Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Draft, or, How to Get an Administrative Job

One of the more annoying tasks I have to perform is to nominate (i.e. draft) faculty to serve on various campus committees. Nobody looks forward to the tap on the shoulder, and much of the general frustration faculty have with administration comes from it.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several vacancies to fill, none of them especially attractive. There’s no really graceful way to handle it. If I pick people who generally avoid these things like the plague, I get reports back from the committee chairs that Professor so-and-so never attended the meetings. Alternately, sometimes I’ll challenge a malcontent to put up or shut up by placing him on a committee that grinds his particular ax. Professor Cranky will respond in one of three ways: outright refusal (tenure means never having to say you’re sorry), skipping every meeting, or, worst of all, attending every meeting and being such an antisocial presence that his eventual removal is welcomed on all sides.

The easiest method is to go back, again and again, to the few good soldiers (and/or the folks who don’t have tenure yet). It works great the first time you do it, but over time, it’s not sustainable. Picking mostly on the untenured means that you lose the benefit of experienced voices, and you ratify the cultural expectation that tenure means on-the-job retirement. Picking on the few good soldiers effectively punishes them for being helpful, and rewards the laggards for lagging. Over time, the ranks of the willing thin out.

I’ve been corresponding with an academic blogger who is thinking of moving from faculty to administration. In composing my advice, I realized that the strategy I used to make the move was pretty effective, and I’ve never seen anyone else use it: volunteer. Go to your chair or dean, and actually volunteer for projects. Make the draft unnecessary.

I did that, explaining to my then-dean that I was interested in testing the administrative waters, and that I would appreciate the opportunity to try. He seemed shocked, which I now understand, but that started the ball rolling.

If you’re basically sane, and you play well with others, I’d be shocked to see an offer like that go unanswered for any length of time. From a dean’s perspective, the chance to avoid a really unpleasant dilemma is very, very tempting. If a junior-ish faculty member steps up and asks to help with outcomes assessment, or a retention initiative, or whatever, my dilemma evaporates immediately, and that professor gains the kind of experience that helps make a subsequent leap plausible. S/he also gets a chance to find out if administrative work is actually more to her/his taste, which it isn’t for most.

If you want to test the waters, dodge the draft, and volunteer.