Monday, February 06, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Too Soon to Jump?

A new, recently-relocated correspondent writes:

I left Midwest State last summer to become a department chair at Historically Black Southern College. Without going into too much detail (mostly about teaching at a historically white institution to teaching at a historically black institution), I’m thinking that I made a very big mistake. The position of Department Chair is very interesting and challenging, and my identity as an academic and a professor has undergone some profound changes. But HBSC, like many historically black institutions, has more than its share of financial, administrative, and facilities problems. There’s some stuff I can change or control, but most stuff I can’t. For instance, I wish the fighting over resources wasn’t so damn bitter, but there are so few resources to go around in (my state) and people are scared that they’ll lose the little they have. However, there are other problems, like old regime vs. new regime and the ‘pig in a python’ metaphor describing nearly all of my department’s faculty, which has turned HBSC into a more vexing problem and less of a complex, interesting challenge.

So my question is: when is a good time to bail? Will my administrative skills be credible after two or three years? And should I look for another administrative position to replace this one, or can I go back to being full-time faculty? I’m at the Associate level, and I have a book coming out in Fall 2006. I’m hoping that these will make me more marketable. I need advice. (Can I also admit here that for the last ten years, I’ve been thinking on and off about chucking it all and joining the Foreign Service? Yes, Condi Rice would be my boss, but that can’t last forever.)

I’ve never worked at a Historically Black college or university, so my knowledge of them is pretty limited. All I’ll say to that is that they certainly have no monopoly on financial, administrative, or facilities problems.

That said, the real question here is what you should do next. In my experience, most faculty who move into administration don’t like it. (That’s one of the reasons that community college leaders are talking about an impending ‘leadership crisis,’ even as they face a labor surplus in the ranks of prospective faculty.) There are plenty of good reasons not to like it: increased hours on campus, more exposure to other people’s issues, constant cost pressures, inability to duck personality conflicts, snarky attitudes from faculty who uncritically assume that all administrators are just failed scholars, etc. (For more examples, just keep reading my blog for a while!) It’s definitely not for everyone.

If you’re still in your first year as a chair, and you have a book coming out, I see no reason that you couldn’t be a credible candidate for a faculty position (depending on the market in your field at a given time). If fighting for resources and dealing with other people’s crap really bothers you, faculty is probably the right role for you. I have several former deans among my faculty, most of whom couldn’t be persuaded by any legal means to try it again. Depending on the department, a professor with some administrative experience might actually be preferable to one without, especially if the department is looking for someone to be the coordinator of a small internal program. Since your adopted state was one of the ones hit hard by Katrina, you could always cite the post-Katrina crises as your reason for wanting to leave, and nobody could fault you for that.

If you want to stay in administration but in a different setting, one year is probably too quick. Responding to ads now, you’d have a big six months of administrative experience, which is less than most interim chairs have. From a dean’s perspective, I’m not going to hire someone to a chairmanship who was overwhelmed in his first year of chairing elsewhere. Yes, the situation at your college may be uniquely difficult, but these jobs are difficult generally. If you jump that quickly, I’d take it (fairly or unfairly) as a sign that you can’t take a punch. If you want to move into a chairmanship at another college, I’d strongly recommend toughing it out at HBSC for at least another year or two.

(One of the perks of administrative positions, perversely enough, is that it’s remarkably hard to measure performance from the outside. Even a below-average chair, with a few years’ experience, looks better than a new candidate, simply because the below-average chair at least has some experience. Yes, it means that a distressing number of uninspired retreads carve out careers in these roles. But there are also enough commonalities between managerial roles at different places that a dean can be relatively certain that someone who has put in some time has seen much of it before.)

If you’re not sure yet, and there’s no emergency (family, financial, that sort of thing), I’d recommend sticking it out for another year. Let the book come out, and ride that wave. At the very least, you’ll get over the shell-shock of the first year of managing and have a better idea whether the problem is the location or the role itself. If the problem is really the location, you’ll be better positioned as a candidate with a little more experience behind you. If the problem is that you just hate the role, then by all means, escape.

As for the Foreign Service, I have absolutely no idea.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.