Eight years ago, I decided to leave my secure life as a tenured faculty member at a prestigious flagship research university. Everyone thought I was nuts. But living the idyllic academic life with more than 20 years remaining to contribute to the field started to feel a little too safe for my tastes. I like a challenge. I like to solve problems. I like to lead.
People had been telling me for years that I would be a great administrator. So I took the plunge, left my cocooned existence, and moved to a different state to give administrative life a whirl.
At the end of the 2013-14 academic year, my grand experiment will end. I'm giving up administration to resurrect my scholarly life as a tenured professor. I'm not at all sure I will be successful, but I'm going to try.
My first administrative position went reasonably well. As head of a journalism school with about 700 students, I had plenty to do. The first year was a learning curve; the second year was productive. The third year, I realized that I had learned most of what I could learn at that university. As an academic administrator wanting to move forward in her career, I knew it was time to tackle the next level.
I found that opportunity at the University of South Carolina's journalism school. The position there meant I would be leading a larger school (1,500 students) with a doctoral program, a healthy budget, and more authority. I thought: This job could keep me busy for years! And it has. Along the way, several search firms, search committees, and faculty members have approached me to apply for various positions as dean and even provost.
It is the logical next step. All the leadership workshops I've been a part of over the years have clearly indicated that I have a future in administration, that I am on the right path, and that my career opportunities are limitless.
Except they're not.
I always thought I would be a dean for a few years and then eventually end up as a provost. But I discovered that there are only a few places that meet all my criteria for where I'm willing to work: flagship university, mild weather, appropriate water for sailing and rowing. Over the years, only two such opportunities have presented themselves, and for various reasons, they didn't work out.
I am career-focused. So this past summer, I took stock of my options. What would I need to do to move forward? What would it mean to stay in my current administrative post? What would it mean to step down and become a regular faculty member again—to return to a teaching and research position for which I had gone to graduate school in the first place?
What I came to realize is that management books, workshop leaders, and fellow administrators fail to share one critical piece of information with would-be administrators: Just because you want to move up doesn't mean that you will be able to move up at the times and places you might wish, and even when you get the chance, most likely the job was never intended to last forever. I understand that now. So I am trying to carve out my next career path—a return to the faculty and a second-wind research career.
As I've pondered that decision, I've come to several conclusions about working in administration:
- Leading faculty members is not at all like running a business. It's about creating an atmosphere that allows faculty members to accomplish their goals and dreams. Some administrators fail to understand that.
- Some faculty members are simply hard-wired to disagree with administrators. When an angry faculty member wants to fight about, well, everything, I've tried to remember that it's not because of me, the person, but because of me, the administrator.
- Helping others accomplish their dreams may come at a steep cost. In my case, I walked away from a productive scholarly life. I have no guarantee I'll get it back. While I've been able to continue writing a bit, I was not prepared for the amount of space in my brain that administration would take. It's going to take a while to clear away the cobwebs.
- Depending on what your administrative job is, you might be spending most of your time dealing with complaints. The reality is that when things run smoothly, no one says anything. It's when there is a problem (big or small, it doesn't matter) that you hear about it. If you aren't willing to tout your successes (and, honestly, who appreciates a self promoter?), colleagues and others will not know what you've accomplished.
- As an administrator, you're never truly off duty. E-mail messages, texts, reports, budgets, and phone calls come in steadily. It's hard to turn off the internal lists of things that must be done right away, projects to start, projects that you should start but don't quite have the energy to begin. The intellectual challenge—the life of scholarship and learning that first attracted me to my doctoral program—has seemed a distant memory on many days.
- While people often seek administrative posts because they see themselves as leaders, much of the day-to-day job is not really about leading. Instead, it is often about signing documents, approving travel requests, vetting adjuncts, writing evaluations, sending thank-you notes, creating committees. It has to be done, but it's typically not the kind of work that makes an administrator leap out of bed in the morning.
- Oddly, some administrative work is unavailable once you become an administrator. One reason that people encouraged me to go into administration in the first place was because they saw how much I enjoyed faculty committees and how well I ran them. At the last university where I was "only" a tenured faculty member, I often sat on search committees (one of my favorite tasks). I relished my time on the university's enrollment-management committee, and I couldn't wait for the monthly meetings of the faculty council. As a full-time administrator, however, I don't sit on any "faculty" committees. It seems a little ironic to me that once I step down from administration, I'll be eligible to do more committee work at the university level than I can do now.
- The work of administration can be lonely. I had a recent conversation with someone who wanted to go into administration. When I asked him why, his response was that he didn't like the solitary life of the academic. I hadn't thought about it before he mentioned that, but I realized then that the administrative life can be more lonely than people might think. For instance, it's difficult to be friends with your faculty colleagues because someone will accuse you of favoritism (they'll accuse you anyway, but you have to keep it in balance). And you're often the last one at the office (in part because you can't get what you think of as "your own work" done until everyone disappears).
The thing is, I really do love being an administrator. It's a job that suits me. And it's a job in which so few seem able to excel. But I've come to the conclusion that, for me, the costs far outweigh the benefits.
So I'm giving up. At the end of this academic year, I will become an administrative dropout. I don't know what the future holds, but finding the rhythm of research and teaching again seems like a challenge. I love a challenge.