Joining the Dark Side, Part 1: Why?

Where is my career going? Am I building the academic career path I really want? And would I ever really want to be … department chair? Dean? Am I tempted to Join the Dark Side?

Academics face a series of important decisions throughout their careers. Where do I apply for jobs, and what kind am I looking for? Do I accept this position or wait for a better one? Do I put more effort into research or teaching? Where should I publish my stuff? Should I write books or articles? Will serving on this committee help my career? Should I volunteer as a section program chair for the big conference next year? Each of these decisions, and a thousand more like them, collectively make up the trajectory of our careers through academia.

In graduate school we are trained first and foremost as researchers, and there is no doubt that decisions about our research productivity and publication are among the most impactful on our future career prospects. My colleague Laura Sjoberg has done an excellent job shedding light on a number of those decisions with regard to publishing journal articles, the bread-and-butter of our field. It is no surprise that her series “The Hard Way” has gotten far more hits than anything else yet posted here at RI.

In addition to research, many of us also get some help in learning how to teach along the way. Some institutions care more about teaching than others (though few know how to measure it nearly so well as we measure research productivity), but there are some excellent resources out there. You can go to entire conferences on teaching political science, and both the APSA and ISA have panels at every annual meeting devoted to teaching ideas.

The third category, “service”, gets almost no attention at all. When’s the last time you saw a conference panel on how to chair a committee? I’ve seen a few conference sessions on how to build new programs, but those are at conferences attended almost exclusively by administrators, with very few “real faculty” in the room.

And herein lies the Great Divide: the tribal gulf we have created between Faculty and Administration. To cross from one to the other is most frequently referred to as “joining the Dark Side”. I have a colleague who was given a Darth Vader mask as a “gift” by her faculty colleagues when she took up her new administrative job. Faculty complaints about administration are matched in frequency only by administrators’ complaints about faculty, and at many institutions the two tribes see each other as adversaries.

In one sense this is odd, because most academic administrators started their careers as faculty members. At some point along the way, they made a decision – or, in many cases, a series of them – to take advantage of an opportunity that led them down the path towards a more administrative role. These decisions to redirect an academic career towards administration are some of most important ones we make – yet we spend almost no time talking about them.

The drama of Darth Vader masks aside, transitioning from faculty to administration is often not one decision, but a series of them. Nor is there anything inevitable or irreversible about the process. I have known faculty who are content to stay at department chair, while others see being chair as a step towards greater administrative responsibility. Some folks are happy being center directors but would never want to be dean; others want to be dean as a stepping stone to provost or even president. And of course there are plenty of faculty who will eschew formal administrative positions altogether but get drawn in to helping create, and then run, academic programs.

As someone who has travelled this road, I want to offer what insights I can for faculty who might be considering career choices that would take them in a more administrative direction. I have no magic wisdom and no one-size-fits-all answers – every career is different, and everyone makes choices from their own point of view. But I can speak to some of the things that lie along the administrative road, so that colleagues can make their own decisions armed with a bit more knowledge.

This is obviously a huge undertaking, and so I am taking a page from Laura’s playbook by breaking it down into chunks. I’ll post a series of these over time, and monitor the questions and comments. If there are things I’m not addressing that people are interested in, I will work those into future posts.

I am starting this series with probably the most important question of all: Why? Why would a faculty member want to redirect his or her career away from teaching and research and towards administration? I know plenty of faculty who ask this question in an incredulous tone, as if inquiring “Why would you want to drive your car off that cliff?” But there are clearly some benefits to consider if you are facing an opportunity to step onto the administrative road. Here’s a partial list of some of the things that attract faculty into administration, along with my editorial comments on them:

 

  • Money: Let’s be honest up front here. Administrative positions tend to be better paid than faculty positions. This isn’t universally true – there are tenured faculty at my institution (mostly in Engineering) who make more than most of the Deans, and in some places Department Chair doesn’t come with any additional money at all. But on the whole, the distribution curve of administrative salaries is pretty substantially higher than that for faculty.

This is not necessarily a bad reason to go into administration, although if it’s the only reason then you’re going to be miserable – for the same reason you would be miserable in any job you dislike but are only doing for the money. As part of a mix of motives, however, there’s nothing inherently wrong here. I myself have a wife and three kids. I want a good life for my family – I don’t need to be rich and buy them everything, but I want them to have what they need to succeed. I left a faculty job years ago because the ~$50k salary that place paid me wasn’t going to do that. Today I make twice what I would have made if I stayed there. My family has a better life for that decision, and I don’t lose a moment’s sleep over it.

 

  • Being in Charge: I’ve run across my share of administrators who go into administration because they like to be In Charge. They like to make decisions and exercise authority. When you’re a faculty member, you have authority over yourself, and some limited authority over your students, and that’s about it. Administrative positions appear to have much more of this going for them – an opportunity to Make the Decisions That Matter.

This is actually a lousy reason to go into administration, on two grounds. First, administrators don’t have nearly the level of authority that faculty think they do. Administrators who try to exercise more power than they really have tend to come to bad ends. Second, people who go into administration because they like to exercise power and feel important tend to make very bad administrators and come to messy and painful ends, as witnessed by the rash of “no confidence” votes and similar clashes at universities across the country over the past few years.

 

  • Getting Things Done: Faculty are often drawn into administration via a particular project, program, or initiative. The new project may be a very important one that the faculty member is passionate about. Every new initiative needs a champion – and sometimes faculty discover that they enjoy being that champion, creating new things and getting things done.

This is a much better reason to go into administration than the previous one. Indeed, this was one of my primary inroads – I was hired to build a master’s program and then run it, and discovered that I liked it. Then I got drafted to build a whole new faculty governance system, and I enjoyed that too. Faculty who go into administration to get things done – and who are good at doing so – tend to be pretty happy with that choice, and are often some of the best and most effective administrators around.

 

  • Tired of Teaching and/or Research: Most faculty go into their careers excited about their field, motivated to research and write, and interested in sharing their wisdom with students. Heck, you couldn’t survive a PhD program without at least some of this driving you. But after 10-15 years in the biz, teaching the same classes year in and year out, the routine can get a little stale. Administration may present an opportunity to stay inside academia (because what else are we really qualified to do?) while offering new challenges and new tasks. Novelty can be a significant motivator.

Like money, novelty isn’t a bad thing either, so long as it’s not the only reason to pursue administration. If it is, then a short stint will probably be enough. People who are going to stay in administration probably need to have a broader motive. On the other hand, administration often offers a more varied diet of professional challenges than a traditional faculty position in which you teach the same classes and go to the same conferences year after year. I have spent many hours in the last year on subjects that I had no idea even two years ago I would ever need to know anything about. Every week brings something new in academic administration – so a taste for novelty is a helpful trait.

 

  • Helping Fellow Faculty: Properly done, academic administration is about supporting faculty in the work that they do. This is very appealing to some faculty, either because they have been the beneficiaries of strong support in their own careers and want to “pay it forward” or because they have been the victims of lousy support structures and don’t want their colleagues to suffer the same.

Like “getting things done”, this is an excellent reason to go into administration. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why academic administrators should come from the ranks of the faculty – they can listen (and be listened to) much better and are more likely to understand what faculty need to do their jobs better. A smoothly-running university that listens to its faculty is a much better place for everyone to work in.

 

  • Directing Resources: One of the biggest draws of administration is that administrators often decide where the important resources (money, faculty lines, even sometimes hiring decisions) go. To the extent that administrators have this power (and this varies widely from position to position), this can be very attractive, especially to faculty who have clear ideas about where resources should be directed.

This is an important draw for many, but it’s a two-edged sword. Redirecting resources almost always ticks somebody off, so if you’re the kind of person who wants others to like you this is a lousy position to put yourself in. Also as Ben Parker said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If you have power over resource decisions, that means you HAVE to make those decisions. If you have a clear vision of where resources should go, that’s OK. If you don’t, you may want to stay away from admin positions that will require you to make the hard calls. Also, be aware that the resource side of a university is always far more complex than faculty think it is, and that a vision of resource allocation formed sitting in one’s faculty office may run into some harsh realities when you cross over to the other side.

 

There are good reasons (and bad ones) for wanting to move into administration. Anytime you’re faced with a decision about an administrative opportunity – especially one that you think may alter the trajectory of your career – it makes sense to ask, why does this appeal to me? What reasons do I have for saying yes? What do I get out of it? If the answers look good, that’s a reason to seriously consider stepping towards “the Dark Side”. If they don’t, then you probably shouldn’t.

Of course, there’s another side to this calculus – what do you give up when you move into administration? I’ll deal with that in another post…

 

  • David J Hornsby

    I really like this piece and the way it has been broken down into potential rationales. But I think you have missed some out. Call me idealistic – but what about things like a passion for the pursuit of higher education? Shaping the direction of an institution? Strategic planning? or even enjoyment for the cut and thrust of politics. Admin roles tend to be very political in the sense of internal politics but also external. Thanks for writing!

    • Bill Ayres

      David – good points, well taken. I tried to cover some of that passion under the general heading of “getting things done” – there are lots of administrators who go into it because they want to make the university a better place. Sometimes that’s more concrete, other times more philosophical, but it is a very real motivation.

      Enjoyment of the “politics” can cut both ways. There are folks who feed off the drama of human conflict, played out as institutional politics – this is a very bad thing, and tends to cause lots of collateral damage to a university. But there are people who enjoy the process of persuasion, working with others of different points of view to achieve a goal. That also is political, but with a very different motive. You can probably tell my biases – I am (or try to be) a “get things done” sort of person. I’ve been in places that were heavily “political”, in which all the politics was personal conflict – almost nothing got done and I hated it, so I left.

      Thanks for reading – we hope you keep coming back! There will be more in this series coming soon.

      • David J Hornsby

        Many thanks for this reply Bill and I hear you on all points. I will certainly keep coming back as I most enjoyed this post!

  • Patricia Robertson

    As usual, Bill, very well written. Your description of the
    variables involved in making a decision about a move from teaching to administration could be really helpful.

    One thing that you didn’t include has to do with personal/human development. To quote Fred Buechner, what we do with
    our life should be “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Even if someone wants more money and influence, if the work does not fuel their sense of self and vibrant life, there is no point in it ultimately. A good teacher should have passion for their subject (I’ve been most influenced by teachers who love what they are teaching as well as concern for the people they are teaching. A good administrator needs to be interested in the organism (not organization) of people – how they work and how to help them work to the betterment of the mission of the organization. And that interest needs to be fueled by an inner drive and passion for the mission if the work is truly going to be fulfilling
    and worthwhile. If it is, then the impediments, annoyances, criticism of going to the Dark Side etc. won’t matter.

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