Administration Ministration

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.

And yet…

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? 


  1. I just extracted myself from a (fairly minor) administrative position. I did it for a few years with the sincere belief that I would be able to improve the experience of our students and by extension my department. And then quit in disgust when I realized the administration was perfectly content with the mediocre status quo, was happy to have me spend time on secretarial shitwork, but not willing to make any substantive changes. A lot of gaslighting. I feel profoundly disaffected with my university now. So, I’m team part-time novelist. It seems like you have all of this wonderful creative energy. Why not use it on something you enjoy?

  2. I feel Anon @7:04 pm. But I have been fortunate to have better experiences. I’ve taken on progressively larger administrative roles over the past 8 years or so and am thinking about an even larger role right now. The roles that interest me most are those in which I think I can make a unique contribution and learn something interesting. They generally revolve around trying to make life better for some marginalized population (women in science, trainees, etc.). And even though I have come up against some of the same crap Anon describes (upper admin content with mediocrity or not willing to make real change even when it’s fully justified and clearly needed), and even though I am also disillusioned about my university in many ways, I have also been able to make some real changes that have a significant impact on people. Those successes keep me excited about the work.

    I have yet to take on anything that is time-consuming enough that my research suffers. The irreversible (or very difficult to reverse) transition from active researcher to full-time administrator scares me way too much. I love being a faculty member and doing faculty member things. But I do also love having about half of the teaching load of my colleagues and almost full salary support due to my admin role.

    I also love having a large number of different things to work on at any given time. When I get tired of admin meetings, I schedule some time to work on a grant or manuscript or meet with students. When I get tired of worrying about research, I focus on whatever admin project I’m working on. And when I get tired of that, I can start up a new project! Practically speaking, I have yet to master the art of scheduling. But I’m getting better at this and only occasionally have a week that is jam-packed with more meetings than I can reasonably tolerate.

    Like Xykademiqz, I have a tendency to take everything way too personally. But I have seen real growth in this area lately – I can handle more than I used to be able to and am able to take a more distanced view of problems that I need to deal with but that don’t directly involve me. Just like anything else, you can get better at the skills needed for administration by practicing them!

    I have also really benefited from having like-minded colleagues (like the ones who planned this workshop that hit home for you!). They can be an amazing source of support and advice! For example, one thing I’ve learned is that most administrators have career/leadership coaches to help them work through challenging situations. I hired one on my own over the summer to help with some work-related crap I was dealing with and I will 100% negotiate for this in any position I take going forward, she has been worth every penny!

    Sorry – this is a lot. Apparently I have a lot of feelings about this! One last thought – as a tenured faculty member, it’s pretty low risk to try out an admin position if you’re interested. Best case scenario you get to do some interesting things and make a difference in an area you care about. Worst case scenario you can quit and go back to your full-time faculty role!

  3. Anon’s comment of administrative positions entailing lots of secretarial shitwork rings very true to me. I’m at a SLAC so the positions are somewhat different. I’m recently tenured and will be department chair at some point, as almost everyone in my 12 person department will rotate through the post. However, it will require little to no fundraising and lots of class registration related crap.

    Other positions that might interest me seem to involve tons of work arranging meetings/gatherings/workshops/experiences for students or faculty that don’t particularly want to be there. Maybe you do an awesome workshop as described here, but the rewards seem few and the work seems thankless. A recent advising workshop I attended was really well done, except lots of people didn’t RSVP, showed up, and they ran out of chairs and food. The organizer, who is an amazing professor, was running around for more chairs. No thank you! Leaning into some sort of hobby sounds far more appealing than any administrative role.

  4. That all sounds like me. Also just talking with people generally is so draining. I would do a great job but I would be miserable.

    I do think a big part of surviving admin is not caring emotionally but being able to pretend that you do. It’s much easier to use the right language and to think strategically if one is not that emotionally invested, just intellectually invested.

  5. Does your college have a deanlet position for “faculty advancement” or similar? Perhaps a partial appointment with a course reduction and small salary bump would be good to test the waters without going all in and sacrificing research and scholarship. You’d get to work with junior faculty, an area where you would excel, and also get a good look at how the college operates.

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