Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Swimming Upstream

A new correspondent writes:

I am thinking of making a change in my career path. I am a non-tenure track, full time instructor, starting my 8th year in this job. While I enjoy my job and it is reasonably stable even in a terrible economy & job market, it is obviously untenable as a seriously-long-term career option. But I really like working in a University community and I want to find a way to stay in that environment.

I have also done some administrative work at this same campus and find that I am reasonably good at it and willing to do it (boring meetings, aside, and yes I know there are lots of those). And the work is never-ending, it seems. So I am considering going back to school and getting an MA (possibly PhD) in Higher Ed Admin from a well-regarded program. Now admitting this to fellow faculty on my campus would be like announcing that I have an undesirable social disease. The relationship between faculty and administrators on our campus is pretty toxic and "switching sides" is typically not looked upon with favor. So I'm here seeking outside input. Good idea/bad idea? Why?

I’m pretty sure the modifier “undesirable” coming before the noun “social disease” is redundant, but never mind that.

Depending on the branch of administration you’d like to enter, your plan might work. In my observation, though, people in those programs are usually already in some sort of administrative position, and are pursuing the credential in order to move up; an assistant director of admissions wants to become a director, say. That way, they can do their ‘fieldwork’ on their own campus.

Higher Ed Admin degrees don’t always get the same level of respect from faculty that degrees in traditional academic disciplines do, but that shouldn’t matter if you’re in, say, Student Services. I’m told that in some regions of the country, this isn’t as true as it is in the Northeast, either, but I’m open to correction on that.

In terms of employability, you may well find the job market in administration easier than the job market for faculty, depending on discipline. Of course, one rarely-noted reason for that is the dramatically higher turnover rate in administrative jobs. More firing leads to more hiring. (What this suggests about the effects of tenure on faculty hiring, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Since you don’t have a tenured position anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about increased risk.

The undertone of the question, though, is about braving public disapproval. Is it worth the opprobrium to pursue an opportunity?

At some level, of course, only you can answer that. But I’ve been in that spot myself, and I can attest that curbing your own ambitions to satisfy the embittered is a losing proposition. They won’t be satisfied anyway -- they never are -- and your sacrifice will gain the world exactly nothing. (If you don’t become the next Assistant Dean, someone else will.) Taken to its logical conclusion, the “never cross over” perspective quickly becomes absurd.

Suppose you do sacrifice yourself on the altar of other people’s crankiness. When your position gets cut, will they defend you?

Academics tend to have been good students, and good students are often people pleasers. But you need to be willing to do what you need to do. If you decide, upon reflection, that administration isn’t what you want, then by all means stay away. But if you think it suits you -- you like the environment, you’re good at it, and you can see the contribution that good administration makes -- then I wouldn’t pay too much heed to the naysayers. Absorb the parts of their critique that could help you do your job better, but don’t let it stop you from trying in the first place. The more thoughtful critics of administration will usually concede that it’s better to have smart administrators than dumb ones; if you have it in you to be a smart one, and the idea appeals to you, I say go for it.

Besides, there’s no law saying you have to work at the same college forever. Getting the credential could help you find work elsewhere, where you would come in already having crossed over; ‘betrayal’ wouldn’t enter into it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Should s/he tune out the naysayers, or is there something critical that I’ve missed?

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

Sweet comment, worth singling out:

"Academics tend to have been good students, and good students are often people pleasers. "

This must cause no end of grief for Deans, because I am sure that it is the reason some faculty will ignore their own syllabus to coddle snowflakes, give back points on exams to complainers (generating more complaints), give makeup exams weeks or months later, or even overlook cheating rather than confront students exchanging exams (true story).
It takes intelligence, savvy and good people skills to be a good administrator. If you think you can do it, I would say go for it--the world needs more folks who are good at the job. As a staff person, most faculty won't have anything to do with me socially anyway, so I can't really speak to that side of things, except to say that if your co-workers are jerks to you about your plan, then you know that they are just that: co-workers, not friends.
The naysayers might be afraid of losing your support in some form they personally need without regard to what is best for you and they are using "changing sides" as an acceptable sounding reason.

The first time I changed positions, one of the people who I thought of as a friend was most negative. Years later when I saw her again, she told me that she didn't want me to go because I was a great buffer between her and another colleague she couldn't stand working with.

She survived my move and I prospered. Go for it if you think you would fit well.
I think if you really want flexibility in academic admin, you are actually better off getting a discipline based doctorate with an MBA. There are places where the doctorate in higher ed admin will not help much (whereas a doctorate in education - because it is a discipline - would). You'll also meet more people in an MBA or MPA program that might allow you to consider jobs outside the Ivory Tower. Good administrators can thrive in many different contexts. I'd give myself options.

Your education is your own business. I wouldn't go out of your way to make any announcements about your plans but if you're "taking some classes" that can't be a bad thing.
>>In my observation, though, people in those programs are usually already in some sort of administrative position, and are pursuing the credential in order to move up.<<

This is a really good point, and a point that extends beyond academia. There are a large number of degree programs which seem to prepare you for a certain job, but which in fact are mainly useful only for people who already have the jobs, or who have additional credentials.

From the experience of acquaintances:

Degrees in Hospital Administration, for example, will generally neither qualify you for a job as a hospital administrator, nor allow you to get such a job. It would probably be helpful if you were already a HA, and it would probably be great if you followed it up with an MBA...but standing alone, it's not really that useful.

MS in Human Resources - a friend of mine looked into this program, which advertised the high-ish salaries of people with this degree. But further research revealed that people who earned this degree were largely people who already had fairly well-paying HR jobs and were seeking to expand their expertise. The program actually offered little beyond what a BA would bring for a person who did not already have a well-paying HR job.

I would include the HE Admin degrees in these categories - they might be useful for someone who already has the job, or who is otherwise qualified for the job, but I seriously doubt that they would qualify you for the job.
I'm the original correspondent.

Point taken, DD, that there are no "desirable" social diseases! That made me laugh, actually.

Thanks for your input so far; this is exactly what I was hoping for. The point on views of my campus colleagues is not that I am seeking their approval, but rather, that I don't have anybody on hand with whom I can bounce around ideas like this one.

Some of your comments raise another question that I have been wondering about. Do outsiders stand a chance at landing admin jobs on your campus? Most admins on my campus are promoted/drafted from within the ranks of tenure-track faculty with an assumption that they'll serve for a couple of years, get a big pay bump, and then return to their academic positions (which results in a lot of self-serving behavior, poor administration, and acrimony upon return, but it happens anyway). Consequently outsiders, or even non-tenure insiders, are rarely offered a shot at admin jobs. But maybe, hopefully, things are just strange on my campus?
As to the follow-up question, 95% of my CCs administrators have been promoted from within. While this has its advantages, it also has one huge disadvantage. There is a lack of fresh ideas. You certainly don't want a new administrator hired "from the outside" to start changing policies just for the sake of change, but there is a ral problem in doing the same thing the same way just because we've always done it that way. Current administrators may not have ideas on how to improve or even acknowledge that some things need to be improved.

I am pleased to say we are in the process of replacing an administrator with an outside candidate. We'll see how it works out!
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