Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ask the Administrator: I Need a Pep Talk!

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a mid-level administrator (as in, Director who reports to a Dean who reports to a VP, etc.) who just made a huge leap from working at small, private 4-year colleges (< 1000 students) over the past 22 years to what is to me a much larger (7000 students), public, 2-year college. I was ready for a change and for better pay, but I've had some meltdown moments after work/on weekends a few times since I started 4 months ago that make me worry about just how huge this transition is for me. I should add that I am a single mom with a lovely senior in high school at home who is going through the college application process herself at this time, and the place where I took my new job is going through a major computer system conversion. Plus I have aging parents with health issues about 5 hours away--my siblings--who also have health issues--live there and help some with that, but it's still a source of worry. So obviously--a lot of transitions and potential sources of stress going on at one time here. I'm only 44, so it's way too early to retire, unfortunately :)

By now you're probably thinking, why is this woman writing to me and not, say, Dr. Phil? I just was hoping maybe you could give me some encouraging words about how if I can survive this first year, I'll be okay (words of wisdom from your vast administrative cc experience, etc., etc.). I know the computer conversion stress is a huge piece of it, but it's also getting used to the dynamics of things in this different system. The processes of trying to work through the computer conversion issues and learning the school itself are also turning up other problems that seem to need to be solved fairly soon. I'm feeling overwhelmed at times with this elephant that the old saying tells us to "eat one bite at a time". My last job change seemed less stressful to me, in my memory, although it involved picking up and moving with my then 6-year-old daughter alone to a different place 140 miles away where I knew nobody. But at least the work environment was a definite improvement all around from what I left, and I feel that I meshed in there fairly quickly and smoothly. But here, I took a job in the same town, so no move was involved, but it has just felt extremely rocky to me at times along the way. People are nice in general, but I don't feel the same kind of camaraderie with people that I had with some colleagues at my old job (that may be partially because I haven't been there all that long, but I also think there was a different kind of personality dynamic at my prior small, liberal arts college).

Well, I'll stop rambling now. Any advice or encouragement would be appreciated!

People who have never had to deal with ERP systems don’t know just how godawful they actually are. (I forget what ERP stands for. Enterprise Resource Planning? Extreme Royal Pain? Something like that.) ERP systems are the systems that do the nitty-gritty back-office functions of a college: student records, degree audits, registration, that kind of thing. They never, ever, ever, ever, under any circumstances, come hell or high water, work right. They’re the Yugos of software, but much more expensive.

If you haven’t been involved in the process of ERP migration, you can simulate it by watching several consecutive hours of C-SPAN while getting a root canal as your dentist serenades you with his Sinatra-flavored rendition of ‘My Humps.’ There is a special circle of hell reserved for the bastards who inflicted these upon an unsuspecting world.

Traumatized? Moi? Why do you ask?

You’re right that migrating systems is a unique horror, made the worse by the outside world’s utter indifference to it. The relatively good news is that it really is temporary. At some point, the new system will be up and the old system down, and the proverbial ‘dull roar’ will ensue.

On a more global level, sometimes it helps to review the big picture. In my case, The Boy was born shortly after I had become Associate Dean at Proprietary U, just at the peak of its enrollment. The Wife went back to work when TB was about four months old. That first year in admin was one of the most stressful of my life. The Wife later confessed that there were days when, on her way to work, she’d think about what would happen if she just kept driving. (I was relieved when she said it, because I had thought the exact same thing.) Every minute was tense. We were exhausted, frayed, broke, scared, clueless, and shocked at the whole thing. (9/11 happened right in the midst of it, which didn’t exactly lighten the mood, either.) It was awful.

And it went away.

Your daughter will go to college. Your systems will migrate. You will make friends. These things will happen over time. The job will get better, or it will form the experience base for another job that actually is better. You will respect yourself for having pulled through. There’s an old lyric to the effect that you don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues. William James had a line in The Varieties of Religious Experience about the wisdom available only to those who had “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste.” Nietzsche had one about how when you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares into you. You will gain wisdom, and strength, and self-awareness, and the quiet confidence available only to people who have faced reality and stared that mother down. Had I not been a teenage pariah, I wouldn’t have had the wisdom later to recognize the grace of my wife. Had I not spent my twenties dirt poor, I wouldn’t appreciate the very real blessings of suburbia. Having been kicked around, I know not to kick others.

If you have the ethics and life wisdom to come through a really stressful period with your humanity intact, you are absolutely the kind of person we need more of, in academic administration and in the world generally. You can do this.

And I’m told the shower is the best place to cry. No shame in that.

(Okay, I’m not Knute Rockne, but waddaya want?)

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