Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ask the Administrator: Should I Participate?

A returning correspondent writes:

I'm a faculty member at a not-particularly-prestigious university with ambitions / pretensions as a research institution. Management has recently proclaimed a series of new strategic goals, all of which sound to me like so many meaningless management platitudes. Well, to address the strategic goal of "developing national culture, civic engagement and international cooperation," some of my colleagues, apparently responding to incentives, have put together a proposal for an "Institute of International Public Cooperation"  

The stated goals of this would-be institute consist of further platitudes. They want to liaise with stakeholders, further global justice, enhance research quality and, most tellingly, "attract external funding."  Their short term goals include things like "identifying potential partners," "establishing a working party," and "discussing the proposal" with various administrative bigwigs. They also want to "foster innovative linkages both globally and locally." Well, you get the idea.

As a scholar with no administrative ambitions, my gut instinct is to ignore the whole thing as a waste of time. But what does this initiative look like from an administrator's point of view? I want to appear a team player, and I actually do want to do my fair share of administrative work. Do you think it's worthwhile to ... well, put my name down? to attend a couple meetings I feel confident will be a waste of time, but should I look in a few times just in case they're not? Much of my institution's managerial language strikes me as a secret code that I haven't learned: what do you rate the chances of finding meaningful content hidden beneath the jargon? Have I become cynical about management-speak before my time? And, even assuming my skepticism is justified, how do you think administrators value participation in this sort of thing?

I’ll start by acknowledging that context matters.  That refers both to the institution as a whole and to the personalities involved.  And I’ll lodge my usual complaint against the verb “liaise.”  

That said, a few thoughts.

Yes, administration comes with its own jargon.  (So does teaching, for that matter.)  Buzzwords can signify a lack of “there” there, or they can simply be convenient shorthand.  Frequently they’re references to original sources, such as accreditation requirements or findings from past reports.  Sometimes they’re necessary for funding purposes, as when a grant funder requires the use of certain terms.  As jargon goes, “identifying potential partners” doesn’t strike me as all that bad.  I’ve seen much worse.  I wouldn’t let some stilted or non-intuitive language scare you off.  If anything, learning the ways that your local administration uses those terms can be empowering, whether on offense (getting what you want) or on defense (figuring out just what, exactly, they’re talking about).

As with any new language, immersion is the fastest way to learn it.

As a general rule, administrators are favorably disposed towards projects that generate income and/or constructive external relationships.  If the ‘center’ is able to attract grant funding, or to partner with some external groups that your college sees as valuable, then the folks who run the center will win favor.  It’s easy to read that cynically, but there’s a rationality to it.  Internal discretionary money is chronically short, and getting shorter; someone who taps into significant external sources to take care of, say, travel and professional development leaves more of the internal money for everyone else.  That seems worth rewarding.

I’ll also note that succession planning is often a real issue in administration, so the better managers try to develop deep benches.  Stepping up and trying your hand at some level of management shows initiative, and gives you a track record.  If it turns out that you have an aptitude and a taste for it -- don’t laugh, it could happen -- you’ve put yourself in a position where you’ll have more career options.  In the economic climate of today’s higher education, having more options is not a bad thing.

On the other side, if your co-leaders are just awful or the project strikes you as clearly doomed, then the only reasonable thing to do would be to steer clear.  Context matters.

In my experience, many of the best academic administrators never intended to be administrators at all.  They started as faculty, and moved into administration because they cared about creating and sustaining an environment in which education could be done right.  Motivation matters.  Initial skepticism is entirely reasonable.

Whether this particular one makes sense for you personally is your call, but I’d suggest taking the opportunity seriously.  It may open doors.  If it doesn’t, how much have you lost, really?

Good luck!  Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

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