Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"It's Not the Dark Side. It Just Sucks."

This comment by Dr. Crazy about yesterday's post stuck with me. In explaining – very clearly – why she refused to move into administration, she noted that much of what attracted her to academia is precisely what keeps her out of administration. Instead of teaching and doing research, both of which she enjoys, she'd have to spend her time in committee meetings and dealing with recalcitrant colleagues. Plus, she'd have to do it eight-plus hours a day, five days a week, twelve months a year.

Some other commenters made similar points, if with different emphases. One put it quite bluntly, asking just what, exactly, makes this job worth doing.

I had to think about that one for a while.

It's certainly true that the day-to-day work of deaning is very different from the day-to-day work of faculty. There's far less autonomy, whether in terms of choosing tasks, making decisions, or even setting your own schedule. I didn't realize how much I valued time flexibility until I had lost it. Suddenly even banal stuff like oil changes and haircuts took planning.

Several people mentioned a lack of mentoring, which I've absolutely found to be true. Even more astonishing to me was how quickly people expected me to know things. I got asked “what's the procedure for...?” for things I didn't even know happened. (I also got the opposite – “how was this decision made?” – whenever someone didn't like the answer.)

Academic culture tolerates a level of open insubordination and contrapower harassment that simply does not exist in any other established field. That can be rough on neophytes. Reading the blogs, you'd think that so many “gadflies” would made academia the sanest, justest workplace in the whole wide world.

I'll just let that one sink in for a minute.

Worse, new deans and chairs often discover, sometimes quite quickly, that many people with lingering grievances against an institution or an entire industry will treat you as a synecdoche, and unload on you. I get this on the blogs all the time. As the only academic administrator who actually writes about adjunctification in a serious and sustained way, I get treated as some sort of class enemy by armies of embittered adjunct activists. They're deeply wrong – anyone who has read my stuff for the last several years knows that I'm opposed to the tenure/adjunct dyad, and anyone who works with me IRL wouldn't recognize the caricatures – but the libel serves a political purpose, so it survives. Someone has to be the common enemy, whether he’s actually an enemy or not.

Similar things happen on campus. If you like being accused of things you had no part in doing, go into administration. If I had a nickel for every conversation that went like this:

Prof: Why did you make this awful decision?

Me: I didn’t. One of my predecessors did. In 1980.

Prof: Well, The Administration did this...

I’d be a wealthy man.

So with all of that said, why do I keep doing this? And would I encourage others to do it too?

For all the doom and gloom above, I actually like my job most of the time.

Some of that is location-specific. It took a couple of tries to find the right college. Some wells are simply toxic, and need to be abandoned. There is such a thing as cutting losses.

But some of it is real gratification at seeing a culture change for the better.

Success in administrative roles is often more vicarious and subtle than in the classroom. My most satisfying moments are when people realize that the climate has changed to the point that it has become safe to act as their best selves, rather than cowering in fear of the next (often sideways) attack. When I see people actually tell truths, rather than adopting the usual poses, I see it as a win. When people come out of their silos and work in productive collaborations that they simply would not have a few years ago, it’s a win.

It’s frustrating to work towards that kind of change on campus, only to have state budget pressures intrude. But one can do only what one can do.

I’m increasingly convinced that good leadership is as much about temperament as about anything else. My sense of administrative “vision” is not “we will have the highest graduation rate in the state,” or “we will have the best program in X in the region.” It’s more like “we’ll have a workplace in which the best ideas can win, and experimentation is rewarded.” Actually seeing that start to happen has been gratifying. The most appealing part is that it’s cumulative; cool experiments lead to more cool experiments. We’ve got one on campus now that’s so )$#(*^%&#^%_! cool that if it wouldn’t blow the pseudonym, I’d spend a full week writing about nothing but that. It’s the fruit of years of deliberate climate change, and it’s sending an unmistakably positive message to the rest of the campus. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, and I take real pride in that.

Would I recommend this to others? In many settings, no. But if you have the right local climate, and the right vision, and serious tenacity, and the ability to distance yourself from personal attacks, and a strong sense of why you’re doing it, then maybe.

Which may explain the small applicant pools...