Thursday, February 19, 2015


“To the Dark Side”

Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s piece this week encouraging faculty to try their hands at academic administration struck a chord with me.  

Just be prepared, when you cross over, to learn that things may look different from here.

For example, in settings with low trust between faculty and administration, it’s common for each to refer to the other as a single entity sharing one brain, like The Borg.  But from within either, it quickly becomes apparent that the category consists of many interdependent actors, each with different angles on the world and often with different goals.  Yes, some general trends hold, but anyone who imagines The Administration as a single will doesn’t get it.  From within, the ability to work across silos is both important and rare.  

You’ll also find that conversational styles change.  Incisive critique for its own sake isn’t helpful in getting things done, so it’s devalued.  That can be jarring for someone coming from a field in which the most astringent critic wins.  From within, there’s a premium on finding workarounds.  It’s closer to engineering than to “pure” science.

And the number of variables increases exponentially.  That was probably the single biggest shock.  All of a sudden, you have to consider far more angles than you did within the relative autonomy of a classroom.  The trick is keeping a sense of true north while maintaining a three-dimensional awareness of ripple effects.  

That’s where some administrators fail.  With so many dimensions to consider, it can be tempting to look for this year’s panacea.  It offers the gratification of clarity, and the tempting prospect of mastery (or at least effective agency).  The more effective administrators figure out that some problems are more amenable to progress than to revolution.  Some problems will have to wait while others get addressed; that isn’t always a sign of indifference or ignorance.  Having a consistent ethical base to bring coherence to those situational choices is a delicate balance, but it matters.  Without that, it’s easy to fall prey either to the flavor of the month, or to unethical shortcuts that inevitably backfire over time.

All of that said, having a classroom perspective in mind can certainly help.  The point of academic administration is to set the background conditions against which faculty and students can do their best work.  Knowing what that looks like -- what matters and what doesn’t -- can only help.  It’s a difficult job to do well, given resource constraints and the legacies of decisions made before in other circumstances, but which are still binding.  Having a clear sense of the point of it all, and what that entails, can only help.

The “dark side” imagery is so pervasive in higher ed that we sometimes forget that it isn’t found in most industries. In most lines of work, seeking promotion isn’t considered immoral or odd.  In this one, it is.  If we want good people in these roles -- and we do -- then we seriously need to rethink the taboo.  It can scare away good people, and thereby become self-reinforcing.

In the community, parents and prospective students don’t distinguish between “the administration” and “the faculty.”  They see the college as a whole.  In a really important way, they’re right.  Making that idea feel real on the ground may require encouraging some capable faculty to give the prospect of administration serious consideration.  I hope they do.  There’s plenty of work to be done, and I’m always happy to work with smart people with the right motives.

The “dark side” imagery is so pervasive in higher ed that we sometimes forget that it isn’t found in most industries. In most lines of work, seeking promotion isn’t considered immoral or odd.

Workers in most industries don't regard management with suspicion and distrust? Tell that to the west coast dock workers currently on strike. Or the NYPD rank-and-file on their recent de facto go-slow strike. Or. Or. Or.

My wife is an administrator, which gives me a certain amount of sympathy for the challenges of the work, and allows me to some extent a vicarious birds-eye perspective of the university. Nevertheless, I look around and see an awful lot of administrators with no vision whatsoever except for building their resume for their next promotion. I wish they all were as thoughtful and well intentioned as the persona Dean Dad projects on this blog...
A long time ago, I wrote a piece about how administrative work was intellectual work. It's about solving problems, some of them quite difficult. I might be moving to the dark side soon. I welcome the challenge.
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