Wednesday, December 15, 2010

 

"It's Not the Dark Side. It Just Sucks."

This comment by Dr. Crazy about yesterday's post stuck with me. In explaining – very clearly – why she refused to move into administration, she noted that much of what attracted her to academia is precisely what keeps her out of administration. Instead of teaching and doing research, both of which she enjoys, she'd have to spend her time in committee meetings and dealing with recalcitrant colleagues. Plus, she'd have to do it eight-plus hours a day, five days a week, twelve months a year.

Some other commenters made similar points, if with different emphases. One put it quite bluntly, asking just what, exactly, makes this job worth doing.

I had to think about that one for a while.

It's certainly true that the day-to-day work of deaning is very different from the day-to-day work of faculty. There's far less autonomy, whether in terms of choosing tasks, making decisions, or even setting your own schedule. I didn't realize how much I valued time flexibility until I had lost it. Suddenly even banal stuff like oil changes and haircuts took planning.

Several people mentioned a lack of mentoring, which I've absolutely found to be true. Even more astonishing to me was how quickly people expected me to know things. I got asked “what's the procedure for...?” for things I didn't even know happened. (I also got the opposite – “how was this decision made?” – whenever someone didn't like the answer.)

Academic culture tolerates a level of open insubordination and contrapower harassment that simply does not exist in any other established field. That can be rough on neophytes. Reading the blogs, you'd think that so many “gadflies” would made academia the sanest, justest workplace in the whole wide world.

I'll just let that one sink in for a minute.

Worse, new deans and chairs often discover, sometimes quite quickly, that many people with lingering grievances against an institution or an entire industry will treat you as a synecdoche, and unload on you. I get this on the blogs all the time. As the only academic administrator who actually writes about adjunctification in a serious and sustained way, I get treated as some sort of class enemy by armies of embittered adjunct activists. They're deeply wrong – anyone who has read my stuff for the last several years knows that I'm opposed to the tenure/adjunct dyad, and anyone who works with me IRL wouldn't recognize the caricatures – but the libel serves a political purpose, so it survives. Someone has to be the common enemy, whether he’s actually an enemy or not.

Similar things happen on campus. If you like being accused of things you had no part in doing, go into administration. If I had a nickel for every conversation that went like this:

Prof: Why did you make this awful decision?

Me: I didn’t. One of my predecessors did. In 1980.

Prof: Well, The Administration did this...

I’d be a wealthy man.

So with all of that said, why do I keep doing this? And would I encourage others to do it too?

For all the doom and gloom above, I actually like my job most of the time.

Some of that is location-specific. It took a couple of tries to find the right college. Some wells are simply toxic, and need to be abandoned. There is such a thing as cutting losses.

But some of it is real gratification at seeing a culture change for the better.

Success in administrative roles is often more vicarious and subtle than in the classroom. My most satisfying moments are when people realize that the climate has changed to the point that it has become safe to act as their best selves, rather than cowering in fear of the next (often sideways) attack. When I see people actually tell truths, rather than adopting the usual poses, I see it as a win. When people come out of their silos and work in productive collaborations that they simply would not have a few years ago, it’s a win.

It’s frustrating to work towards that kind of change on campus, only to have state budget pressures intrude. But one can do only what one can do.

I’m increasingly convinced that good leadership is as much about temperament as about anything else. My sense of administrative “vision” is not “we will have the highest graduation rate in the state,” or “we will have the best program in X in the region.” It’s more like “we’ll have a workplace in which the best ideas can win, and experimentation is rewarded.” Actually seeing that start to happen has been gratifying. The most appealing part is that it’s cumulative; cool experiments lead to more cool experiments. We’ve got one on campus now that’s so )$#(*^%&#^%_! cool that if it wouldn’t blow the pseudonym, I’d spend a full week writing about nothing but that. It’s the fruit of years of deliberate climate change, and it’s sending an unmistakably positive message to the rest of the campus. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, and I take real pride in that.

Would I recommend this to others? In many settings, no. But if you have the right local climate, and the right vision, and serious tenacity, and the ability to distance yourself from personal attacks, and a strong sense of why you’re doing it, then maybe.

Which may explain the small applicant pools...

Comments:
I'm really glad that you wrote this post. I want to be clear that I really do understand that administrative work is necessary and valuable. My comment was more related to your question in yesterday's post about why faculty types might not want to transition their careers into administration in the current climate in higher ed, and not a value judgment about administration as a career path, if that makes sense.
 
I am very very grateful for our excellent administrators. I never ever want to be one. Even without the potential for faculty angst and grievances, just the day to day administration of budgets, some of which are fungible and some of which are not...the constant juggling...the possibility of mistakes with terrible consequences... I would die.
 
I love the idea of creating and shaping a program -- it's both a tremendous power and a tremendous responsibility. At the end of the day, I think you could go home feeling you'd done something really worthwhile, even in simply sustaining an educational institution under constant assault from all sides.

But the work of dealing with the actual people, and the actual budget, day in and day out -- oof. I'm very grateful for the good administrators I've had in the past.
 
When I was asst Dean, the thing I hated was that nothing was ever finished. When you put out a fire, 2 more appear. Meanwhile the academic calendar is very finite. When those grades are turned in, you are DONE until the next semester. You turn the page. Not the case in admin. So I think it requires a certain temperament that I just don't have right now, although I may learn to love it as I near retirement to boost my pension......
 
Suddenly even banal stuff like oil changes and haircuts took planning.
Very true--and that's reality for most American workers.

I'm the assistant director of study abroad at a SLAC. I see myself mainly as a facilitator--working to identify and form partnerships with overseas institutions that fit the needs of our students and faculty, helping individual students find the program that best fits with their academic and personal goals, handling a lot of the logistical and financial aspects of faculty-led study abroad so that our faculty can focus on teaching. I enjoy the work, even if a lot of what I do is not immediately visible to others. The most frustrating part for me is when I tell a student, staff or faculty member, "I'm sorry, that won't work. Here are the reasons why" and it seems like what they hear is "I am The Man and I hate you." I can honestly take that attitude from students, but bugs me when it comes from faculty and fellow staff members.
 
I think it's worthwhile to differentiate between leadership and management.

Management deals with deploying resources. It is very much a nitty gritty thing - smoothing out the rough patches in people and/or process, acquiring the financial or physical resources so that a project can move forward.

Leadership is the development and promulgation of vision. It is an exercise in seeing the future and trying to change the course of the river you're riding.

The good dean I had was a master of the management stuff - he kept people in line, cared for the processes that kept things moving along and made sure we had the resources we needed to do our jobs. But he was also a leader in the sense that he had a specific vision for the college and he rewarded people who helped him achieve that vision. He let the faculty lead when it came to teaching and curriculum but everything else, research, fund raising , new programs he pulled along with the force of his vision.

I think there are a lot of good managers out there but few leaders – and academic life as I experienced it did not reward leaders as much as it rewarded lone wolves.
 
When I was younger, I had a view similar to Dr. Crazy. Admin. just looked like a sucky gig: 9 to 5, or more realistically, 8 to 7, a 12-month calendar, and you had to wear a suit. Yuk. But now, after 10 years as an adjunct, admin looks like an awesome job, albeit one that comes with all the issues DD discusses. Of course, given my perma-junct stats, it's also one for which I am a priori disqualified. Alas.
 
I'm not sure about that last comment, but I don't think in my experience that tenure track is necessarily the only way into administration. Sure, you don't get to be an academic dean at most universities if you aren't tenured, but our host here is a dean and never worked with tenure (or so I understand from what he's said about previous employment). And lots of our student services side folks don't come from the tenure track. (Most don't, now that I think of it.)
 
Ah, but rarely do they come from the adjunct pool, either. I sometimes get the impression, given how many adjuncts unsuccessfully apply for various low and mid-level admin jobs at my school, that adjuncts are regarded as the academic equivalent of the untouchables.
 
A good post. There are two standard arguments that are often deployed to try to convince ambitious tenured researchers to spend some time in administration (e.g., serve as department chair):

(1) It's an opportunity to have a large impact. You have a chance to help chart the future of the department/college/etc. and lead folks towards that future.

(2) Someone has to do it. If you don't, someone else will, and the someone else will be someone worse, and you will hate it.
 
Reading the blogs, you'd think that so many “gadflies” would made academia the sanest, justest workplace in the whole wide world.

Ouch, that stings! Reading this blog is a nearly constant exercise of self-examination for me. Am I that asshole bumptious rogue instructor DD is describing? Am I?

I come up with different answers, day to day, depending.

But I have to confess to pretty much reflexively loathing the words, ideas, and plans of management. Of being the gadfly protected by seniority if not tenure (no tenure here at Wayupnorth, you'll be glad to hear, dd....)

I was driving in yesterday, listening to a Great Courses CD on Christian theology, and I couldn't get the italicized words above out of my mind. I had to stop the CD, think about DD's POV for a few minutes, and then rewind the CD to the beginning of the material on the development of the doctrine of the Incarnation--something you don't want to give only half your attention to, believe me.
 
Academia is one of the sanest, justest workplaces in the world. Most other places are actually even worse.
 
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