Recently, I attended a workshop that discussed faculty transitioning into administrative roles. It was very well run, with engaging and, honestly, very impressive panelists. I did not think I’d ever be able to appreciate one of these event, but it was probably the double whammy of me being amenable and the workshop being well run — a right frame of mind, right event kind of thing.
Why would I do this to myself, you ask? And what did the panelists talk about? Fear not, dear reader, for I will discuss it all.
I occasionally muse about how I am a bad fit for administration. I don’t necessarily believe it, but I also don’t not believe it. Early in my career, a female faculty colleague literally told me I didn’t have the personality for administration, and this comment did something to me. This person is someone who is currently in administration and has held several posts of increasing prominence (yet I have always found them lacking in personability or charisma, something one might think precludes a person from working in a people-facing role, but what the fuck do I know). Objectively, I don’t think I am a deficient human being, however, I do run hotter than many, I have a big mouth (which I control much better now than I did when I was younger) and I tend to say exactly what I think, all of which seem like bad traits for an administrative position, especially in the passive-aggressive Midwest.
However, I also hate being told I can’t do something. And I hate even more not trying to do something because I am afraid of failure. I will take on new stuff to a fault, just to show to myself that I can. This stubbornness has served me well for the most part. I think it’s psychologically harmful to be too risk averse and make choices from a position of doubt, fear, or insecurity. I feel doubt, fear, and insecurity, of course, usually on a daily — nay, hourly — basis, but more often than not, especially when it’s just me versus a challenge, all my doubt, fear, and insecurity are overridden by my outsize contrariness and I will go for the challenge (even though, honestly, sometimes my time would better be spent doing something else). Bottom line is, I don’t ever want to choose to not do something from a position of fear or doubt. So I keep picking at the scab of that old injury to my ego because I am trying to figure out if I really don’t have what it takes. Intellectually, I think I am capable of learning to do almost anything well, so I resent the implication that I am somehow incapable of doing a job so many already do. Emotionally, however, I always wonder if there is truth (or how much truth there is) in the colleague’s assessment, and if I am just as ill-suited for administration as I am for, say, a career as an opera singer.
This is why you shouldn’t discourage people from doing stuff. You don’t know how they’ll take it. It might have been an offhand remark for you, but it might’ve caught on a deep-seated issue of theirs and caused some actual damage. Praise when you see potential, but don’t actively discourage when you don’t. I have several examples where I predicted someone would not do well, but then they did; or I predicted they would do great things, but the person ended up unremarkable. There are many more cases where my prediction aligned with the outcome, but there are enough exceptions to remind us that success is such a multifaceted problem and that is hinges on technical savvy, multiple personality traits, and luck. So do encourage, but don’t actively discourage if you can avoid it.
Anyway, I am contemplating administration because it’s one way to get a significant salary boost. But I don’t think I’d make a good dean or probably even chair. Working with peers frustrates me and I can’t kiss ass of higher-up admins and alumni donors to the extent needed. I simply can’t. However, I excel at working with younger people, either teaching or mentoring students and junior faculty. And I think I do a very good job as an evaluator (proposals, papers, tenure cases, etc.) because I extract relevant information swiftly and I am quite decisive.
A few years ago, I chaired a major committee and that role broke me. It took me a couple of years to recover, and I’m not joking. Overall, if you ask the people on the committee, I did a great job, but it definitely didn’t feel like that to me at the time. We had a challenging year. There was pressure from one particular dean in the direction that would have violated faculty policies and procedures, so it was up to me to push back, and keep pushing. There was one committee member who made my life hell because I wouldn’t accommodate their ridiculous travel schedule (this was way before the Zoom boom) as such requests had not been accommodated by any of the past chairs. We had several departures because people got jobs at new institutions, and I intellectually knew these had nothing to do with me, but it felt like all of these things converging were somehow my fault, and that I was the cause of the collapse. In reality, nothing actually collapsed, things worked quite well actually, it was just a challenging but ultimately successful year. Yet, I felt like I fucked everything up.
Which brings me to something I feel holds: That there are people whose egos insulate them from guilt even when they are objectively responsible for something. These people are probably the ones best mentally suited to endure long-term administrative roles. Then there are those like me who internalize everything because they can’t help it, and if you hint to us that something is our fault even though it isn’t, it fucking devastates us (thanks for this, Mom). It is so exhausting to use the intellect to constantly override these emotional vulnerability pathways, and it’s not even effective 100% of the time. So you end up having a miserable committee chair who vows never again.
This is how I got to be in the workshop, and some of the insights I took away include:
a) Try to chair a major committee first (ouch)
b) The best leaders want to make the department, unit, or institution a better place. The worst, most harmful ones are those who are in it for their own ambition or agenda (we all know such folks, don’t we?). These people are never thwarted by feelings of guilt because they don’t feel it
c) Jump on opportunities. Also, make sure people see you and notice you beforehand, so you’re at the forefront of their mind when these opportunities arise
d) Trust your gut and don’t be afraid. There is no ideal timing for a major career change, so you just have to go with what feels right
e) There are many different leadership styles, so a myriad personality traits can be beneficial to leadership. Think instead of relevant skill sets that can be developed with effort and experience
f) No matter what, there will conflict and figuring out how to deal with conflict resolution will be a big part of the job
g) The ability to communicate clearly is paramount. Never stop working on this particular skill
This left me feeling much better and more hopeful about potential administrative roles. I don’t think I will ever want to be something like a dean or even department chair (honestly, I don’t mind running the department, but interfacing with the dean and dealing with alumni and donors makes me want to gouge my eyes out). However, I might take on a role that focuses on student issues and experience, or on junior faculty. I think I might enjoy that.
Then again, perhaps a better path to increasing my income is to double down on my fiction and start selling novels. Hubs is far more in favor of me becoming a part-time novelist than a part-time (or, god forbid, full-time) admin. And when I write, the only people who raise my blood pressure are fictional.
What say you, blogosphere? Have you thought about administration? Leadership in general? How has your path been toward or away from administrative roles?