Sunday, July 01, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Is a Directorship a Dead End?

A new correspondent writes:

Vitals > Ph.D., English/literature; associate professor at community college; eight months from tenure; 45 years-old Past careers > various corporate and government experience (16 years), much of it as a manager or department director. I've served as an interim administrator in a writing program. Current work > full-time teaching, coordinator of academic advising, coordinator of special projects (advising, student services programming). "Director of Academic Advising" is the job title that would truly reflect the work I do as a fac coordinator, an admin position that has been on hold due to budget/dept re-org for two years. Career goals > assistant dean (student affairs/services) in three+ years; I would like to end career as a dean or vice president -- at this time, remaining in the community college system is appealing. Personal > moving to NYC in three or so years, need to be marketable. I've sent out a few apps to dip my toe in, haven't garnered any interviews for student services/affairs jobs. I could also stay here and commute by train, but a job in NYC metro area/northern NJ is a saner option. Situation/THE BIG QUESTION > anticipate no openings for at least 10+ years at the assistant dean level at current CC (everyone is about my age and people tend to stay forever and ever). I've been offered the position of director of transfer services  -- I like the work of the position and am (I think) prepared to take it on. But, I don't know if a director position is a "step down" from the direction I want to move OR if it's a first and good step toward my goals. I'm not worried about a prestigious job title, I want to make a smart move in looking to be on the market in several years. I know 45 isn't "old," or so I'm told, but I'm terrified of making a mistake that derails my plans/mobility. Etc > salary would work out, though I'll need to teach one course a semester. I can return to current faculty position at any time. I worked 8am-5pm for almost two decades prior to college, I do worry about losing my (relative) freedom but usually put in 70 hours+ with grading; I actually find the life of a faculty member lonely and often miss the daily office environ. But still . . . Misc Rambling > I always thought I'd be an academic dean (and I probably would be within two years at my current place, I'm an "heir apparent") and it's been tough to admit that my passions now lie elsewhere. I thought I'd be delirious with joy when I accomplished faculty promo, tenure, and had an academic dean job on the horizon . . . ah, the ironies of life!

I’ll start by acknowledging that context matters -- which is to say, any given college may or may not fit industry norms.  And kudos on being willing to admit when your interests have shitfted; that isn’t always easy, especially when in a setting where nobody else’s have.  

It sounds like you’re in a pretty good spot, actually.  For many of us, making the jump from full-time faculty into administration involved choosing to work without a safety net.  You mention having the option of returning to teaching any time you want to, which is a great and rare luxury.  That takes a lot of the downside risk out of trying.

“Director” positions don’t have to be dead ends.  They’re typically one step “below” an associate dean or a dean -- on my campus, we don’t have associate deans -- and they usually have narrower scopes of control.  (For example, an admissions director might report to a dean of students or a vice president for student affairs.)  

In your case, since you’re coming from the faculty side but your ambitions are on the student affairs side, you’ll have to work to overcome suspicions that you’re “settling,” or that you were moved as an alternative to being fired.  (It’s been known to happen.)  Accepting and working well at a role like “director of transfer” could give you that credibility, as well as the direct experience that could give you a more informed perspective when you do start moving up the ladder, which may well involve changing institutions.  Although your direct work will be mostly with the more academic side of student affairs, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with folks in admissions, financial aid, and the like.  That kind of exposure is very difficult to get on a sustained basis from the academic side of the college.  Take advantage of it; you’ll need it to be effective in a deanship later.

After all, if it turns out to be a mistake, you can always move back.  That’s a real plus.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is this a workable plan, or is she setting herself up to be marooned?

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