Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Ask the Administrator: One Prediction Leads to Another

In response to yesterday’s post predicting huge personnel movement as soon as the market starts to thaw, a new correspondent writes:

Your latest post on a coming personnel movement is right on, I think, and it brings me to this question: Do you see any benefit to junior faculty who stick it out? That is, will the realignment in higher ed open paths to administration or other promotions that might not have existed before? If so, will there be greater freedom to do those jobs in new ways (i.e., less structural resistance to change due to sheer desperation)? That could be an exciting prospect for some of us.

The first two numbers of my salary have not changed since I began my current job, leading me to seriously regret not negotiating harder at the point of hire, as you recommend. The salaries at my SLAC were already near the bottom of our conference, and the administration is absolutely unapologetic about this. On the bad days--those days when I'm sweating over a course, or dealing with departmental dysfunction, or defending a decision to kick a hostile student out of class--I think to myself: I could be getting paid so much more to do something way easier. (I spent years in the field before and during graduate school, so there is some basis for this line of thought.) However, I love the intellectual work of higher ed and I'm looking for reasons to stay. Might one of those reasons be future opportunities?

I don’t mean this to be evasive, but it depends on what you mean by “stick it out.” (And of course, every local context has its own quirks; any given college could run counter to a larger national trend.)

That said, I can say with confidence that I’ve found it far, far easier to fill tenure-track faculty positions than to fill dean’s positions. There is no shortage of intelligent, qualified, engaging people who are eager to step into tenure-track roles, even for colleges like mine, at the lower end of the prestige hierarchy. The same simply cannot be said of deanships. Those are proving devilishly hard to fill with people who fit even the minimum qualifications.

I don’t see the latter trend changing anytime soon; if anything, as I mentioned yesterday, it’s likely to intensify. With the last huge generation of hires aging out of the profession, the thin faculty bench stands exposed. With budgetary pressures getting worse, many intelligent people see administrative roles -- largely correctly -- as no-win, so they stay away. And if your college is late to the party when the thaw finally comes, I’d expect to see people with options start to bail quickly. The resulting vacuum could create a powerful updraft. The key will be positioning yourself to take advantage of that updraft.

That’s where I hesitate with your mentions of “sticking it out” and “doing something easier.” The one thing that almost certainly will not work is standing pat. You’ll need to be willing to step outside the traditional faculty role in order to gain the experience to be a viable candidate. Whether doing administration is easier or harder than teaching is a matter of taste, I guess. Judging solely by the number of applicants, it must be harder. Overall, I’d describe it as the difference between distance running and sprinting. I’m not sure which is harder; they’re just different.

The issue of whether the jobs will change in time to keep good people, I think, depends on whether academia is willing to change to survive. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m pessimistic on that one. It seems likelier to me that change will be done to us, rather than by us. I’d like to be wrong on that, though.

If the updraft happens before the structural collapse, you should be in good shape. I’d just advise getting some experience now, to make yourself a good candidate.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? How would you advise playing the situation?

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

If you are a tenured academic, there should be many opportunities to gain experience that will help position you for an administrative position.

In my department, there are many part-time administrative roles that are sorely needed and are filled by tenured faculty. Typically our chairs have a tough time lining up people to take those positions. If you were willing to volunteer for such a position, you'd probably make your chair's life easier. And these positions help you get some experience with administration, starting at a smaller scale and in a situation where you can do less harm if screw up. If your department/college doesn't have any positions like that, another version is to volunteer to serve as chair of committees, rather than just another member; this is a lighter-weight way to get a little bit of exposure to administrative-like duties.

In fact, our chairs regularly use this as part of their leadership-building strategy. They identify folks who they think might have a future role (e.g., as department chair or in an administrative/leadership position) and try to put them in these part-time administrative positions, to help those faculty grow, gain experience in that sort of role, and perhaps increase the likelihood that those faculty will consider an administrative position in the future.
To follow up on the above comment, I am a faculty member who takes on the types of part time admin roles mentioned. It's a great way to get my feet wet and to find out whether it is something that I enjoy doing. For now, I do like the flexibility that comes with a faculty position due to the age of my kids. But am looking to build a leadership portfolio that will serve me well when I am better positioned to take on a full time administrative role.

As an aside, I'm wondering whether the "kiddie factor" is a reason that we do not see as many women in higher ed admin (especially in the top tier positions) as we could.
If the reason to move into administration is because one's salary seems low and some days are really hard, then the writer may need to rethink their goals. At many institutions, the faculty salary is based on 9 months but administrative positions are 12 month positions (I'm not saying faculty don't do any work during the summer, I am just saying that the salary cam be based on the assumption that the period between semesters is the faculty member's own to use as he or she sees fit). Entry level administration positions won't necessarily pay much better, and when you divide by 12 instead of 9, you can see that it is not always the better deal (if pay is your criteria). This is before even looking at the issues of stress, frustration, etc. The grass is not always greener...
I'll second what Engineering Prof said. Our college has leadership building positions that range from running small programs, like honors programs, that have budgets to manage and students to recruit to chairing important committees. These are often the only way to learn how the college operates internally.

I see very good people being groomed for the positions that will be opening up soon, but they are all working harder than others with similar rank and pay.

BTW, I'd work on articulating that "new way" you would be department chair or Dean, and maybe try them out here. Some "new ways" could lead to rapid promotion if the place is dysfunctional right now, while others would guarantee your staying in the current job.
This is good advice, DD.
I am waiting for the time when all the tenure-line faculty at the CC are department chairs or deans and all the teaching is done by adjuncts.
Seriously, why would anyone go into admin. If I teach full time all summer I can make 3/4 what our Dean makes and not have to deal with all the crap. Plus I have tenure which still seems to count for something, at least for now. DD I'm not feeling the calling but thanks anyway.
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