Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Changing Silos

A new correspondent writes

I am currently in a tenured faculty position at a teaching-heavy Regional U. I have always a lot of interest in student retention and student services, and would like to eventually transition to an administrative position in that area for a Flagship U - and lo and behold, nearby Flagship U has a position for someone just like that. I am in math, and this is usually the biggest area for student support. The usual path for academic folks is chair > dean > Provost etc, so I realize that this path may be a bit unusual. But I think I could bring new perspectives that are usually not found in  administrators in that role. Since you've worked with many types of administrators, what do you think of such a move?

It’s harder than it sounds, actually.

You’re certainly right that math is a key area for student retention, and you’re also right that you’d bring some new (and beneficial) perspectives to student services.  But making the leap isn’t all that easy.

Typically, student services is a silo, and academic affairs is a silo.  Moving between silos isn’t easily done.  The credibility you’ve earned on one side may not carry over to the other.  The folks in student services have their own sets of experiences and credentials unique to their area, and may look askance at someone trying to hop over, especially if they’re hopping over at a relatively high level.

My first thought would be to find an area within (or alongside) student services that builds organically off of what you’ve already done.

Two areas leap to mind immediately.  One is working with a math center, and the other is directing a grant with a math/retention focus.

The classic critique of faculty-turned-administrators is that they may be subject matter experts, but they have no management experience.  Managing employees is very different from teaching students, for a whole host of reasons.  Both of these would give you a chance to show (and/or build) your skills as a manager, working in areas for which your academic background has prepared you well.  

Best of all, given the salience of the subject matter you’re focusing on to colleges and universities generally, you should have no lack of opportunities if you play your cards right.

My suggestion would be to do some background research on the current thinking regarding math and student success.  (Although it’s a different institutional context, the Community College Research Center website is a great place to start.)  Then approach the math//tutoring center on your own campus, and see if they’re open to some sort of meaningful participation.  If you could manage some sort of exploratory venture in a low-risk way -- I’m thinking getting a course release to work with the math center as a resource person for a year or so -- then you can get some useful exposure to the field without risking your current professional standing.  If you decide, after a few months, that you’d really rather return to the classroom, you could.  If you decide that you want more than ever to make the leap, you’ve gained some experience and exposure to make yourself a more viable candidate.

Grants are the other way to go.  I can attest that anyone who knows how to bring money has a huge leg up.  If you can figure out a way to pitch a grant involving math and student success -- again, a hot area -- to either your state or the Feds, you can build a position for yourself.  The beauty of this approach is that it lets you start at a fairly high level and play to your strengths, since you’ll design the position yourself.  It’s a little slow to start, and there are no guarantees, but if you’re thinking about the long term, this could be a very effective and satisfying way to go.

Good luck!  Anyone who can help make a difference on student success in math will be a hot commodity.

Wise and worldly readers, can you think of other options?  Are there other or better ways to make the leap?

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