Thursday, September 03, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Thinking About Crossing Over

A returning correspondent writes:

After five years, I am resigning from my tenure-track position in a humanities field. My book is not done, I would not have a sustainable tenure case, and I've been ambivalent about the profession for a decade anyhow, so I am re-inventing myself. A number of fields look attractive, but after pondering and conversations with family, I have decided to first aim at getting a position in university administration, on the grounds that it suits my personality and interests, is more likely to value my PhD, and probably offers the smoothest transition while also keeping future options open.

But, of course, as faculty, university administration is a bit of a black hole. I don't really know how that side of the college works. I've looked at general resources on leaving academia, but haven't seen anything on "so you want to be a college bureaucrat". I wasn't excited about going into admin until I realized there were worlds beyond student advising and residence life, like say, registrar, development, study abroad. But what else is out there? I'm planning to go chat with various administrators around my campus, but I want to be a bit educated about how universities work before I do that. Are there books you might recommend? What websites should I be following? Where do I look to find out how the admin market works, and figure out its timing cycle?

Also, a question I've been wanting to ask---a long time ago you said something about knowing administration was your wheelhouse. How did you know?

First, I'm sorry to hear that the faculty role didn't work out. It's always easier to make a change as a result of jumping, rather than being pushed. But you play the hand you're dealt.

I'll answer the question based on community colleges, since that's the world I know. Universities typically get much more complicated, with areas like "residence life" and "technology transfer" that just don't apply here. (We do have intercollegiate athletics, but at a scale so much smaller that it's effectively a different animal altogether.)

The typical division of administration at the cc's I've seen has been:

- Academic Affairs -- credit-bearing academic programs and all that goes with them. Typically, going very far in this area requires moving up from within the faculty ranks. However, many places put functions like "registrar" here, which don't necessarily require coming up through faculty.

- Student Affairs (often combined with enrollment management) -- this is the rest of the student experience. Admissions, Financial Aid, counseling, judicial affairs, residency/immigration, athletics, student clubs. Typically, moving into a 'generalist' role -- dean of students, say -- requires previous service in a specialized role, like counselor.

- Non-credit and Continuing Ed -- this usually encompasses everything from Adult Basic Education (pre-remedial, more or less) to workforce training programs to pottery classes. This can be a great area if you love teaching, have some entrepreneurial skill, and are willing to do the scut work of dealing with grants. If you're an extrovert who loves higher education and also loves getting out in the world, this can be a nice match. It's typically a profit center, so it's relatively immune to budget cuts.

- Administration and Finance -- this is the back-office stuff. Payroll, HR, purchasing, maintenance, security, construction. It's largely invisible to the rest of the campus, except when something goes wrong. But it's incredibly important. I, for one, like it when my paycheck doesn't bounce.

- IT. Self-explanatory.

- Foundation and Planning. The Foundation is the fund-raising arm. This is one of those areas where real talent is rare and demand is high, so if you're good and you like it, you can write your own ticket. Planning is usually the realm of collegewide strategic planning, assessment, accreditation, etc. Some colleges put this under Academic Affairs, but the planning usually goes beyond that to include facilities planning, technology planning, and the like. If you have a government relations person, she's probably here. Institutional Research is also often found here.

Each of these has its own set of rules, expectations, and the like. If one of those areas looks more interesting to you than others, I'd advise spending your lame-duck year hanging around the folks in that neck of the college. You'll get a better sense of the reality of the jobs, and they can clue you in as to the relevant journals, conferences, etc.

In terms of hiring seasons, administrative gigs are spread more evenly over the year than faculty gigs.

As to the 'wheelhouse' thing, it came to me fairly quickly when I realized two basic truths about myself: I'm a pretty-good-but-not-great teacher, but I'm better than most at keeping an even keel when nuttiness breaks loose. In other words, I was easily enough replaced in the classroom, but I could do a better job than most administrators I had seen. The skill sets are significantly different, and I realized I could make a more distinctive contribution in administration than in the classroom. It's about where I could be the most useful.

Good luck with your decision! I hope your next position is a happier fit.

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

Thanks for the insightful delineation!
I'd like to add that for me, the daily experience of working in administration is very different than teaching. Although, I'm in art administration, not in higher ed.

Administration offers neither the intellectual engagement of teaching nor that of dealing with students who aren't intellectually engaged.

However, the measures of my work's impact are far less nebulous.

And, my daily interactions are about getting things done in a field that I love.

I'd like to say to Kelly in Kansas that if you've been paying attention, a lot of the workings of administration will make sense once you've seen them, given the light of your experience as faculty. (Not that you'll suddenly think more highly of bureaucracy.)

I might also ask Kelly, why are you ambivalent about teaching? Are you referring to your interest, or to something about higher ed? If the latter, are you going to be frustrated to be a part of that system, or are you driven to driven to work to make things better for a school, for students?
This book might help: College Administrator's Survival Guide by CK Gunsalus. It explains common colege admin personnel situations and how to resolve them.It doesn't explain the various positions, and it's from the four year perspective, but the advice has been handy on how to deal with admin type situations.
I find it interesting that you list IT as "self explanatory."

First, you don't even spell it out, so we must just assume you mean IP Transfer. Oh wait, you mean Info Tech.

Second, the other jobs seem "just as self explanatory. For instance, Administration and Finance. Hm... they do finance and admin stuff, rigiht?

Third, IT (assuming you mean info tech) can mean different things to different placss. For some it is simply maintaining the backbone/infrastructure/classrooms.For other institutions it also means maintaining (and in some instances, controlling) the faculty and staff computers. It could also mean providing cutting edge technological opportunities for faculty to incorporate tech into their instruction, and their (gasp) research.

Finally, believe it or not, because people read blogs we cannot infer they understand tech. Quite often, far from it...
I've been working on the admin side of things (study abroad) for about 5 years now. I enjoy it. The pay is less than I'd get as a faculty member, but the headaches are fewer. You'd probably be surprised at how many mid-level administrators have graduate degrees, but chose not to pursue teaching.

A couple of thoughts: being a great professor and being a great administrator don't necessarily call for the same skill set. How organized and detail-oriented are you? How are your people skills? My job involves dealing with students, faculty, staff and occasionally parents--often answering the same questions over and over and over--with a smile.

Be prepared for a change in how many faculty see you. Most of the faculty I work with are lovely; some refuse to believe that I actually know my field better than they do; and a few are downright condescending. On the whole, I very much enjoy working with our faculty, but it's a very different relationship than it would be if we were both professors.

Good luck!
There's also Marketing, which may have some other less "corporate" name like University Relations, but which produces publications, ads, press releases, websites, etc. Government relations may fall in this area. It may be contained in Foundation, Administration, or off on its own. From what I've seen, it's comprised mainly of folks who came up outside of academia.
Hm. I don't understand why 'keeps an even keel when nuttiness breaks loose' isn't the foundation of really exceptional teaching. But Plan B has worked out pretty well, so more power to ya.
for some reason I had a flashback to Palpatine seducing Anakin to the dark side..
"Administration is a pathway to many abilities some consider...unnatural..."

"Can I learn these skills?"

"Not from a proffie"

(ominous music)
I'm the original correspondent (not Kelly in Kansas). Dean Dad, thanks SO MUCH for this very helpful rundown, and thanks to all posters for the additional thoughts. I will certainly go get that book. As well as spend more time with IHE and CHE.

Re ambivalence about teaching---to put it concisely, I think I am realizing that what I have is a drive to share the knowledge I possess---that originally led me into teaching, but will actually play out better in the student side of admin than in teaching.

Although I'm deeply ambivalent about the entire system of higher ed--I think it's broken. But I also think it's a good place to start building a new career and see if small changes might help the system. If I choose to walk away from the university entirely, I want that to be an informed choice.

Re the different skills---I think I'll be fine. As faculty go, I am certainly very administratively minded and everyone I know thinks I'm suited to this transition--I'll have to beef up a bit on the organization but I suspect that will be easier when admin is what I am getting paid to do rather than something I am not supposed to be letting take time away from research.

Thank you all again. I'll certainly be checking back and saving this most useful set of contributions.
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