Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Swimming Upstream

A new correspondent writes:

I am thinking of making a change in my career path. I am a non-tenure track, full time instructor, starting my 8th year in this job. While I enjoy my job and it is reasonably stable even in a terrible economy & job market, it is obviously untenable as a seriously-long-term career option. But I really like working in a University community and I want to find a way to stay in that environment.

I have also done some administrative work at this same campus and find that I am reasonably good at it and willing to do it (boring meetings, aside, and yes I know there are lots of those). And the work is never-ending, it seems. So I am considering going back to school and getting an MA (possibly PhD) in Higher Ed Admin from a well-regarded program. Now admitting this to fellow faculty on my campus would be like announcing that I have an undesirable social disease. The relationship between faculty and administrators on our campus is pretty toxic and "switching sides" is typically not looked upon with favor. So I'm here seeking outside input. Good idea/bad idea? Why?

I’m pretty sure the modifier “undesirable” coming before the noun “social disease” is redundant, but never mind that.

Depending on the branch of administration you’d like to enter, your plan might work. In my observation, though, people in those programs are usually already in some sort of administrative position, and are pursuing the credential in order to move up; an assistant director of admissions wants to become a director, say. That way, they can do their ‘fieldwork’ on their own campus.

Higher Ed Admin degrees don’t always get the same level of respect from faculty that degrees in traditional academic disciplines do, but that shouldn’t matter if you’re in, say, Student Services. I’m told that in some regions of the country, this isn’t as true as it is in the Northeast, either, but I’m open to correction on that.

In terms of employability, you may well find the job market in administration easier than the job market for faculty, depending on discipline. Of course, one rarely-noted reason for that is the dramatically higher turnover rate in administrative jobs. More firing leads to more hiring. (What this suggests about the effects of tenure on faculty hiring, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Since you don’t have a tenured position anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about increased risk.

The undertone of the question, though, is about braving public disapproval. Is it worth the opprobrium to pursue an opportunity?

At some level, of course, only you can answer that. But I’ve been in that spot myself, and I can attest that curbing your own ambitions to satisfy the embittered is a losing proposition. They won’t be satisfied anyway -- they never are -- and your sacrifice will gain the world exactly nothing. (If you don’t become the next Assistant Dean, someone else will.) Taken to its logical conclusion, the “never cross over” perspective quickly becomes absurd.

Suppose you do sacrifice yourself on the altar of other people’s crankiness. When your position gets cut, will they defend you?

Academics tend to have been good students, and good students are often people pleasers. But you need to be willing to do what you need to do. If you decide, upon reflection, that administration isn’t what you want, then by all means stay away. But if you think it suits you -- you like the environment, you’re good at it, and you can see the contribution that good administration makes -- then I wouldn’t pay too much heed to the naysayers. Absorb the parts of their critique that could help you do your job better, but don’t let it stop you from trying in the first place. The more thoughtful critics of administration will usually concede that it’s better to have smart administrators than dumb ones; if you have it in you to be a smart one, and the idea appeals to you, I say go for it.

Besides, there’s no law saying you have to work at the same college forever. Getting the credential could help you find work elsewhere, where you would come in already having crossed over; ‘betrayal’ wouldn’t enter into it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Should s/he tune out the naysayers, or is there something critical that I’ve missed?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.