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How Professors Become Administrators, or, Where Did We Go Wrong?

Tomorrow's Academy

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If you can live comfortably with that characteristic of universities, you might find administration interesting, and perhaps even rewarding. If you cannot accept it, but still choose to become an administrator, the university will eventually break your heart.


The posting below looks at some factors to consider before deciding to accept an administrative position. It is from Chapter 1, How Professors Become Administrators, or, Where Did We Go Wrong?, in Confessions of an Habitual Administrator: An Academic Survival Manual, by Paul T. Bryant. Copyright © 2005 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-882982-86-X Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 563 Main Street

P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA []. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Graduate Dean as Pope?

Tomorrow's Academia

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How Professors Become Administrators, or, Where Did We Go Wrong?

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for this by wisdom.

-Edmund Burke

Bryant's Second Law of Academic Administration

Always be aware that a university has no memory and no conscience.

If you can live comfortably with that characteristic of universities, you might find administration interesting, and perhaps even rewarding. If you cannot accept it, but still choose to become an administrator, the university will eventually break your heart.

The university's lack of memory or conscience is, of course, a function of the people there, and the way universities are run. Decision-makers, particularly in the impersonal context of a committee, may neither know nor care about any previous behavior or any previous commitments made by others.

For example, years of faithful and effective service to a university will carry no weight with a selection committee or a president seeking to fill an administrative position. They will base their decisions on whether or not the candidate will serve what they (sometimes erroneously) believe to be their best interests. A candidate who shows any sign of putting principle before their interests may be out of the running. Sometimes this works especially against internal candidates because they already know where the bodies are buried and what scams are being operated. They may also know about those awkward earlier commitments and obligations. By the same token, a selection committee may know, or think it knows, how an internal candidate will perform and what principles she or he will act upon. It often may seem safer to bring in the outsider who is not so well informed and who shows signs of being amenable to the committee's views. In any case, we all know the old saw about an expert being someone from out of town.

It is true that individual administrators, and individual members of policymaking committees, have consciences, and some will heed them. But unless they are unusually persuasive, courageous, and tenacious, they will likely be pushed aside by the impersonality of the decision-making process. This is not peculiar to universities. It is characteristic of any large organization, be it corporate, governmental, educational, or military. Ironically, the more broadly democratic the process, the more impersonal it is likely to be.

Personal Costs

If, on the other hand, the internal candidate is selected (usually the internal candidate comes at a lower cost), he or she, once in the position, will find that past associations, friendships, favors, good deeds, integrity of behavior, or other exemplary characteristics, have no influence on his or her status. It is as if the administrator, by entering such a position, has been reborn with no past history. Trusted as a colleague before, the new administrator is suddenly suspect in any action or decision.

This change in status was drive home for me when I first became the acting chair of my department. I had served as an assistant to the previous department chair, as a favor to help him at his request. When he abruptly resigned in the middle of a semester, the dean and various members of the department put enormous pressure on me to serve as acting chair. Given the turmoil in the department at that time, I very much did not want to have a grapple with its problems. Finally, after two high-pressure meetings with the dean, and with the perhaps foolish belief that I might be able to hold the departmental situation together until a new chair could be found, I reluctantly agreed.

No sooner had the news of my acceptance gotten around than one of my better friends in the department stopped by to tell me I had his support. I was pleased to know that, until his final observation. He said that of course anyone who takes on an administrative job does so for the power and thenceforth is not to be trusted. He wanted me to know that he realized that, but thought I might be marginally better than the average. I protested that I had no interest in power (I don't even like to give a student a final grade). I was taking the job to try to help the department, which was in considerable disarray, and which was losing credibility with the rest of the university. He would hear none of it. He was convinced I wanted to exercise power and that administrators are not to be trusted. I had clearly fallen from the ranks of the blessed. This taint may even carry beyond an individual's time of administrative service. I recall an occasion when a faculty council was debating the acceptance of a revised procedure for faculty grievances. The proposed new system had been developed by an elected committee of the faculty. A group of faculty made an impassioned plea against adopting the new system purely on the ground that it had been developed by a committee that included two former department chairs! Apparently the mark of Cain was still on their brows. I should add that the majority of the council voted to adopt the new system.

This sudden change of status reaches into personal as well as "official" relationships. For example, when participating in easy banter as a colleague, the new administrator must suddenly be careful of the most joking remark because it is perceived as having administrative power behind it and just might be serious. The only acceptable humor from an administrator is that which is self-deprecating. Anything else is threatening, a veiled wielding of power. The amusing dry wit of a colleague has, with that colleague's assumption of administrative responsibility, become ominous, indirect coercion.

Mr. Hyde has suddenly emerged from kindly old Dr. Jeckyll's laboratory. The Second Law is in full effect: no memory and no conscience.

The Professional Cost

If the professor, by turning administrator, gains more enhanced ability to influence the working of the university, what beyond personal relationships is lost? Professionally, as a teacher and scholar/researcher, there are also losses. Sometimes a prominent professor is placed as a figurehead in an administrative position to enhance the prestige of the institution. Such a "star" will often be given assistants to actually do the administrative work. And once in a great while there is that gifted individual who can continue to do prolific research, publish prestigiously, occasionally teach a class brilliantly, and still fill a real administrative post effectively, but those are rare. Most administrative positions, if taken seriously and responsibly, require hard work, time, and energy that cannot then be spent on preparing to teach or on research and publication. Just finding time to read the journals and stay current in an academic field can become a challenge.

One solution to this problem, a solution pursued by a good many administrators, is to let administrative responsibilities go untended instead of taking them seriously. I recall hearing a presentation by a graduate dean of a major state university. He was to explain, for the benefit of other deans, how he had solved a major administrative problem at his institution. The rest of us were expected to benefit from his tutoring.

The problem, which had begun to develop at least months and probably years earlier, was a major backlog of applications for graduate admission. His office had normally assembled the application materials, checked them for completeness, reviewed them against the university's basic graduate admission requirements (undergraduate degree, grade point average, standardized test scores, and so on), and then referred the completed application file to the individual departments for a final decision. The fact that a huge backlog of applications had developed over a period of time, without the dean becoming aware of it sooner, suggested that the dean was not involved in the day-to-day functioning of his office. But once the problem was called to his attention as a crisis, he quickly developed a solution. His solution was to hand all of those troublesome processing chores over to the individual departments (without reducing his own staff or increasing theirs). When an application came in, it was sent, unchecked, to the relevant department. A neat solution to any administrative problem, apparently, is to give that problem to someone else to solve. Pass the buck.

On the other hand, an administrator who takes the job seriously (responsibly) will find it necessary to invest significant time and energy in doing it. The result, of course, is that the administrator is on a diverging professional path from the professor. To pursue our earlier metaphor, the amphibious administrator will be increasingly out of the swim and stranded on dry land.

An administrator should continue to teach and to do research, if only to be reminded regularly of the trials and tribulations of the faculty day by day, and to keep in mind what the university is there for. Such activities also give the administrator some slight credibility with the faculty. But it is not possible to maintain the same level of intensity and productivity as a full-time teacher and scholar. Year by year, that difference becomes wider in total productivity, until finally it is very difficulty to go back to the other career. For young faculty members considering the administrative route, I suggest they first wait until they are tenured, and then that they not commit to more than a year, or two at most, at the outset. One year out of an academic career can be made up, perhaps two, if the administrative life does not seem congenial. Five years and the gap begins to be very wide.

Becoming an Administrator

If, with these caveats in mind, the young faculty member still would like to explore the administrative path, how should he or she go about it? One way is to be organized, well informed (not just gossip), and responsible in faculty governance. Be willing to serve on a reasonable number of faculty committees. When serving on committees, attend meetings regularly, carry out assigned tasks faithfully and on time, understand how faculty governance works, and participate in helpful, positive ways in faculty deliberations. A good friend (an organizational psychologist) once told me that if you want to be made chair of a new committee, come to the first committee meeting with a clipboard. Show, in other words, that you are organized and prepared to keep track of what the committee is doing. In essence, that is the idea. Such behavior will make a faculty member's name pop up when administrative assignments are being considered. Stability, responsibility, and good sense are sometimes valued, even at universities.