Thursday, April 12, 2007

Same Planet, Different Worlds

There's a great old Far Side cartoon captioned “Same planet, different worlds,” in which a guy is seen daydreaming “I wonder what she thinks of me,” or something to that effect, and the girl is shown daydreaming “you know, I like vanilla.”

I had a flashback to that reading this nugget of wisdom from Kiplinger's.

Apparently, “Higher Education Administrator” is one of the 7 Great Careers for 2007, along with orthodontist, landscape architect, and librarian.


The author, with Cool Careers for Dummies to his credit (and I'm not making that up), claims that:

A college campus is among of (sic) the most pleasant and stimulating work environments. And with education ever more viewed (ouch) as the magic pill, longer legions of students (beware short legions, I guess) are lining up to enroll. That means a better job market for you.


Okay, a few concessions. It's true that when I get all crabby about my job, I think back to the ice factory, and decide that this is better. And sometimes I watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, and give thanks that I don't have to vacuum out septic tanks. And yes, a college campus can be a very pleasant place to stroll. I'll even concede that the grounds on my campus are genuinely lovely, and that on a beautiful day a quick walk between buildings is a pleasure.

And, to be fair, the author singles out student affairs administration, as opposed to the academic side of the house. It's probably more fun to organize Spring Fest than to nag department chairs about outcomes assessment.

Still, I really have to wonder. Would I recommend higher ed administration to a career changer, someone looking to recapture that lost spark of youth?

Uh, no.

On the academic side, the years of preparation are staggering. You have to go through the standard training for a professor, then be a professor for a while, then work your way up. (At 38, I'm still considered freakishly young. In how many lines of work would that be true?) At every turn, people with lifetime tenure and higher salaries than your own will accuse you of all manner of selfishness. You will be charged with managing people whose jobs and salaries don't depend on you. Your very existence will be taken by many as an affront. You will be blamed personally for large structural trends far beyond your control, usually in tones of aggrieved self-righteousness. You will receive an academic-scale salary for a forty-plus hour week, twelve-months-per-year gig. Since performance is hard to calibrate objectively, you will be considered expendable when the political winds shift.

It's also criminally stupid to think that enrollment is the sole driver of employment. If that were true, faculty jobs would be thick on the ground. The primary reason for the comparatively high percentage of openings in administration at any given time is the staggering attrition rate, not all of it voluntary.

Regular readers of this blog can tick off a list of reasons that a sane person would avoid this line of work. The downside, of course, is that when the sane walk out, the insane are left behind.

I stick with it because I think I'm good at it, and I'm not convinced that many are. As a faculty brat – my Dad met my Mom when he was her T.A. -- I feel a commitment to the profession, and to higher education generally. And there are some projects, programs, and experiments I think would be worth trying, that I want someday to be in a position to attempt. It's genuinely gratifying when you see a project bear fruit, or a new hire turn out great, or a buried treasure come back to life.

But would I advise a burned-out stockbroker to give this a shot? Oh my God, no. No, no, no. I don't know who this “Marty Nemko” character is, but I'd venture to guess he's never been a dean. If this is what he thinks deaning is like, he should stick to vanilla.