Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Ask the Administrator: How the Hell Do I Break In (and Out)?

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I just stumbled across your blog and thought it would be worth a shot hearing someone else's perspective on my situation. I have been teaching English at the CC for seven years now and I feel that I am just about at my breaking point. I saw this coming around the corner a couple of years ago so I enrolled in a prominent PhD program in Ed. Leadership, hoping it would prepare me for an administrative position. After attending class while working full time, I now know that my angst to leave the classroom is now unbearable. I've applied for Associate Dean positions and my letters, references and CVs have gotten me interviews, yet I fear that my lack of administrative experience has shut me out of a few...others have been "fit". In any case, how do you suggest I prepare myself for moving into one of these positions? I do realize that most Deans come from the ranks of Program Directors/Chairs, but I cannot see myself teaching much longer and such opportunities at my institution are far and few between.

This brings me to my last dilemma: I can't seem to permeate the inner sanctum to accomplish anything at my own institution. After expressing this same concern to some of my colleagues and peers at my home institution, it was expressed to me that I would probably never earn a position in administration here because some are intimidated and fearful of the credibility my credentials bring. You see, most of the CC administrators here have earned or are earning their PhDs at a so-called "diploma mill". Now I am not an elitist in any sense and could care less where a person earned their degrees, but it was expressed to me that they are concerned about where I earned my own (nationally ranked with scholars in the field as my mentors). What am I left to do? Am I forced to leave to start at another institution as a faculty member and work my way into administration? Or is there a chance that I can begin at an institution as an Assc. Dean? What do you think?

I see several issues here, but I hope that my wise and worldly readers will chime in with their insights, too.

First and most basically, I'm concerned about the level of burnout expressed here. There are plenty of valid reasons to move into administration -- really there are! -- but being at your breaking point is a little suspect. Bitterness has a way of coming out sideways, and it's deadly at interviews. Your lack of administrative experience tells me that you haven't been in a position to compare administration to teaching, so it's not like you have a basis for the preference; you just want out.

That's okay, but it's not a compelling reason for someone to hire you.

It sounds like part of the issue, too, is that the pipeline is clogged. This is a common, and devastating, side effect of the generational inequities in higher ed that I may have mentioned once or twice over the years. As the generational pig slowly makes its way through the career python -- don't try metaphors like this at home, kids, I'm a trained professional -- the folks who came after the pig can find themselves blocked. (The Great Recession slows the pig even more, as people who were flirting with retirement decide that it's best to eke out a few more years in the name of security, and those who actually do retire often don't get replaced.) At that point, the classic catch-22 of 'no promotion without experience, and no experience without a promotion' kicks in.

So you're stuck. And it sounds like you're really feeling it.

To the extent that you can, I'd recommend taking some kind of break. Maybe a sabbatical, if your college offers those (mine does), or maybe a leave of absence if you can afford it. You don't want to make decisions while caught up in emotionally intense tunnel vision. Get some distance, however you do that, and don't think about it until your brain snaps back to its original shape. Then assess where you want to be.

If that's not an option, either financially or temperamentally, then I'd recommend baby steps. It's pretty unusual to go directly from full-time faculty to an associate deanship without some sort of administrative duties in between -- department chair, participation in an accreditation self-study, coordinator of an Honors program, something like that. Most colleges have certain administrative tasks for which they give faculty members reassigned time. While you do those tasks, you still teach but not as much, and a chunk of your time is spent on admin work. You get to keep your main job, so if the foray doesn't work out, you can go back. Doing some of those can give you greater credibility as an admin candidate, but they can also give you a better sense of whether you actually enjoy this kind of work, or if it just seems like the most plausible escape route.

One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, especially from any who have been (or are) in a similar spot. Is there a more elegant way to handle this?

Good luck!

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

Burnout in the classroom will lead to burnout in the Admin Office, only faster. I've found students are much easier to deal with than irate faculty. ;-)
Have you taken any opportunities to do administrative work in parallel with your primary job? For example, I started doing an administrative-like function for my professional society about five years ago. I've found it hugely useful, both for the practice in administration and in project management, and for the professional contacts it's brought.

If you haven't dipped a toe into admin, I think I agree with Dean Dad: try the baby steps. You may discover that you don't like academic administration either.

I'd also advise caution about assuming that your educational background is what's keeping you out of administration at your current institution. It might be true, but it might not. You say that the people at your alma mater think you're too cool for the room, but if you're letting an attitude like that show at your CC, it won't go over well.
A followup: After re-reading your comment, I can't figure out whether it's people at your CC who are telling you that your alma mater is working against you, or if it's your old mentors. Which is it, and what basis do they give for their opinion?
I think we are going to see a lot more of this conflict between "diploma mill" Ed Leadership folks and "brick and mortar" Ph.D.s. It's going to generate a lot of friction at many levels. -- ccprof
"Bitterness has a way of coming out sideways"

That's always the rub isn't it, but what do you do? Say there ARE opportunities for you to move into, but you want to make sure the bitterness doesn't follow you into interviews or your next job.
Ditto what everyone has said. It's one thing to be ready to move on, it's another to be desparate to get out of teaching. Whatever your frustrations with teaching, the will only be traded for a different set of far more consequential frustrations. It's really a good idea--imperative really--to get some kind of administrative experience to see if you like it.

I also wouldn't worry about intimidating people with your degree. At my CC and those that I'm familiar with, the administrators tend to have PhDs in academic fields rather than education, so the situation at your school is possibly unusual. None of the adminsitrators I know of would be threatened by anyone's degree--it's experience and results that folks look to.

The best route is to "toe-dip"--get some experience as chair, program lead, something. If that's truly not possible at your institution, it could be a challenge to jump right into administration at another institution.

DD's advice for the sabbatical is a great idea--it would really give you a chance to get away from the teaching for semester or year and assess where you want to go.

Good luck!
Perhaps begin by considering which aspects of higher education really appeal to you. If you don't enjoy working with students, then some associate dean positions will not be a good fit, either because they too involve working with students or because your dislike of students will compromise your ability to work with the faculty (whose job it is to work with students). On the other hand, if you enjoy the students and faculty but are burned out by the paper-grading grind, an administrative position in higher education might be a good next step, whether on the academic side of the outfit or in some area of student affairs. You might also think about continuing/distance education as a possible destination, as hiring practices there may be more flexible.

Dean Dad's "baby steps" suggestion is excellent. Why would an institution (yours or any other) hire someone as a leader who hasn't shown some aptitude for leadership?
My suggestion is to find a way to deal with the burnout first. We tie ourselves in knots we can't see.
I disagree with a leave or sabbatical I am not sure how taking a break will assist in moving forward other than getting away from students for a few months.

My experience has led me to believe you have to move on to a different college, as difficult as that is to deal with. Even if you teach for a few years, starting anew can open new doors. I have found the viewpoints greatly vary from college to college even within the same discipline. Also, how about trying a 4 year college, there may be more administrative positions than at your cc.
Running away from teaching is the worst reason to enter administration.

My suggestion: Sit down and go through the literature on what makes an effective CC classroom instructor. If you want to be an administrator, ideally, not only do you need to know this literature, it would be fabulous if you could model it. Otherwise, you're just another burned out prof putting your time in as administrator. To be quite honest, I'd hate to have you as my boss, particularly if you're not a decent classroom instructor. And since the tenured faculty are forever, we'd wait until you went away.....
Those programs that you wrongly call "diploma mills" likely have the same regional accreditation as your more elite program. The actual difference is likely more elite vs. less elite.

An actual diploma mill has no valid accreditation. If your administrators actually had degrees from diploma mills, this could lead to termination of their positions.
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