Monday, September 22, 2008

Elegy For A Really Good Administrator

Over the weekend, our associate provost died suddenly and very young. Early in both our careers we had our struggles with each other. As I matured, I acquired the attitude that maybe being pleasant rather than obnoxious would help me get on better with everyone who ran the university, which, shockingly, did turn out to be a better way to get things done. As the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) always said, "Good manners can't hurt, and smile when you say that." (Or was that John Wayne who gave me that advice?) Anyway, when I became a chair, and then chair of a major faculty committee, I realized that being pleasant was the only route to go, and in the process came to understand that most of the people who run Zenith are hard-working individuals who try to do their best for the faculty and the students.

Which is how I ended up forming a relationship with Paula Lawson. Oh sure, we didn't socialize; we didn't hang out. We did business. I don't think we ever even had lunch. But she became very good at her job as I was trying to become better at mine, and I came to like her very much. I am proud to say that we learned to help each other and solve problems together. The end result was a relationship that I consider one of the great successes of my career because it wasn't so obvious that it would work. All it took on my part was paying attention to who she was, assuming we were on the same team and looking at the business we did as a two-way street.

Today, when I found out that Paula had died, I tried to absorb the e-mail message at home, wrote a couple people who had left the university and would want to know, and then went to the office with a list of things that had to be done today. Upon arrival, the first thing I did was pick up my voice mail, and there was a message from Paula, in her normal, clipped voice. "Hey Claire -- Paula. It's about 2:30. Give me a call. I need to ask you about something." It must have been from Friday.

Which was when I put down my stuff, went into the bathroom, locked the door, and just sat down and cried. Because that was our relationship in a nutshell: "Can you do this for me?" "Sure -- and while you are at it, can you check on X because I've got to talk to professor Y this afternoon, and I need an answer." "Uh-huh. And by the way, did you ever hear from Z about the new budget line?" "Nope." "O.K., I'll give her a push." "Thanks, I really appreciate it." "No problem."

Once I stopped crying, I realized that there wasn't any point in doing what I was supposed to do that day, because every item was either supposed to go straight to Paula, or to her office via someone else. She had gone from being "an" administrator to being "the" administrator whose office tracked pretty much everything. It was, as I explained to several colleagues today, as if you were trying to run the nation's air traffic with the Chicago control towers out of order.

Many academics have veiled, or not-so-veiled, contempt for administrative labor. In an earlier life, I will admit that I was guilty of this thing, something I now regret if it ever got back to the people I was being churlish about. This snobbishness towards "the administration" is, by the way, one of the few attitudes that crosses both political lines and rank in the academy. It is based on the idea that faculty labor is a cherished mystery that no one on an administrative line can possibly understand in its intricacies and privileges. I suspect we faculty act this way because we believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that administrators are "failed" academics who do not do the exacting and specialized work "we" do (although one might argue that they are the people who get it that the criteria for academic success are often the career equivalent of the Emperor's Invisible Suit.) There is, in other words, a little of the "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude, which is usually expressed in sarcasm or anger at some imagined or unimagined infringement of faculty authority. We rarely wrap our heads around the notion that some people choose to be caretakers of budgets, grades, contracts, review committees, and whatnot.

So, since this is a time in my life where I have been a quasi-administrator for close to five years, let me tell you: it's people like Paula who get things done. They get us hired and paid, they get our research accounts set up, they straighten out something confusing with the registrar's office, they squeeze the budget for an extra visitor when you need one. They are the blood and the bones of the university, and they go on doing their jobs as best they can despite the lack of recognition, or often appreciation, they get.

So here's a job for tomorrow: think of someone in your administration who has done something nice for you, and call them to say thank you. I think Paula knew how much I appreciated her, but I still wish I had gotten that phone message, and ended it the way I often did: "Hey thanks for taking the time. Yeah. I really appreciate it."


Anonymous said...

That's a really nice tribute. I agree with you that faculty are frequently disdainful of "the administration," mostly because they don't realize the crapload of stuff from which good administrators shield the faculty. We're lucky now to have a great CLA Dean and three great associate deans right now, and believe me, I'm loving every minute of it (having endured the short tenure of a bad dean, especially.)

I will send them all a link to your post today. That seems to be a fitting tribute to Paula. I'm sorry for the Xenith community's loss.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I work in a low-level admin position at a university, and it means a lot when the professors I work with let me know that they appreciate my expertise and professionalism.

Susan said...

TR, this was such a lovely post. When you've had a bad administrator, you realize how much a good one helps your life move smoothly! I think the faculty contempt for administration has this peculiar snobbery involved -- as in "my mind is too focused on higher things to worry about the trivia that makes the institution run." It sounds like Paula was indeed the perfect person for the job she had.

anthony grafton said...

What a great post. I've been blessed with great administrators to work with, especially during my four years as a chair--both the ones in the central administration with whom my department had endless dealings and the permanent administrators who worked for me. Anyone who's ever had that kind of luck knows how well you've put this.


Anonymous said...

As someone who was an administrator and then became an academic I agree. I've heard some allegedly progressive senior profs talk about admin staff as if they were beneath contempt.