Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Marked for Life?

A new correspondent writes:

This is something I have been thinking about for about 6 months, but your two columns about administrators and faculty really reflected the observations I've had about both positions. I am currently an administrator at a good sized community college in an urban/suburban area (we are in a county wrapped around a major city). I am not an academic administrator, but work in professional development. I have been in this position for [a few] years, and before that spent [more] years teaching at this same college, in a variety of pt/ft positions, but never tenure-track (proves you don't have to be tenure-track to move into the administration...)

My experiences are really very similar to what you noted in your columns- and while able to do it quite well, I really don't enjoy being an administrator. I am hoping to return to the ranks of the teaching faculty. I am adjuncting again for my former department, and enjoying the teaching and students, and the elemental differences in the job itself.

The question really is: is my administrative experience a hindrance to finding a tenure-track teaching job? I think this experience has been very valuable, and has informed my understanding of teaching, as well as my understanding of a college as a whole. But not everyone thinks the way I do...

Any thoughts? I know that any tenure-track job is a rare prize... I just wonder if I am now at even more of a disadvantage.

Based on the few cases I’ve seen, I’ll give two slightly contradictory answers. One, it depends. Each search committee is different. Some would treat administrative experience as toxic; some would see it as an asset; and some wouldn’t care much one way or the other. Since there’s no way to know in advance which committees are which, I say just go for it and see what happens.

The second answer, which may be in slight tension with the first, is that administrative experience is likelier to be held against you at your home institution than at a new one. At the home institution, you carry the baggage -- fairly or unfairly -- of association with The Administration and all that entails. At another campus, though, you have skills and experience that you’ve gained in that role, but without the baggage.

The advantage for a department in hiring faculty from administration is that the department knows that you have the skills. You can be counted on to step up for projects when needed, which means that the incumbent faculty won’t have to. Having a workhorse around can come in handy.

From my side of the desk, the great appeal of former administrators is both the broader skill set and the broader perspective they bring. Having seen the world from here, they’re much less likely to fall into the exaggerated expectations/exaggerated blame cycle that so many do. They have a more realistic sense of how colleges actually work, which means they’re less likely to generate drama and more likely to get things done. Yes, those are broad strokes, but they’ve held pretty consistently in the cases I’ve seen.

As with graduate students from elite programs, the great danger is in giving the impression that your return to teaching is a form of stepping down or slowing down. Search committees at this level are keenly attuned to attitude, and will shoot down otherwise-desirable candidates on the basis of perceived arrogance. As in any job hunt, the focus shouldn’t be on the job you had, but on the job you want. What is it about teaching that calls to you? And are you willing to put in the level of effort consistent with a new vocation, rather than a consolation prize?

Good luck! I hope you’re able to find a role in which you can be happy.

Wise and worldly readers, I suspect that a candidate like this might be received differently in different settings. What counsel would you offer?

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