Joining the Dark Side, Part 2: Why Not?

IUnknownn my previous post I talked about the reasons why faculty might want to go into academic administration (chair, dean, director, provost, etc.) Some of those reasons are good ones and some are not – the kind of administrator you become is in part a function of the motivations you carry into the job.

What you get out of administration can also affect your longevity in it. As Anakin Skywalker proved, even becoming Darth Vader isn’t an irreversible process. Most folks who go into administration can go back again – there is no River Styx that, once crossed, cannot be crossed again. So if you end up not liking it, escape is possible.

Before you take that step, however, it makes sense to think not only about why you’re doing it and what you might gain but also what you might have to give up. Most things in life involve value trade-offs, and moving from faculty to administration is no different. Here is a list of some of the things you can expect to cough up in exchange for your new-found administrative position (with commentary):

  • Autonomy: Faculty, especially tenured faculty, have a lot of control over what they do, when, and how. They are free to voice their opinions, debate vigorously, and pretty much make up their own minds about things. Yes, a department chair can make an individual faculty’s life miserable – but the same is true in reverse. Administrators, on the other hand, report to superiors in a way very different from the faculty/chair relationship. As an administrator, you have to be able to salute and carry out orders, whether you agree with them or not. A recent cautionary tale at the University of Saskatchewan shows just how stark this reality can be.

This strikes different people in different ways. Some folks go into academia because they really like the autonomy – once you’re a tenured faculty member, you can tell a lot of folks to shove off and you can express your thoughts largely without filter, and some people find that very important. If you are considering moving over into administration, do not underestimate the willingness of senior administrators to not only tell you what to do and how to do it, but to tell you what to say and not say. You are putting yourself at the mercy of people higher up the food chain – be aware of the vulnerability, and make sure that you know who you’ll be working for and how they are likely to use that power.

 

  • Close Friendships with Colleagues: One of the things administrators do is make decisions about resources (see previous post). When you control the purse strings or the policy decisions (or even when others think you do), people will come to you wanting things. These people may be your former colleagues, folks with whom you have built solid friendships over time. So long as you are an administrator with some control over stuff they want and/or care about, those friendships are going to change. They will be less close, and you will be forced to distance yourself, both to keep yourself from being manipulated and to protect yourself from charges of favoritism (or worse).

Depending on the friendships you have with your colleagues, this may really stink. I’ve read in others’ articles that becoming chair may be the worst shift here, because you have to fashion new relationships with the very same people you’ve been palling around and going to bars with for the last 10 years. In my case, I made a “jump-shift” – I moved into administration by moving to a new institution, which meant I could build relationships from the ground up from the point of view of my new position. If you are staying at the same place, don’t expect your (former) colleagues to understand this dynamic right away. And be prepared to take responsibility for this process – help your friends understand why things are different. You can alleviate a lot of hurt feelings if you go into the change with your eyes open.

 

  • The Ability to Say “No”: Because of the autonomy mentioned above, faculty can largely pick and choose what they do. It’s true that untenured assistant professors don’t have quite as much of this freedom, but that’s within boundaries. Faculty can say no to additional or extraneous projects, decide which emails to respond to and which phone calls to return, and pretty much set their own agenda. Not so with administrators – you have to deal with whatever comes through the door, whether you like it or not. You have to listen to every story – without interrupting or calling the speaker an idiot – and you have to take everything seriously. This doesn’t mean you won’t end up saying “no” to a lot of requests – sometimes, that may make up the bulk of your job – but you can’t avoid people the way you can as a faculty member.

The thing about being in administration is that your scope suddenly broadens out. As a faculty member, you are responsible for a pretty narrow set of things – yourself, your research, and your students. Administrators are expected to get involved in a lot of things, some of which may have no direct benefit to you. If you’re particularly attached to control of your own agenda, this can be a real drag. If, on the other hand, you like being helpful and dealing with lots of different things (see the previous post re: novelty as a value), this may not be so bad. But understand – the days of making yourself scarce, hiding in your office with the door closed, and otherwise being unreachable for any appreciable length of time are over when you cross into administration.

 

  • Control Over Your Time: Related to the previous point, an administrator’s schedule is both far more varied and far less controllable than an average faculty member’s. A faculty member trying to set up a meeting asked me a few weeks ago, “how are your Thursdays?” I just laughed. I remember the days when, for the span of a 15 week semester, every Thursday looked pretty much the same. Now the only answer I can give is, “which one?” People routinely put themselves on your calendar as an administrator (see the previous point), often at the last minute. And people higher up the food chain can override what you’re doing with More Important Things.

If you like being on the flex-time schedule of the tenured faculty member, you’re going to seriously dislike being in administration. Admin is an 8-5 job, plus some evenings and weekends, and it’s pretty relentless. You can’t count on being able to take an afternoon off here and there, or even work from home. Get yourself a good calendar program and expect to use it constantly. I consult my calendar before I get dressed in the morning – to know what I need to wear for the day.

 

  • The Academic Calendar: Many if not most administration positions don’t pay a lot of attention to the academic calendar. Faculty members tend to be on 9-month (or sometimes 10-month) contracts, during with the “breaks” are real vacations. That means you get a good chunk of your summer to do whatever you want, as well as week- or weeks-long breaks during the school year during which you may be grading or writing papers, but aren’t otherwise expected to be in your office or on campus. Administration tends to be on 12-month contracts with paid vacation time accruing the same way it does in the corporate world – meaning you can only go on vacation if you have already earned the time, and only if your boss says it’s OK.

This can be pretty jarring, especially if you’ve been a faculty member for a long time. I was asked in the spring of this past year, “What are you doing over break?” (meaning spring break). I just looked at the questioner blankly – the question literally did not make any sense, because the break didn’t exist for me. I had a full calendar of meetings and tasks that week, just like every week. The rhythm of your work as an academic administrator does shift with the academic calendar – the beginning and ending of semesters tends to be very busy – but for the most part the demands on your time don’t. If you’re counting on long stretches of time to work on your next book, admin is not for you. Along a similar vein, most administrators don’t get sabbaticals.

 

  • The Protection of Unimportance: Because of the various factors listed above (autonomy, control over time and agenda, etc.), most faculty aren’t expected to solve other people’s problems. If you do step in to help someone out, you’re doing them a favor, but there’s no expectation that you are responsible for others. There’s a freedom in that kind of unimportance that goes away in administration. In an admin position, you are expected to get involved in other people’s issues and you are expected to solve them. You are assumed to be important – usually, more important than you actually are. And while that can seem like a perk or a benefit, it comes with a cost – the weight of people’s expectations goes up substantially. You may be the same person, but people now expect a lot more out of you.

If you’re going into administration because you want to feel important, this problem probably doesn’t make any sense. But the issue is very real. I periodically joke – only half-joking – that everybody assumes that in my office I have a magic wand and a pot of gold, both of which came with the job title. In reality, I have neither one – I can’t wave a magic wand and make problems disappear, and contrary to some faculty opinion administration (especially middle management, where I am) does not have endless sources of money to fund stuff. But this doesn’t stop people from coming to me with their problems all the time. Depending on who you are and how you deal with that particular kind of pressure, the weight of colleagues’ expectations can be heavy indeed.

 

None of these things is a deal-killer for everybody. Each of us deals in our own way with these different kinds of losses, and for you some of them may not feel like loss at all. But they are things to be aware of before contemplating an administrative position.

This post and the previous one have covered the biggest question – why (or why not) go into administration? In the next one, I’ll start to get into the question of how to go about steering your career towards a more admin path.