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.

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