As a new member of the faculty with fresh Ph.D. in hand, I shared an office with a colleague who was one of the early birds in the then-emerging field of administrative studies. He told me, among his opening lines of introduction, that he planned to become a college president because, "I can do just as well as any of the jerks occupying those positions."
A few years later, he did become a dean at another university, where he lasted only two years. He suffered severe trauma and actual physical disablement when faced with hard decisions. Advised by physicians to lead a different kind of academic life, he returned to research and teaching.
After nearly three decades as an academic administrator, I have observed numerous deans, vice presidents, and presidents up close and have accumulated enough similar tales to fantasize writing a book titled Bad Backs, Stiff Necks, and Migraine Headaches in Academe. Those are administrative maladies common to new (and occasionally long-serving) administrators hit with the following realizations:
They are responsible for people and money.
They are no longer admired for their wit and scholarship.
Their predecessors were not jerks after all.
In the interest of promoting relatively pain-free administrative careers, let me pass on a lesson learned early in my administrative life from an unheralded faculty member with an obscure but accurate theory of academe: "The university is like a train," he told me during my first week as a new dean. "It keeps circling its route, picking up new passengers (students) who get their tickets punched (by the faculty). You guys (administrators) come and go, and I will be here long after you are gone." He completed his recital, waving his hand in a circle, "Choo-choo, choo-choo, choo-choo."
He was right. Thirty years later he is still there and I moved on to other administrative posts.
Think of the university as if you were a passenger on a railroad or airplane. You notice the ticket issuers and collectors, the conductors or stewards, and the other passengers. As a frequent traveler you will see the same faces over and over. You rarely see the pilot or engineer and never think about the corporate headquarters or what it is they do there. For most people on campus, the idea that the faculty and the students are the university makes pretty good sense. My experience suggests that the overwhelming majority of the campus -- with the exception of the relatively few activists among the faculty and student populations -- do not care about or take notice of corporate headquarters, known as the university administration.
As an undergraduate I had no idea about the administrative organization of my college or who the dean and president were. As a graduate student, my absence of interest continued, as it does today for most doctoral students outside of those campaigning for graduate-student unions. Even when I began my faculty career, the administration was largely off my radar. In those remote "olden days" there were no search committees to call attention to how deans and people like that were selected, much less what they did.
Today those search committees are commonplace, and by virtue of having to serve on them, faculty members are more aware of what goes on in the administration building than ever. And yet, during my 20-plus years as provost at two institutions, the two questions most frequently asked of me during that time, both off and on campus, were, "What is a provost?" and, "Did you get away for the summer?"
Let us carry the transportation analogy a few steps further. The managers (administrators in academe) have a broad range of responsibilities given the variety of routes (programs), large numbers of vehicles (departments, schools), inability to control external forces (economy, governmental regulation), and relative lack of authority over the passengers (students and professors). But any breakdown or inconvenience will quickly lead to condemnation of the management as both incompetent and perfidious. Acceptance of these limitations and of the resulting criticism may well determine whether back pain can be avoided.
Too much administrative literature and too many training programs are dedicated to "leadership," a theoretical list of attributes that will make you successful. At the risk of offending 90 percent of my friends, I have never bought the notion of leadership studies or the idea that a reliable list of leadership qualities can be compiled. The rapid turnover in deans, vice presidents, and presidents demonstrates that any perceptions of you as a leader may not last long and you may have to renew them elsewhere. The best and the worst leaders can be found among the best and the worst people in every field of endeavor.
Successful academic leadership, in my view, is a combination of situational good luck and an understanding of the "transportation theory" of administration.
I can't help you with situational good luck. That's a matter of external factors (the economy, the birth rate, current educational demands, state and national political actions) and internal ones (key personnel leaving, academic missions being altered).
I may be able to offer some advice on enjoying and surviving the ride. First, rid yourself of the common but mistaken assumption that you are under constant observation in your administrative role and on the minds and lips of everyone. In fact, changes in most academic leadership positions rarely get more than a passing notice except among the professional academic politician class. Holding a major academic administrative post may be prestigious but that is more likely to be a factor off-campus than on the campus.
Second, you have to love academe and the systems and people that keep them running. That may sound obvious, but the academic culture spurns and distrusts administrators, so it is not easy. Administrative responsibility, such as a departmental chairmanship, is viewed as a requirement similar to military duty. Get in and get out. Seeking and holding a higher administrative position is viewed as part betrayal, part abandonment of scholarship, and part (heaven forbid) greed and ambition. The endless and increasingly professionalized search process for senior administrators who are great scholars and teachers almost always ends in disappointment because the attractive candidates turn into administrators.
According to campus lore, turning into an administrator means that you care about nothing but money (like those transportation moguls). Well, you had better care about money because, mythology aside, a lack of financial acumen will get you into more administrative trouble than failure to consult the faculty about the honors convocation. A nice speech about the need for liberal studies is meaningless without the funds to back it up.
Slowly the myths of campus culture that you believed as a faculty member -- that the academic administrator must always think like a faculty member -- will seem inane and counterproductive. It is easy to become cynical and wary. The oft-noted idea that one should avoid "taking things personally" is hard to do but critical to good health. While it is always invaluable to have been born with a sense of humor, what is needed is intensification of your love for the academy.
Time to put the transportation theory to work. You have to work with the rails and airfields -- and the campus -- that you've been given. Keep focused on the mission and objectives of the enterprise. Use its facilities and operating systems and customs to fulfill its purposes.
Recognize that on every campus it takes an inordinate amount of time to change anything, that the faculty will insist on process and consultation, that your authority will be limited, and that your success will ebb and flow from issue to issue and from person to person. This is the nature of the university and not a reflection upon you.
The continued existence and functioning of the railroad, the airline, or the university will not be much affected by any one action. It keeps going along its route, and folks like us come and go.