Moving into administration: Should you stay or should you go?

Bobblehead
Credit: Shannon Hall

Observations from a new dean

So you are an effective teacher, and you have published or acquired funding for your research. You have served on multiple departmental and institutional committees, and you have moved through the faculty ranks to become a tenured associate or full professor. Those higher up in the academic food chain have noted your efforts, and you have been offered a position within the institution’s administration.
 
Administration! There, I’ve said it. This could mean being asked to become chair of your academic department or to become an associate dean, the director of an office (i.e., grants and sponsored programs) or — heaven forbid! — a dean.
 
Now you are faced with a decision many faculty members hope they can avoid: Should you stay in your comfortable world of teaching and research, or should you venture into the unknown realm of administration?
 
Many faculty members equate “administration” with a four-letter word, and those who cross the line are viewed as having gone over to the dark side! Faculty members often view administrators, deans, vice-presidents, provosts, chancellors and the like with suspicion and mistrust.

How you got here

The actual leap into administration can happen in a multitude of scenarios. Some faculty members are tapped as associate deans to help with special projects over a few semesters and then return to their normal faculty positions. A department chair may be a rotating position that is assumed by different members of a department on a regular basis (sometimes much less regularly).
 
So what if you are asked about the possibility of moving from the relative comfort and regular routine of being a faculty member and researcher to the netherworld of administration? While our graduate education taught us about a particular area of research, few graduate programs offer training to prepare graduate students to become faculty members. Pretty much no one really is prepared for an administrative position.
 
Fortunately, we scientists have great potential as administrators, because we generally have good organizational and analytical skills and our time in graduate school trained us to be good problem solvers.

What this means for you

There typically is a steep learning curve during the first year in which a new administrator simply is trying to learn the role. A new administrator must learn policies specific to the particular unit or units that he or she oversees and then be able to see the bigger picture of how that unit fits into the larger entity of the institution.
 
Running a research group can be good training for running a department or university unit. You have had to manage your group’s budget, and you will have similar responsibilities for your unit although on a much larger scale. Running a research group requires planning for managing multiple projects and personnel (students, postdocs, technicians). These experiences can be very helpful, but there are a number of duties in which most faculty members generally do not have experience before moving into administrative roles.
 
These duties include

  • • faculty hiring and evaluation (promotion and tenure),
  • • scheduling classes,
  • • program evaluation and accreditation (at the unit level and institutionally),
  • • building and growing new and existing programs,
  • • recruiting and marketing,
  • • evaluation and development of current and new policies, and
  • • dealing with student and faculty issues and complaints.
 

A different vantage point

Department chairs and deans are essentially middle managers who must listen to the needs and demands of those they supervise and those they answer to in the institutional chain of command. Transitioning from a faculty position to an administrative one requires that your priorities change. Becoming an administrator means trying to see both sides of an issue — from the faculty or student perspective as well as from the institutional side. Before moving into an administrative role, most faculty members have the luxury of taking only one side of an issue. Making those hard decisions requires a thorough understanding of policies related to the issue at hand and the processes in place for handling certain issues.
 
For instance, if a student files a complaint about a faculty member’s grading of an assignment or even the final grade for a course, the department chair or dean needs to know exactly what the policy and process for handling this type of situation requires. The administrator must follow the protocol as fairly as possible for all involved.
 
There also is the fear that you no longer will be viewed as one of the faculty even though most administrators still hold their faculty ranks and tenure privileges. Faculty members who become department chairs obviously are still faculty members, but they have new administrative duties and responsibilities. Depending on a department’s size and institutional policies, some chairs become full-time administrators, and some continue to teach and supervise their research groups. For positions higher up in administration, such as dean, the sense of suspicion and mistrust on the part of faculty members creeps into play, especially when hard decisions must be made with regard to tightening budgets for resources and personnel.

Navigating a minefield

So how do you gain or maintain the trust, or at least the respect, of faculty members? The key is to listen. When you have to make decisions that may not be popular, make sure faculty members and students understand the rationale used to make decisions. This is usually referred to as transparency. Some individuals or groups may not agree with a decision, but if you are honest and open about the decision-making process it will demonstrate that you listened and considered many positions on the subject along the way.
 
Administrative positions truly are service roles, or at least they should be viewed this way! When I became a department chair, I took on the view that my primary role was to be there to help solve other people’s problems — students’, faculty members’ and the institution’s problems. It wasn’t about me anymore. How could I help my department, our faculty, our students and the university? Do faculty members need time for projects? What resources do students or faculty members need? How can I help them succeed?

Special considerations

What are the conditions of the move? Will you be able to retain your faculty rank and privileges? Will you be able to return to the faculty once your term is over? What are the financial implications of and compensation for the move? Is there a stipend (typical for department chairs), or will you be signing an administrative contract (to become a dean, for instance)? If you accept an administrative contract, you are not likely to have the same time off faculty members often enjoy over breaks between academic terms.
 
What are the actual administrative duties? Developing budgets and making financial decisions that may affect students, faculty programs or departments? You need to ask yourself if you have the skills needed for whatever tasks are required. Do you have the confidence, and do you have a thick enough skin to handle the criticism that will undoubtedly follow?

My own experience

I have been a dean for about a year and a half. My first year was consumed primarily with learning about the programs and policies that I now am stewarding. This past semester seemed to be filled with solving student-related problems and issues. But I also have retained my faculty position and am teaching a half-time load of courses. This kind of split position is a bit unusual, and I often find myself switching hats in the middle of a conversation or meeting. Time management can be demanding, and it has been challenging in many different ways. But it is gratifying to help a young, growing group of academic programs.
 
So my advice to new administrators or anyone considering such a move is to ask why you would want to make the move and what you can contribute to the larger goals of your unit or institution. What do you bring to the table? What is your vision for your role, and how can you add to the institution’s initiatives?
 
And be prepared to attend more meetings — lots of meetings!
Ben CaldwellBen Caldwell (caldwell@missouriwestern.edu) is a professor of chemistry and dean of the Missouri Western State University Graduate School.

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