• October 24, 2014

All the Wrong Reasons

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

People go into academic administration for a lot of reasons, some nobler than others. In fact, I've encountered some really bad reasons for wanting to be an administrator—which is not to say that all administrators are bad, or that all of their motives are suspect, or even that those who are driven by something other than pure altruism always turn out to be bad leaders.

Over the years, however, I have observed what I perceive to be a clear correlation between suspect motives and poor administrative performance, not to mention questionable character. Here are a few of the reasons some people become administrators who probably shouldn't:

Just for the money. It's no secret that administrators make more money than faculty members, and in some cases, a lot more. The higher up the administrative ladder you climb, the more the income gap tends to widen.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to make more money. We'd all like to be able to provide a more comfortable lifestyle for ourselves and our families, pay down debt, maybe save more for retirement.

But if the only reason you want to become an administrator is to make a higher salary, you probably need to rethink your priorities. First of all, you might not even like the job. Administration isn't for everyone. I've known good people who took administrative jobs for the money and ended up being miserable. On balance, it's better to do something that you find personally fulfilling and that doesn't create unnecessary stress. You're likely to live longer that way, enjoy your life more, and perhaps even accumulate more wealth over the course of a longer career.

Besides, the people you'll be supervising deserve someone who's in it for more than just a paycheck. They need a leader who's committed for the long haul, who won't burn out in six months or a year, who won't come to work miserable every day. We all know the damage that miserable people, especially miserable administrators, can do to a work environment.

Most important, the faculty need someone who isn't just going to do whatever it takes to keep the gravy train flowing, regardless of whether it's right. More and more, in these days of hypercorporatization, we need administrators who aren't afraid to stand up and speak out—who are willing to sacrifice their hefty salaries, if need be, to protect the academic enterprise.

For the prestige. Some people want to be administrators just so that they can say they're administrators. They think that introducing themselves at cocktail parties by saying, "I'm the dean of such-and-such" is more impressive than admitting they're just lowly professors. And there's probably some truth to that.

But prestige can be an elusive thing. Depending on what you're chair of, or dean of, or director of, your position on the campus might not be as lofty as you think. And just as with a higher salary, whatever prestige does come your way might not be worth the hassles of a job that doesn't suit you and that you really don't like.

The worst part, though, is that being an administrator solely for whatever ego gratification it offers makes the job all about you. To be an effective administrator, you can't afford to be that self-centered. You have to be more concerned with doing what's best for faculty members and students than with what people are saying or thinking about you.

Because you know better than everybody else. Many people go into administration, at least in part, because they believe they have some good ideas and can make positive contributions. But some are convinced that they know more about the organization's problems, and how to solve them, than anybody else does. Those folks can't wait to get into "power," so that they can fix everything that's wrong and bring the entire enterprise into conformity with their magnificent vision.

The trouble is, that way of thinking is incompatible with the nature of higher-education institutions. Colleges aren't collaborative because some management guru decided that it would be a good strategy. They're that way out of necessity, because they contain a lot of very smart people who have significant influence over a variety of areas, including the classroom, and whose ideas must therefore be taken into consideration. Leaders who try to push through their agenda by administrative fiat won't last long on a campus, regardless of the intrinsic merits of the agenda.

So you can tell everybody else what to do. One of the great myths about being an academic administrator is that it makes you "the boss." As a department chair, dean, and program director, I certainly never felt like anybody's boss—their supervisor, perhaps, in the human-resources sense of that term, but not their boss.

Instead, I often felt more like the young Eric Blair, in George Orwell's classic autobiographical essay, "Shooting an Elephant." As constable of a small village in British-occupied Burma, he was called upon to put down a rogue elephant that had killed a man and destroyed a lot of property. But by the time he caught up to the beast, its fit had passed and it was quietly munching grass beside the road. He saw no point in killing a valuable work animal—until he turned around and saw that the entire village had gathered, happily expecting a show. "And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all," he wrote. "The people expected it of me, and I had got to do it."

The lesson: If you think being an administrator means you can force the people under you to conform to your wishes, you are sadly mistaken. In reality, the pressure will be on you to conform to their expectations—and if you don't, at least to a significant degree, you will have a short and very miserable tenure.

To settle old scores. Among the worst reasons to go into academic administration: You believe you have always been treated unjustly. You've never gotten the respect you deserve. Your groundbreaking ideas have never received an adequate hearing. You believe that other people who are not as smart or as accomplished as you have gotten the promotions and raises that should, by right, have been yours.

My experience over the past quarter-century has been that, when someone like that, a perpetual victim, acquires any power, all hell tends to break loose. I don't know if there is anything more destructive to an academic unit than a leader whose primary motivation is to establish his or her superiority while righting imagined wrongs, avenging phantom slights, and putting others in their place.

If you're thinking about going into administration for one or more of the above reasons, please do the rest of us a favor: Don't.

But if you believe you have something to offer, think you can handle the stress, understand that you don't have all of the answers but are willing to listen, and (frankly) wouldn't mind a pay raise, then by all means apply. Our community colleges need decent administrators almost as much as the country needs decent political leaders, which is to say, quite a bit.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and the author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He blogs at www.academicleaders.org and writes monthly for our community-college column. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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