing a difficult situation improved, the better to fulfill the college's mission. If you can't draw satisfaction from solving other people's problems, for heaven's sake, stay out of administration.

One admin's take, anyway. Wise and worldly readers – how do you know a good dean when you see one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

The only quarrel I have off the bat is that I'm not sure personal ambition makes a bad administrator. That's like saying that personal ambition makes a bad researcher or a bad teacher, and that "good" administrators are martyrs to mission, researchers to ideas, teachers to students. I think ambition is just fine when we're talking about professional development and advancement. Heck, I even think it's fine to want more money and to have that be a reason for taking a particular job. Isn't that what people do outside of higher education?

At the end of the day, I think that the administrators I most admire didn't "end up" in administration: they chose it because they recognized they had talents for certain parts of the job that they couldn't exercise in their faculty positions, they wanted challenges that were new, and they recognized the real impact that they could have on higher education by taking on an administrative role - a broader impact than the one any faculty member could make.
I like the idea that administrators have interests in 'fixing things' that they can't indulge as members of the faculty.

That might be tied to ambition, it might not.
I'm sort of an oddity here, because I've never really figured out the whole "Dean=Administration=Evil" connection. Maybe because I've been fortunate to have good deans, maybe because I see Deans as interfaces between faculty and administration rather than pure administrators.

With that caveat out of the way, my sense of what makes a "good dean" might be is someone who stepped up and got things done as a faculty member: got committees moving, offered good solutions, won the respect of their peers in discussions/arguments, moved their department forward as chair, listened more than they complained, that sort of thing. Personally, I think it is also important that Deans show the abstract intellectual curiousity that lies at the heart of what we do.

There's ambition, and there's self-motivation, and the two are not quite the same. My hope is that probably most good Deans don't wake up one day and say "I'm going to be a Dean and move ahead in the world!" I'd like to imagine that they do the things I've described above, and people around them start to say things like "you should throw in your name to be our next chair" or "why don't you apply for that assistant dean's spot?" and gradually they come around to the idea.

But maybe that's just my ignorance showing--it's what I'd like to believe, anyway.
Great post, DD. I like it that your piece enables more sympathy for worthy administrators.

Dr. Crazy, the quarrel in your first paragraph is solved by temperance. How? To begin, people like to be recognized for good work. The ambition that results in merit badges, gold medals, and Nobel prizes is unquestionably good. The ambition, however, that results in one wanting only her/his achievements to be recognized by the stomping, undercutting, and underplaying of other's efforts is bad. In terms of higher ed administrators, one can't put his/herself above other administrators such that personal ambition squelch's the teamwork involved in higher ed. While it's lonely at the top, a top only exists because of the shoulders of others. DD is arguing that personal ambition can't come at the price of forgetting how your position came about, how it is necessary. Ambition must be tempered with the recognition that teamwork is always necessary---even when decision apparently, or falsely appear to, rest on the shoulders of one person.

But, Dr. Crazy, I love your second paragraph. :) - TL
I think good administrators discover what resources exist under their control, what resources exist in their circle of influence (but not necessarily under their control) and use those resources in a way that amplifies their impact beyond just the immediate surroundings. If you can go to an administrator with that orientation and show them how the project you are working on synergizes with their mission, you are likely to succeed. There are other ways of administrating - some folks love to create and protect processes, some folks want the "power" and "prestige" that comes from the job. But most that I've met at the dean and department chair level have a vision that extends beyond just their own work and a desire (or even need) to act on that vision - it is the ability to see the big picture and the ability to manipulate process and resources to move a vision forward that drives / satisfies good administrators.
Shared governance:

It is my understanding that one of the differences between Toyota or Honda and Chrysler or GM is a form of shared governance in how the company is managed. Ideas can flow up as well as down within the company.
... plus plenty of good parking.
I think the "focus thing" has a lot to do with it also. GM is run more like Big State U than it is like Tyota (no, really).

GM is "focused" [sic] on serving multiple overlapping conflicting constituencies, and has a "mission statement" that reads like a laundry list of trying to be everything to everybody.

Companies like Toyaot have mission statements like "make as much money as possible."

The best run organizations know how to say no . . . they know how to say no to all the various stakeholdedrs and straphangers who want them to zig and zag into whatever feel good du jour initiative seems to make one wedge constituency happy.


Using the (initially simplistic sounding and arbitrary) taxonomy of "While we may have to satisfy many necessary conditions, we only have one goal" what is your goal?

What is the *purpose* for the organization's existence?

Yes, Yes, we all have to serve a wide variety of EEOC, environmental, fiduciary, etc. etc. "necessary conditions."

But what is the *purpose* of having the university in the first place? What is the one thing the university is supposed to be doing that makes it different from GM?

Take all of the "various stakeholder concerns" andd state them this way:

"The purpose of this organization is to _______ " and fill the blank in with each of the competing stuff you think you have to be doing.

Only *one* of those things will make sense.

The rest of them- while they may be important- will be obviously *not* the purpose of the organization.

Everything else should flow from there. Once you figure out what the purpose of the organization is, defining the customer, establishing objectives, resource allocation, etc. will fall into place.

Caveat: Have everyone read "Marketing Myopia" before you start this exercise. Or you will fall into the trap of saying "The purpose of this organization is to XXX by . . . " and then you are back to square one with a laundry list of all the competing crap you are being forced to do.
What a great summary of a Dean's job and what makes a good Dean! I particularly like the 'film editing' analogy. It also came right when I am very much questioning why I continue as a CC Dean.

It is hard sometimes for others to define whether or not a Dean is doing a 'good' job, but it is easier for a Dean to look around and see all the recent hires transforming the curriculum in their departments, the new facilities that have been built or renovated, the high-tech equipment available in labs and classrooms, and the modernized courses filled with (mostly) successful students. That makes it easier to take the criticism of stakeholders who have seen me as an inadequate 'champion'.

Still, in the current environment of retrenchment and ever-increasing expectations, one has to wonder if it is worth the effort. The intrinsic satisfaction of doing a job well just may not be enough anymore, in the face of unrelenting bad news and unsympathetic provincial students, faculty, administrators, board members, legislators, and community organizations.
I do believe that, often, people like to do a good job because of the innate satisfaction that doing a good job brings. (I'm putting more effort into teaching, for instance, than I strictly need to, and probably more than I should be, since it won't really get me tenure). Economics 101 seems to miss that point.

Having said that, one does have to define what it means to do a good job, and I found that this post was insightful about that and about the rewards of deaning. As a very junior faculty member, I don't really know what deans do.

Oh yeah, and what's up with parking? People complain about parking all the time. I just ride my bike and park directly in front of my building. No problem! It actually annoys me when people complain about parking.
plam -- especially in this day and age of electric assist for bicycles. Man is that an efficient people-moving system.
This is an excellent post and comment thread.

I especially like Ivory and YACP's comments. A lot of what makes a good administrator is being "mission oriented": having a clear vision of the goals of the organization, and managing the resources under their control to move smoothly toward them. Rubashov's faculty-member-turned-administrator has these qualities, but people who go straight into admin can also do it.

Of course, if you don't have a clear mission, including an idea of what gets thrown overboard first in a crisis, that's awfully hard to do. DD, I remember a few posts here where I felt you were trying to bite off more than you could chew for a mission: comprehensiveness, universal access, quality education, and low tuition without abusing faculty or staff. I mean, yes, all good things, but mutually exclusive without a very hefty endowment. Lately, you seem to be articulating a more focused mission. Is this a college-wide initiative?
YACP may be on target about some things..

but he can't spell Toyota ;-p

and their US mission statement is not his robber-baron one..

it is ""To attract and attain customers with high-valued products and services and the most satisfying ownership experience in America."

that may end up getting them robber baron money, but it is a much clearer mission statement from an internal perspective.

It is interesting to note that when Fordism ruled the car roost, the US companies got rich as could be. YACP correctly notes that when the US car companies went away from serving customers and making money (and embraced too many constituencies within their mission, rather than making their mission serve constituencies) things went rather wrong..
Great points all . . . and lest anyone suggest I am making the case that serving all of the "dogs and cats" objectives (being green, targeted affact hiring policies, affact admissions policies, etc.) is not important, allow me to clarify.

Hiring another 1.3 alternative lifestyle left-handed lithuanian red-heads may indeed be a Good Thing; and may even be a "Necessary Condition" that *must* be satisfied for the continued existence of the organization.


Those "Necessary Conditions" should be treated very differently fromthe *purpose* of the organization.

The *purpose* of the organization must be served ENDLESSLY . . . the *necessary conditions* must only be satisfied at some minimum level of support.

"The purpose of this organization is to _________ ."

That is the ultimate test!

*And* it applies at any level of the organization . . .
Still, in the current environment of retrenchment and ever-increasing expectations, one has to wonder if it is worth the effort. The intrinsic satisfaction of doing a job well just may not be enough anymore, in the face of unrelenting bad news and unsympathetic provincial students, faculty, administrators, board members, legislators, and community organizations.

Times will change. Things will get better. "Failure" is an inevitable part of administration but you have to keep yourself in a Zen state about the whole thing - committed to your goals but willing to change strategy or direction if circumstances change (which they will - constantly). Focus less on what's totally sucking right now and think instead about your victories (however few).

If you are good at your job, please stick around. We need good administrators - it is a rare and wonderful skill.
Tks very much for your post.

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