• August 28, 2015

12 Rules for New Administrators

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

During the summer, two of my best friends and former colleagues asked me for guidance about making the transition from professor to administrator. Both had just been named directors of major academic programs at large public universities.

I made that transition myself in 2003 when I was appointed director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. No one prepares you for the position of department chair or director—arguably one of the most difficult jobs in academe because it requires you to navigate between the dean's dictums and the faculty's demands. Upon hearing the news of my friends' appointments, I pondered what I had learned as an administrator over the past seven years and came up with the following "rules," most of them adopted through trial and error.

Start serving others. The transition from professor to administrator begins with an epiphany: When you apply for a faculty job, it's all about you. When you apply for an administrative job, it's all about what you can do for others.

Those service obligations that are often overlooked when it comes time to grant promotion or tenure to faculty members are requisite in administrative reviews. So you'll have to change your attitude, however ingrained from your faculty days, and make service your top priority. Praise employee accomplishments in e-mails, newsletters, and meetings. Host graduation brunches, awards banquets, and alumni homecomings. Write thank-you notes to benefactors and network socially with prospective students. Greet everyone when you arrive in the office, and thank everyone when you leave.

Stop loving students. You can like them, respect them, recruit them, and advocate for them. But you cannot love them like you did as a teacher, savoring their praise in classroom evaluations and sharing confidences during office hours. Learn to trust the faculty and staff members who serve the students you used to love. Otherwise you'll find yourself meddling in routine instructional or advising matters instead of providing professors with enough resources and support to do their jobs.

Get organized. Just as a disorganized teacher will attract negative student evaluations, so will a disorganized administrator get bad reviews from faculty members. No matter how passionate you are about your department, if you are confused in thought, word, or deed, you will create problems for yourself and fail in fundamental tasks. You'll misplace donor letters or miss appointments with parents, alumni, or staff members. You'll forget to submit payroll or approve purchases, or, worse, you'll muck them up, inviting audits. You'll overlook deadlines for grants, affix signatures to the wrong forms, and complicate simple matters in e-mails, memos, and meetings.

So stay on track by updating a calendar that reminds you of deadlines and tasks on a daily, weekly, monthly, and semester basis. Keep file folders within reach on your desk and desktop. Create a timeline of recurring activities and events, from scheduling annual reviews to honoring deadlines for promotion and tenure.

Appoint a leadership team. You need a budget officer to handle accounting and familiarize you with procedures for everything from hiring and firing to paying for utilities and vouchers. If you lack such an officer, quickly befriend the dean's.

You also need an associate chair, or associate director, to handle scheduling, students, and staffing. If you don't have one, and you must teach as well as coordinate the budget and scheduling, chances are you'll burn out within a few years on the job.

Ideally, for departments with 500 undergraduate majors or more, you'll also need an assistant director for external functions, event planning, awards banquets, and the like. Departments lacking an assistant often assign such mundane tasks to committees, increasing the workload of faculty members at a time when many are already getting heavier courseloads. Appointing associate and assistant directors—and reducing their teaching obligations—is cost-effective if you can eliminate a committee or two.

Be transparent. Keep an open file in your office of nonconfidential memorandums and letters relating to department business, and allow faculty and staff members to read it. Don't let such openness alarm you. You'll write more concisely and factually if you keep in mind that everyone will be able to read the documents. And you will send the message that you've got nothing to hide.

When you can, pass along communiqués from the dean, provost, and president. Disclose to your faculty members as much information as possible without violating confidences. Ask faculty members to help hone job descriptions for new hires and invite members of search committees to participate and/or listen in on negotiations when making job offers.

Learn how to run a meeting. Chances are, to secure your job, you were asked to provide a "vision" statement. Nothing is less important in your new role. You'll be following the vision of the dean or the provost anyway. Instead, learn how to run a faculty meeting using Robert's Rules of Order or standing rules adopted by your faculty senate.

New motions must be written and approved by standing committees before being presented to the department as a whole. Call for agenda items one week in advance, keep and approve minutes, and put everything online. Ask people to inform you about announcements or achievements and send them out as an e-mail or PDF rather than waste time reading them aloud at meetings. Try not to schedule any courses for at least two hours on one weekday so that no one is disenfranchised by having to teach during a faculty meeting. Limit meetings to once a month, and keep them under two hours.

Create an advisory committee. It should include a budget officer, the associate and assistant chairs or directors, and the heads of standing committees. Your title does not entitle you to executive proclamations. Like any other professor, run proposals through your advisory committee before bringing them to the rest of the department. Post a detailed agenda and rationale for each proposal in advance.

Honor governance policies. If your department or school lacks a policy handbook, request samples from peer programs or other departments on your campus and use those models to devise your own. Ask faculty members to help create or amend the policy and ensure that it is aligned with institutional rules. Post your governance documents online. Cite the rules in announcements, correspondence, and at meetings. You'll not only document the rationale for your actions but also remind faculty and staff members about procedure.

Resist the natural tendency to play favorites. Showing favoritism in your decision making will almost certainly create factions in the department. Instead, use stated policies and procedures to resolve disagreements. You don't want to be put in a position of siding with one professor over another. You must choose your battles carefully or other vital tasks—from grievances to payroll—can be mishandled.

That explains why the best administrators do not let personal feelings guide them in disputes over who should teach what (and in which classrooms), or which graduate students and courses are assigned to which professors. You should have policies and procedures in place to guide those decisions.

Become an advocate for civility and diversity. Inclusivity should be at the top of your administrative agenda. Devise a diversity plan with professors if your department lacks one and refer to it in routine e-mails or meetings, when occasion allows. Insist on collegiality in employee reviews. Act immediately to deal with stereotyping, harassment, and incivility in others. Especially important is the nurturing of a climate welcoming to women and members of underrepresented groups. Respect for differing viewpoints is essential in any learning environment, and yours should celebrate that as a benchmark for success.

Make sure faculty members have mentors. You are as much an adviser for your assistant professors as you are their supervisor. You must remind them continually about requirements for promotion and tenure. Your P&T committee will judge candidates in the same manner that graduate committees approve or reject dissertations, basing decisions on productivity as documented in a dossier. Create a monthly round table for assistant professors, and invite senior professors or guests to guide the rookies on research, service, and teaching. Encourage assistant professors to meet as a group outside the department and share methodologies, data sets, and teaching innovations.

Relearn the promotion-and-tenure process. Serving on a tenure committee as a professor differs drastically from wielding oversight of the process as an administrator. Make sure that your faculty committee meets with each candidate regularly and makes recommendations on any position-responsibility statement—an agreement between you and your employee about what is expected by way of research, teaching, and service. Police your committee's choices for external reviewers, making sure that their expertise is aligned with the candidate's major interests. Be open with your committee about your intentions, and provide a rationale for your actions.

Every department or program has its own culture, and yours might not mesh with some of my rules. However, a lot of these ideas are ones many administrators pursue. Chances are, if you follow the rules, you'll be reappointed or promoted at the end of your successful administrative term—assuming you still want the job.

Michael J. Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. His faculty has recently reappointed him to a third term.


1. jeff1 - September 13, 2010 at 07:09 am

How about just a few more:

13. Do the right thing by the University and the people who work for it.
14. Be flexible and collaborative.
15. Don't let your position go to your head.
16. Have fun and remain excited and engaged.

2. zingale - September 13, 2010 at 08:07 am

only 500 undergrad majors and a department chair expects to have a posse of administrative and academic assistants/associates? please don't mislead potential chairs at the vast majority of public institutions that just don't have those kind of "assigned time" resources.

3. catlkelley - September 13, 2010 at 09:38 am

Instead of getting somebody else to do your budget for you, you should figure it out for yourself. It's not that hard and is a critical job skill for anybody in administration.

For the routine paperwork, you need to develop a healthy respect for and rapport with your administrative assistant / secretary (if you are lucky enough to have one). Having worked with excellent, good and less-good secretaries, and without one for a long stretch of time, I think that this is the single most important thing a new administrator needs to bear in mind.

Also add to the list "develop a spirit of collegiality with other academic and administrative units." Too often academic leaders swap the faculty mindset of self-first with the mindset of "my department above all." Certainly, protecting and supporting your own department is important. However, the other units on campus are there to help you and distrusting them, working against them, and failing to consider the impact of your choices on others in the institution will limit your success.

4. mileydog - September 13, 2010 at 09:42 am

An excellent article Michael - I enjoyed reading it! Your recommendations and suggestions are really right on target!

5. oh_richard - September 13, 2010 at 09:56 am

I agree on the budget - it is critical that you know how financial reasources are ... or are not... being assigned to your department, and how well you are... or are not... using them. I also agree on you building a collaborative relationship with other departments... Just remember the director/chair of the other department may not be working on that same goal...

I would add a few more:
19. Document all your decisions for the first six months, and why and how you made them as you did. Reflecting on and reviewing this every so often can tell you if your leadership style (based on those leadership mission statements they make you generate) is what you think it is.
20. Stay sane. More than maintain a sense of humor and have fun, schedule days off, time with loved ones (and blackberries and iphones are not loved ones, no matter how much you like them, so leave them at home), and reflective review session of what you are and are not accomplishing (at home and at work). It's the only way to maintain the big picture thinking you need to survive the job.

6. gcwaters - September 13, 2010 at 09:59 am

Agree completely with the need to move towards a service orientation....maybe the hardest thing for me about learning the position. Also agree that, with 500 students, you're asking for a lot of additional administrative help. WIth that many majors, I make do with a top notch administrative assistant, an undergrad coordinator and a grad coordinator (one month summer salary or one course buyout for each)....they focus only on academics, though--scheduling, budget, staffing, etc., is all my responsibility....

7. baracoa - September 13, 2010 at 10:24 am

In the end, though, there is so little training given to both mid- and upper-level management. Most chairs and directors are, alas, beholden to the czars of the institutions: Deans and Provosts. Training of university managers is not unlike tossing graduate students into classrooms, most of whom lack any training in management or pedagogy, respectively. These are two areas of higher education that are broken, and they need to be fixed.

8. a_voice - September 13, 2010 at 10:37 am

I don't get the first two items:
- Start serving others: That would be a late start. Most faculty members I know would have been serving others way before becoming administrators.
- Stop loving students: What? They should be the reason why you have that job. I thought it was about transforming their lives for the better.

Your advice amounts to matter-of-fact management advice, but it is not very inspiring. I hope future administrators do much better than that.

9. relgst - September 13, 2010 at 11:30 am

While I love most of your advice, I have to agree with CatLKelley. Far too many have far too little respect for the job that professional administrators (be they called departmental administrators as at our institution or administrative assistants as tehy are at others) Those in these positions are often looked at as mere support personnel when in fact they serve as the true backbone of a department. A good administrative professional often serves through several chairs and administrative heads and provides those persons with invaluable resources and professional assistance.

10. ksosay - September 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

Pedestrian advice that is, as noted earlier, not terribly inspiring. It worries me that someone moving into an administrative position would NOT know this already.

11. doch57 - September 13, 2010 at 11:53 am

Wish someone would send to my . . . . Common sense, common courtesy; good article.

12. olmsted - September 13, 2010 at 06:00 pm

I am continually amazed at the divide that seemingly separates dept chair (ie, rotational, as in 'musical chairs') vs dept heads (ie, the singular entity that can be severed by a guillotine/dean). The disparities in salary (chairs frequently seem to get laughable/paltry stipends and course releases), influence, leadership expectations (my deans have been very interested in dept vision), and culture change (a new admin hired on a nat'l search vs. another tired rotation in by a colleague you know well) are stark.

Regarding #10's comment, I think the fact that folks who have administrative positions either had it happen by chance or by conscious career move points out the reasoning behind why many are caught off guard by the lessons of the position. That is, many simply didn't investigate it, they gave in to it. And only later reflect back on lessons learned.

Articles such as this, for all their merit, are best taken (if not written) with a good dose of transparency as to which of the two admin scenarios one is viewing it from. And, I should add, perhaps even the idea of two macro views is too limiting.

ps-regarding loving students, in fact, often the chair/head is the only one the student trusts to care for them. The dept administrator doesn't need a course eval, and has the ability to intervene for a student's sake. So perhaps not a touchy feely love, but still a caring and stewardship.

13. dboyles - September 13, 2010 at 06:50 pm

Sounds good to me. One caveat: As reformed smokers may hate their previous habit and anyone who smokes, be cognizant you may at times "hate" faculty, their positions, and their perspectives, their strong opinions--FOR NO GOOD REASON other than that your position has changed. And that's a pretty sorry reason; don't let it happen to you.

Good luck!

14. oh_richard - September 13, 2010 at 07:55 pm

Following up on #8
"Start serving others: That would be a late start. Most faculty members I know would have been serving others way before becoming administrators."

True, but they serve in their own way. When you make the switch to administration, you are more limited in what "your way" can be. If you were always against "issue x" before for whatever good reasons, you can't be anymore. You have to make sure in any discussion about it that the "for issue x" and "against issue x" people see you as fair, and willing to support the decision of the Department (if it is that kind of issue), rather than your own view.

"Stop loving students: What? They should be the reason why you have that job. I thought it was about transforming their lives for the better."

True, but you can't be seen as playing any kind of favoritism. Many things you did as an advisor before can be done the exact same way, but now look different. As a Faculty advisor you can email Student Services about a student's problem, and Student Services might or might not respond. As a chair, they more than likely will respond and will resolve it. Students may see your advisees as getting faster or better service, and they may be... That may obscur your actual and diligent efforts to get Student Services to answer everyone's emails...

15. bbaylis - September 14, 2010 at 03:23 pm

From 40 years of experience in administration, I find myself agreeing with all most all the sugeestions from the article and comments, even the contradictory ones. How's that possible? Life in administration is not clear cut. It's like juggline runnin chain saws while walking a tight rope. If you fall off on either side, you're liable to get hurt.
Remember that "Because I said so." is not a sufficient answer to the question "Why?" Be prepared to share your reasoning behind your response to any request
Learn when and how to say "NO"

If I may make one more suggestion; Always maintain your integrity. People have to be able to count on your word.

16. laoshi - September 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm

"Especially important is the nurturing of a climate welcoming to women and members of underrepresented groups."

Underrepresented groups nowadays includes white Republican men. Or Tea Partisans. Can we foresee a paradigm shift in academe?

17. marzas - September 15, 2010 at 07:57 am

Someone please tell me how a faculty member with no adminstrative and leadership experience becomes a dean of an administrative (non-academic) university department? What is the history behind such promotions? We have faulty members aka deans in our department come and go,in three-year stints, bringing upheaval to the department when 'trying out' their personal styles of leadership. Very few hold degrees in higher ed administration, thereby jumping from the purely academic mindset of research into the role of administration.

18. studentsuccess10 - September 15, 2010 at 04:56 pm

I worked as a VP of Student Services at a community college in Texas and the VP who handled the budget was able to bury funds where the president, and the rest of us, couldn't find it unless it was uncovered. Get to know the budget and the various accounts that make up the important resources of your institution.

19. rickw - September 15, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Very basic and good advice. It doesnt hurt for all of us to take stock of what administrators should be and do versus what they often do when new to the job. I would add, avoid arrogance and remember that a title does not confer ability or wisdom.

20. joanlw3 - September 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Make a go-to list with names, emails, and phone numbers of people in every office you have to deal with and go to them as you're learning things. Where's the form for requesting a hire? Where do I find the line-number of a tenured position? What's the capacity of this classroom? These will not be the provost or the dean or the registrar but support people in their offices. Find out who they and use them. They will be happy to help you. They are the ones who have to fix your mistakes so they would rather you didn't make them.

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