Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Does Anybody Really Enjoy This?

A new correspondent writes:

I’m now serving (on an interim basis) as director of a small program at a university, and I am struggling with the question of whether to apply when the search to fill the director position gets underway.

About 60% of the job involves things I enjoy and am fairly good at. The person to whom I report says I’m doing a good job, and also tells me that others with whom I interact on campus say I’m doing a good job. The other 40% of the job, however, involves things I either 1) do not seem temperamentally very suited to do, or 2) things I know little about which happen to be kind of messed up at the moment and which the new director will have to fix.

The teaching position that I’ve had for several years in this program is something I still really enjoy. (Yes, I call it a teaching position rather than a faculty position, but explaining this could compromise anonymity.) I’m still doing almost my usual load of teaching on top of the interim director job—let’s call it an additional 70% of a job on top of the 60% and 40% mentioned above—which may also explain why aspects of the interim director job seem overwhelming at times.

At this point, I could happily just go back to the teaching side of things. At least once per week, I fend off discouragement at the end of the day just by reminding myself that I can walk away from the administration side of things if I want to. But what about the 60% of the job that I enjoy? And what if I can become more comfortable with the other 40%? I have appreciated the opportunity to do this work on an interim basis, and I do want to grow as a professional. I worry that if I leave this position in the rearview mirror, I may regret it later.

I guess my ultimate questions are these: How much of an administrative job does anybody really enjoy? How much growth is necessary/possible in order to become comfortable with it? For academics who have faced this type of decision, what tipped the scales for you and how did your decision work out?

I'll start with the obligatory disclaimer that I don't know the specifics of your personality, employer, or position, so I can only address this in general terms.

That said, a few things to consider:

- All else being equal, having more range is better than having less range. A track record of success in both faculty and administrative roles will give you more opportunities than a track record consisting entirely of teaching. The more thoughtful discussions of tenure I've seen have referred to a distinction between official tenure and real tenure. The former is what we usually refer to, but the latter refers to being marketable enough that even if one institution becomes inhospitable, you have the option of moving to another. You may have to give up official tenure -- though judging by your aside about 'teaching' vs. 'faculty,' that may or may not be the case -- but if you do the job well, you could come closer to the kind of real tenure that makes it easier to move if that becomes necessary.

- I've never seen a job that was 100 percent fun. I loved teaching, but didn't love grading papers. Most jobs involve at least some level of unpleasantness, which is why they have to pay people to do them. It also sounds like you're doing about a job and a half, which will tend to give you an artificially dark picture. (My first full admin gig was like that, which made for some very rough days.) There's also a very real difference between the authority granted to someone in an 'acting' role, and someone in the same 'permanent' role. A bit more authority to actually carry out the responsibility of the job may help. Responsibility without authority is a stress machine.

- In my experience and observation, growth into the role is slow, and some people never make it. If you're attracted by the prospect of power, don't do it. The best admins I've seen put 'mission' before 'ego,' and do their jobs for the benefit of the college as a whole. That means taking a longer-term view of most issues, being willing to let others take credit, and being a good enough listener to be able to reflect back on your own preferences and motives and put them aside when necessary. Many admin roles require a keen sense of confidentiality about certain issues, which can be a real struggle for people who make themselves important (or who just process information) by gossiping.

- What's fun about it? Some things are never fun. Laying somebody off is not fun, and if you think it is, I don't want to know you. Saying 'no' to great ideas is not fun. Although some would disagree, I find the mountains of administrivia to be not fun. (Some people actually like that stuff. I'm glad they do.) And some contexts are simply no-win; the local culture is so poisoned that you can do everything right and still get nowhere. But if you're in a basically positive context, and you have the right outlook, there are satisfactions to be found. My most satisfying moments -- I wouldn't call them 'fun,' exactly, but satisfying -- occur when I'm able to help the parties to a seemingly-intractable conflict find a solution that allows them both/all to save face, move forward, and focus on the actual task at hand. That takes practice, and you have to earn trust over time, but when it works, it's really something. The satisfaction is largely vicarious and behind-the-scenes, but no less real for that.

What tipped the scales for me? Several things, really, but it boiled down to what social scientists call 'comparative advantage.' I was a good teacher, probably somewhat above average, but I wasn't a star. My contributions as a teacher could be replicated, and even surpassed, without much trouble. But the folks with whom I worked at the time simply didn't 'get' administration. I suspected that I could contribute more as an administrator than I could as a professor, and all these years later, I think that was true. I wasn't a 'failed' professor by any means -- can we please take that cliche out back and shoot it in the head? -- but I was a replaceable one. As an admin, though, I felt like I could do the job better than most. Can that arrogant if you want, but there it is. Whether that holds for you or not, I can't say.

One admin's view, anyway.

I'd love to hear from others who have made the leap, including those who later leaped back. What have you enjoyed about the admin side? For those who jumped back, what tipped the balance for you?

Good luck with your decision!

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

I've been a reader here for awhile, but the specific call for folks who have leapt from teaching to administration and then back seems to call me forth from lurker-dom. I spent my first few years out of grad school teaching (some adjunct, some full-time), then took an admin gig at the university where I had been a grad student. Like the inquirer, I was doing about 150% of a job, because I wanted to keep a foot in the classroom and continued teaching on top of my full-time admin duties. I did that for several years -- and really enjoyed almost every part of it -- but finally decided to take a crack at returning to full-time teaching, and I was fortunate enough to land a tenure-track job at a small college. (This was a few years back, when the market in my field was actually, like, not abysmal.)

What I enjoyed about administrative work: first, being able to use some of the imaginative, associative parts of my brain that had felt a little stunted by the end of grad school (my admin job gave me some nice opportunities to revamp or design programs and procedures--it wasn’t a matter of just keeping my hand on someone else’s tiller); and, second, collaborating with many kinds of people from all over the university (I'm sure I learned more about how a university works, and about what's interesting and valuable about the different roles people play, in one year of administrative work than in any 5 years of the rest of my time in academe). Certainly there were things I didn’t like, mainly the extent to which I wasn’t a free agent. That is, sometimes I would have to do things out of positional obligation, whether or not I agreed with the way they were being done or the university’s underlying reasons for doing them. If I had to quantify, I’d say I enjoyed about 75% of it.

I leapt back to the faculty side actually because of what was great about my admin job. Working at that level felt akin to becoming multi-lingual, and I think it made me a better speaker of my own language, as it were -- a better thinker and teacher in my own discipline. And so I started to yearn for greater autonomy in the courses I taught, and for more time for research and writing, and I thought a full-time faculty job could provide both (q.v., 150% of a job, supra.; I am incredibly busy now, of course, but at least I have summers and the occasional sabbatical, and I get to whip up a new course with some regularity). I wouldn’t say that I enjoy fully 100% of it, but I am very happy. Still, I can easily imagine this pendulum swinging back later on. I have a research project going on now, but when that concludes, moving into an administrative role might be more attractive than immediately moving into another research project.
My experience is very much like DD's. I was a good teacher, but not an amazing one. My dean suggested I might have the temperment and skills to be in admin. My first response was to run screaming, but a few weeks later I reconsidered and I'm glad I did. One thing that was true for me but may not be in your case: I had to cut the cord with teaching. I cannot imagine doing the job I do AND being responsible for leading a classroom as well. I can't imagine it personally, and my institution's organization precludes it anyway.

My first mentor gave me this very wise advice. There are three sets of skills needed to be a successful administrator: technical skills, people skills, and political skills. The technical part you can learn--it gets easier over time. The people skills and political skills (meaning how to get results within your particular system) can be improved upon, but they have to be there in some form to start with. So if the "technical" side of the job is unpleasant, it will probably get easier, if not more fun, for you. You will always have to deal with the people and politics, though, so if those are at the core of your concerns, know that those won't go away and (I think) will always be the hardest part of the job.
I leaped from teaching to administration but have not yet leaped back – and not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself why I don’t return to teaching. One of the things I have realized is that I much prefer teaching to administration. I find administration both dull and frustrating; part of the latter is a result of a fairly dysfunctional university bureaucracy, though it doesn’t help that I began my administrative stint just as the Great Recession loomed on the horizon. I spend an awful amount of time pushing paper around, for reasons that too often seem inadequate, and I lack access to the kinds of resources that would allow me to feel like I was accomplishing something big. Frankly, I just find teaching (and writing) much more intellectually satisfying. That being said, there are some rewards to administration. Since so much of it consists of fairly discrete tasks, I enjoy finishing things; when one if primarily a teacher and a scholar, the time from inception to completion is frequently years (if ever). I have also enjoyed fixing things – fixing paperwork, improving our own bureaucracy, trying to make peace, increase cooperation, etc. But more often it feels like I am banging my head against a brick wall – probably because I am not much of a political being.
Make sure your admin job contract includes the right to return to the classroom. If admin doesn't work out, or, if sometime in the future you want to return to teaching, then you won't have lost anything.

Return rights are pretty standard--in fact, they're protected by the Ed Code--out here in California.

I’m the correspondent on this one – thanks to Dean Dad and the commenters for your perspectives. You’ve validated and reinforced some of my thoughts and, most importantly, provided some much needed new food for thought. The “comparative advantage” idea is useful, and Chris’s analogy (about how moving from admin to teaching and vice versa is a bit like moving back and forth between languages) is great. Institutional context, economic context, the situation with co-workers and (possible) mentors, etc. obviously all impact the experience, whether the job is a teaching or admin position. Thanks again.

I think Anon 8:56's mentor's advice is spot on about evaluating which 40% is the problem for you. I'm not in teaching, but I realized some years back that I have no interest in going into management.

Frankly, I don't think I have the chops to handle personnel conflicts. I flubbed it very badly the first time I had to supervise someone. Since then I've become increasingly aware of my own personality quirks in that area, and I don't want to spend my entire career fighting them.

40% seems like a fairly large chunk if you feel that you're not temperamentally suited for it. I'd spend some time thinking about how much is "scary things to fix" and how much of it is basic personality issues.
Other than that at the highest levels--presidents and provosts and deans--universities do a shit job of accommodating the fact that effective administration requires two quite different things, the personal and professional traits that make one good at also being quite different: leadership and implementation. This is why corporations have CEOs and COOs. Way too few departments and programs have both a chair and a vice chair, with the former responsible for leadership and the latter responsible for implementation (i.e., getting shit done). This means that most departments and programs end up either saddled with visionary leaders who can't be arsed to actually do shit like filing the forms to put people up for promotion, etc, while other departments end up with bureaucratic functionaries who dot all the is and cross all the ts but have no idea why they are doing so or what the big-picture goals are. It is rare that one person has the ability to excel at both these aspects of administration, and it is fucking stupid to expect otherwise.
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