12 Rules for New Administrators

Brian Taylor

September 12, 2010

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.