Thursday, May 14, 2009

If You Try Sometimes, You'll Get What You Need: How To Think Like An Administrator

Gary Olson's recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, hilariously titled "How To Join The Dark Side" (hence my choice for an illustration) is a useful take on how to think about becoming a university administrator. What I like best about it is that it avoids a common stereotype (administrators are failed academics, or worse, not intellectually inclined at all when lacking a Ph.D.) and takes university administration seriously as a career that intelligent people train for and enjoy. Furthermore (and this is the kind of thing no one talks about in academia) it suggests that an academic career might entail several stages, in which one's life could be plotted as ambitiously as a Jane Austen novel. A career might begin with the majority of one's efforts devoted to establishing one's credentials as a scholar and a teacher, really learning those jobs inside and out as well as deriving satisfaction from them, and then one might, by design rather than failure, gradually turn (through committee work, chairing, and appointment as a dean) to learning how universities work and eventually running one of them.

Gordon argues that colleges and universities need to make such career paths available to faculty at the earliest stages of their careers, both through short stints that allow tenure-track and tenured faculty to "try on" administrative work, and through workshops that help them imagine their careers creatively.

Indeed, if you look at the careers of certain prominent women who have become college and university presidents (the ones I personally know best are Mary Maples Dunn and Drew Gilpin Faust), you can't help but recognize two things. The first is that both are well-respected intellectuals, who have great scholarly accomplishments to their credit. The second, if you take a look at their careers, is that both women had a plan. They didn't get stuck in the muck and the mire of struggling with administrators, but rather, took an interest in trying to shape and learn about the institutions in which they operated. Eventually they acquired the skill and knowledge to have a major impact on higher education.

This is undoubtedly on my mind since I had a big meeting yesterday with a group of administrators at Zenith about a set of important issues that I cannot, of course, go into. And yet, in tandem with the Gordon article, it caused me to think that there is yet another underrated skill in the academy that no one teaches you how to develop: how to think like an administrator.

This is not the same thing as, for example, being taken over by aliens, although many of your colleagues will tell you it is. Rather, it requires something good historians and other social scientists value enormously in their work, which is being able to see someone else's point of view and taking interests into account that are not a narcissistic reflection of your own local departmental issues or intellectual proclivities. It also requires the simple understanding that administrators are problem-solvers, and you, my colleague, can choose to be a problem solver too, contributing helpful and constructive suggestions that help move your agendas forward by persuading people that what you want can contribute to the larger vision. Or you can choose to be a problem. Take your pick.

To wit, the Radical's Five Basic Guidelines For Thinking Like An Administrator, a particularly useful skill in a time of declining resources.

Be firm and clear when expressing objections, but don't be abusive or accuse the administrator of bad faith out of hand. One former administrator I know told me that if s/he ever wrote a memoir it would be titled I Am Outraged That..! since a great many emails that s/he received began with those words. First of all, imagine if your dean, or someone from the provost's office, called you repeatedly to yell at you or tell you what an ignorant, lying ass hat you are. Wouldn't you be inclined to take official action? I would. You can take a firm position without accusing an administrator of bad faith, stupidity or personal animus. This will reward you in two ways. First, s/he will be grateful to you for acting like a colleague instead of a raging lunatic, and s/he will be more inclined to listen sympathetically to what you say. Second, it creates an opening for said administrator to provide a broader explanation for what is going on, and whether you are actually affected by it. This policy maker might either choose to acknowledge that the policy or decision in question sucks for you and that s/he is sorry about that; or s/he might explain some ways the policy doesn't exactly suck for you and how you might take advantage of it in some way you had not yet considered.

Give people the benefit of the doubt: sometimes they lack knowledge for a reason. One of the things I find endlessly frustrating, as chair of an interdisciplinary program, is that after years of sending detailed memos to various administrators about the creativity and unique contributions of interdisciplinary programs (ok, I'll be honest -- our program), few of them (exactly one, in fact, who I currently work with) seem to to understand many of the basic facts about what we do and how we function. And yet, if you think about it, administrators change pretty rapidly over time, and we faculty are in charge of institutional memory. Ergo, we actually know things that they don't because we have written a couple decades worth of reports, but they haven't read a couple decades of reports. Like the patient with no long-term memory, every day brings exciting new information for the best administrators, because if they are fast-track they did something else less than five years ago. This requires patience, restraint and tact, as you explain the same things over and over. Take new administrators to lunch and explain what you are about before you end up in a room trying to negotiate an issue and explain what you do at the same time. I know this is a good tactic, because at Zenith, more often than not they listen -- and they buy the lunch.

Administrators are not failed academics. They are ambitious people who probably work twice the hours that we do, and who understand that their task is to create lively, well-organized structures that convert the research we do into the basic elements of the industry collectively known as education. Their work makes teaching concrete, converting it into commodities called curriculum, majors, and degrees that can be sold to students, whether at Yale, Zenith or the University of Phoenix. Oddly, faculty sometimes seem to think they could do these things entirely on their own if need be. Whether each individual administrator does a good job or not is another question, but often what seems like a poor administrator is only a symptom of a dysfunctional administrative structure. S/he could even be someone who just doesn't agree with you. No matter: does it help your cause to treat him like a Judas goat or a nitwit? No. It causes this person not to return your phone calls, which will really not help you get want you want. Which leads me to my next point:

You can't always get what you want. Sing it, Mick. Sometimes people genuinely disagree with you and you have to suck it up, and sometimes there isn't enough to go around. And honestly, why should you always get what you want? It may be all well and good at the department level to work avidly for the destruction of those who oppose you (not) but university administrations are like the state in one respect. They are arenas in which multiple interests compete to define the mission of the whole. There are winners and there are losers, but there is a third category too: compromisers. Don't forget that many administrators genuinely regret not being able to serve everyone's needs, and that when you can offer them a creative choice that allows them to make the most out of limited resources, you may achieve a partial victory. Don't forget either that although you may take your own needs very personally, the decisions they make aren't personal. Learning to lose gracefully can pay forward, in the sense that you might be perceived as a reasonable person down the line who is worth talking to and capable of compromise. In other words, you live to fight another day.

Administrators, like God, help those who help themselves. Get your reports in on time. Apologize when you can't. Asume that if someone doesn't understand what you have just said that you need to say it better, not that the listener is an idiot bean counter. Follow directions when you are asked to submit something, because whoever is asking for the document actually wants the information they are asking for: it is an act of respect to give it to them, not an act of integrity and your intense regard for academic freedom to withold it. Don't assume that, as a chair, it is beneath your dignity as a scholar to take the time to learn to read a budget so that you can explain at the end of the year where all the money went. Don't assume that your field is entitled to resources until the end of time just because you are famous, or because the field you are in has been around for a hundred years or so.

Oh, and let me provide what ought to be an unnecessary example of why no blog post, and few conversations, should be illustrated with actual descriptions of what happened in a meeting: you are likely to only represent your own point of view and your own interests in such a narrative. Furthermore, how would you like it if you went out of your way to try to have a meeting that was fair and collegial, and the administrator paid you back by leaving the meeting only to spread gossipy opinions about what an ass hat you are, or how the whole institution is doomed because of your hare-brained ideas about how things should be? You wouldn't like it, would you? And yet you would be surprised how often this happens to high level administrators. I suspect the root cause of this is often faculty wanting to claim inside knowledge of processes that they actually have no control over, covering up the fact that they have agreed to something that will upset some faculty colleagues, or wanting to enhance the myth of their own superiority. So think about that the next time you elaborate on some conspiracy theory as if it were actually true, or tell tales out of school to disassociate yourself from an outcome that makes institutional sense.

And remember: If you try sometimes, you just might find -- you get what you need.


Anonymous said...

A very good post, but of course time to quibble.

C'mon, some administrators *are* failed academics... but I agree their status as such doesn't have much bearing on your efforts to negotiate budget flexibility.

Tenured Radical said...

I think the point is, however: what does the category "failed academic" mean? Someone who didn't get tenure? Someone who -- in a crappy job market -- never got a teaching job? Or someone for whom the magic we are all supposed to feel for teaching and research evaporated one day, or was never as compelling as it needs to be to get through the bad/dull/depressing times?

I honestly don't see any reason to consider such people "failed" academics --unless it is a strategy to make us appear smarter by contrast.

moria said...

So are we to look for President Potter ten years down the line?

Emily said...

Princeton's Shirley Tilghman is another excellent example of an intelligent and successful academic turned top-level administrator, and I think that shows in her great respect for the Princeton faculty. (Compare her to Bob Kerrey at the New School for how much coming from academia makes a difference.)

I can also think of some admins I know for whom academia didn't work out, but that doesn't mean they're stupid or inconsiderate. Not everyone gets tenure who deserves it; some people want to have families; some people prefer working with students to doing research. At the very least, university admins are nothing as bad as the high-school admins I've known....

GayProf said...

If I get to dress all in black and wear a long flowing cape, I am so becoming an adiminstrator.

Steve Chasey said...

Thanks very much for the list of tips, I'm going to print it out and staple it to the foreheads of all of the doctors that I work with. Though administration in the healthcare world is quite different from academia, the principles/interactions/goals you describe are spot on. And speaking from the administrator perspective, I swear we really aren't all idiot bean-counting ass hats.

Cris said...

This reminds me of our administrator. This is so true.

Dean Dad said...

Preach it, TR!

Dean Dad said...

I'm getting a little stuck on the line about having to teach and re-teach admins. That goes both ways.

Rather than memory and forgetting, which pretty clearly marks one side as right and the other wrong, I'd characterize the two sides as the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog/faculty knows one thing really, really well. By her standards, the admin/fox is a dilettante. But the admin/fox is keeping an eye on many more things, and has to think about how they work with each other. The hedgehog doesn't, so her proposals -- which may be utterly brilliant in themselves -- may or may not 'work' within the larger organization.

That's been my experience, anyway. And it helps answer the mystery of why so many brilliant hedgehogs make lousy foxes. The skill set is different. Some can do both, but fewer than we might hope.

Steven Horwitz said...

Outstanding. This list mirrors my own six years as an administrator almost perfectly. This is terrific advice for both faculty and administrators, and faculty thinking about being administrators.

Let me just add one more suggestion:

Saying "thank you" in both directions does much more than people think. As an administrator, I tried to go out of my way to thank faculty who went the extra yard for my program or for students, and I always appreciated hearing it back when I was able to make something happen for them. It's easy and it's free and it works like magic.

B.J. said...

One of the things that frightens me about my job is that I just finished my first year teaching adjunct, and I just finished my Master's degree this month. Since I teach at a small college,there are a lot of people doing dual roles. Now that I can officially teach "credit" courses, my second-job of tutoring at our Resource Center has moved me into being the Assistant Director. I've taught all of one academic year, and they're already moving me into a kind of academic administration; it's frightening, but because of this experience being just thrown in my lap (I am exceptionally lucky for it, I think), I refuse to think that any administrators are the failed-academic type. Most of the administrators I know are teachers who evolved from one position or another into administration as the next logical step of their careers.

Ozma said...

One way to think about the 'failed academic' thing:

There is a certain kind of administrator who has some kind of combination of arrogance....a kind of desire to put something in her alumni newsletter, to 'show them', etc. but just never manages to be successful enough in her academic career to get these things.

Because even when people in your field whose respect you wanted are not impressed when you became Provost, your MOM and her friends will be.

Or maybe they want to punish their enemies.

So that person guns for administration. When it gets hairy for others is if the person rises high because of their total lack of interest in other humans and what affects them. When they can be some functionary's lackey. *That's* when things are bad for those being 'administered.'

I admit that is not the case for all administrators or even those who want to make their mom happy and even fuctionaries--who sometimes can be fairly humane...

And actually, I've seen some people who are like serve endless committee hours and never make Dean.

I was just explaining the 'failed academic' thing--the person who doesn't get prestige in his and her academic career but craves prestige may turn to administration as a fall-back.

Tenured Radical said...


Undoubtedly true in some cases. But I don't think this phenomenon is confined to faculty turned administrators. It describes many faculty, professionally successful and unsuccessful, who also remain on the faculty.....

Anonymous said...

The fact one would address themselves and their "tribe" as the wily fox and label others in another "tribe" as narrow hedgehogs already reveals a symptom of a larger problem. "My--doesn't every hedgehog want to be a FOX?" It's reminiscent of a line in film, The Devil Wears Prada: "My dear! They ALL want to be US!" --which caused the heroine in the story to throw her cell phone in the nearest fountain and walk away from narcissists' hell.

It's unfortunate that some administrators are labeled as failed faculty. I certainly appreciate the really great ones.

But there is a larger problem of joe-and-jane-average-administrator assuming that all faculty have "failed" -- never really having "made it"-- by not acquiring an administrative job title. This is partly encouraged by the corruptive influence of money and pay differentials between faculty and administrators, which have evolved over decades to the point where they reflect no significance of the value of the work being done.

A person who chooses not to exchange a career in which they can experience the growth of students, the discovery and creativity of scholarship, manage national professional societies, and build friendships and colleagues on an international level is hardly a narrow "hedgehog."

Most faculty are wise enough to understand that a campus administrative job title will not make their life happy nor will it enable nearly as valuable contributions to others' lives. Becoming a part of a clique that generates white papers and labels people as either foxes or hedgehogs just is not the world they choose to subscribe to.

David said...

Interesting, no doubt useful, advice. But rather more a 'tenured' perspective than a 'radical' one, don't ya think?

Tenured Radical said...


Is it more radical to loath administrators on principle? Or is it the topic you find pedestrian? I will definitely cop to the latter.

Anyway, even the Radical puts her pants on one leg at a time. Some days.

sibyl said...

To the second anonymous poster:

Why do you assume that there is a value judgment attached to the hedgehog/fox metaphor? I think you must not have read Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which this post helpfully echoes. Berlin points out that there are genius hedgehogs (Plato, Hegel, Dostoevsky) as well as genius foxes (Aristotle, Montaigne, Pushkin).

Nowhere, except in your post, do I see anyone suggesting the idea that faculty are "failed administrators," or that administrators believe that the path to true happiness lies "here" and not "there."

Obviously, TR is hardly the first to notice the gap between the two tribes. This post is about working together to bridge that gap, rather than enlarging it.