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.

Comments:
How would this move function in relation to tenure? I can't imagine leaving a job as inherently rewarding as "professor with tenure" behind without at least a few guarantees.

Unless of course it's not inherently reward to you -- no insult intended to those who made the right decisions for themselves.
 
A tenured faculty member at my college can move into an administrative position while retaining return rights to his professorship. It's always worth finding out the details before making a jump (or even applying for it).
 
I recently made the same move, temporarily vacating a job that was exactly as rewarding as professor with tenure, in every sense, for a position working with an administrative team. I'm really glad I took the risk, every day -- I'm learning what I came to learn, in the company of experienced, interesting colleagues who've been a complete delight to meet.

I think tenure has the capacity to become the stones in your pockets after a while, and particularly in a tough job market you can become preoccupied with "what if I can't reboard the bus?" thinking.
But if you want to try something different, you're also likely to make it work.

A worse option is to find yourself ten years into the tenure experience realising that you're there because you lacked the confidence or optimism to risk a change in direction.
 
The tenure question is obviously an important one, but the comments thus far assume that this person would even have the capability of moving easily into the sort of position he/she describes. Since I'm not so sure that's the case (as DD's post implies, and as I'd expect from my own experience), perhaps worrying about whether one would retain tenure is putting the cart before the horse? (FWIW, NO Student Services people at my institution have tenure, nor have any with whom I've been familiar at other institutions, so it never occurred to me that a person could move into such a position without giving up his/her tenured status, PARTICULARLY if moving from a regional state university to an R1.)

Ultimately, I agree with DD that the correspondent would need to demonstrate some sort of experience in retention and student services (which would include, I would expect, direct and extensive knowledge about assessment) before he/she could hope to apply for a full-time position at his/her own institution in this area, let alone apply for one at the state's Flagship U. "Bringing new perspectives" is great, but, frankly, it sounds like this person would be applying for a job for which he or she is likely not qualified. Sort of like how when we run a search for a tenure-line English professor we often get applications from lawyers and retirees who "love reading" and "care a lot about literature" who offer to "bring a new perspective." New perspectives are great, but in hiring for a position, the task is first to find a person who fits the baseline qualifications for the job.
 
Along with Dr. Crazy, teaching Math, being good at Math and knowing assessment and it's place in student services/retention are two different things. You might have a good handle on the quantitative assessment but will you be able to give the same credence to the qualitative projects that exist?
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
I highly suggest the grant management route - including your working with the appropriate parties to write and secure the grant. Going through that process with the TEAM it takes to get it done will demonstrate some basic management capabilities. Also plan to be the grant director or PI (principal investigator). With your math background, I might also suggest you explore grant evaluation - there are few subject matter experts that have both sets of expertise.

The cautions pointed out by DD and others, however, are quite serious. You wouldn't want the non-teaching staff on campus to think they can do your job quite so easily. It works both ways . . . (I work on the assumption that there is a vast amount that I don't know about how various offices that are VITAL to faculty both directly and indirectly actually work and, more importantly, what it takes to manage them to make them work effectively and so seamlessly that we faculty don't notice.)
 
I'll second or third the cautions about approaching a student services job as one that you're clearly qualified for and add a few additional areas that you will need to be able to talk about.

Management and assessment are important.

Moreover, you have some hard won knowledge of students' struggles in math. Can you connect those to their:

1) overall academic development?
2) general intellectual development?
3) first-gen and low-income issues?

How much do you know about disabilities and the supports that students might be able to take advantage of?

While I think the suggestions here are valuable and would help you present a better profile for a position, I would also suggest that you see if you can make it look like you have knowledge about higher education research and college student development. Maybe it's just reading, but having a class or two would serve as a useful marker. You could also try serving on some Uni committees. There's probably one at your school about retaining at risk students and another about access for students with disabilities. You could volunteer with one of your campus TRIO programs (McNair, Educational Talent Search, Upward Bound, Rising Scholars).

Similarly, maybe there's a mathematics educator near you (maybe in your department?) who works in the area of RUME (Research on Undergraduate Mathematics Education) that you could try to work with? You can find some by looking at the conference listings at: sigmaa.maa.org/rume/

Two grants that you might think about applying for are the S-STEM or the Noyce grants from the NSF.

Finally, be humble in your approach when you do apply. You'll be competing with people who have spent multiple years developing disciplinary expertise and hard-won knowledge of practice.

My background: former FT in student services, current faculty member in math, partner is FT in student services.

*OC--This might be an offer that doesn't mean much, but I'd be happy to talk directly.
 
The other route to consider is going the academic administration route in a position that supervises student services or provides student services in some ways. I am an associate dean and our college advising center reports to me. This has been one route into student services. I've also been on a number of university/college level committees that deal with students and student support. This builds background in the area as well as allows me to build some partnerships with folks in student services. This also builds people to write letters of reference for new positions. Volunteer for orientation, for tutoring centers, etc.

Join the national and your state student services associations (American College Personnel Association and its state branches are a good place to start). The dues are reasonable and there are lots of ways to become involved.

The other thing is that student retention resides in a number of places, some more friendly to faculty than others. Sometimes its in academic affairs, for example.

Hope this helps!
 
Thanks to Deandad and all the others for their comments on my question. The job posting for the R1 school Learning Resources Director listed a PhD in a STEM discipline as "highly desirable", and so that's what piqued my interest. Nevertheless, it is a managerial position, and I think I'll follow the advise given here and look for additional opportunities at my own institution to beef up my managerial skills to complement the work on assessment and math ed issues that I have already done.
 
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