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If You Try Sometimes, You’ll Get What You Need: How To Think Like An Administrator

May 14, 2009, 12:52 pm

Gary Olson’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, hilariously titled “How To Join The Dark Side” (hence my choice for an illustration) is a useful take on how to think about becoming a university administrator. What I like best about it is that it avoids a common stereotype (administrators are failed academics, or worse, not intellectually inclined at all when lacking a Ph.D.) and takes university administration seriously as a career that intelligent people train for and enjoy. Furthermore (and this is the kind of thing no one talks about in academia) it suggests that an academic career might entail several stages, in which one’s life could be plotted as ambitiously as a Jane Austen novel. A career might begin with the majority of one’s efforts devoted to establishing one’s credentials as a scholar and a teacher, really learning those jobs inside and out as well as deriving satisfaction from them, and then one might, by design rather than failure, gradually turn (through committee work, chairing, and appointment as a dean) to learning how universities work and eventually running one of them.

Gordon argues that colleges and universities need to make such career paths available to faculty at the earliest stages of their careers, both through short stints that allow tenure-track and tenured faculty to “try on” administrative work, and through workshops that help them imagine their careers creatively.

Indeed, if you look at the careers of certain prominent women who have become college and university presidents (the ones I personally know best are Mary Maples Dunn and Drew Gilpin Faust), you can’t help but recognize two things. The first is that both are well-respected intellectuals, who have great scholarly accomplishments to their credit. The second, if you take a look at their careers, is that both women had a plan. They didn’t get stuck in the muck and the mire of struggling with administrators, but rather, took an interest in trying to shape and learn about the institutions in which they operated. Eventually they acquired the skill and knowledge to have a major impact on higher education.

This is undoubtedly on my mind since I had a big meeting yesterday with a group of administrators at Zenith about a set of important issues that I cannot, of course, go into. And yet, in tandem with the Gordon article, it caused me to think that there is yet another underrated skill in the academy that no one teaches you how to develop: how to think like an administrator.

This is not the same thing as, for example, being taken over by aliens, although many of your colleagues will tell you it is. Rather, it requires something good historians and other social scientists value enormously in their work, which is being able to see someone else’s point of view and taking interests into account that are not a narcissistic reflection of your own local departmental issues or intellectual proclivities. It also requires the simple understanding that administrators are problem-solvers, and you, my colleague, can choose to be a problem solver too, contributing helpful and constructive suggestions that help move your agendas forward by persuading people that what you want can contribute to the larger vision. Or you can choose to be a problem. Take your pick.

To wit, the Radical’s Five Basic Guidelines For Thinking Like An Administrator, a particularly useful skill in a time of declining resources.

Be firm and clear when expressing objections, but don’t be abusive or accuse the administrator of bad faith out of hand. One former administrator I know told me that if s/he ever wrote a memoir it would be titled I Am Outraged That..! since a great many emails that s/he received began with those words. First of all, imagine if your dean, or someone from the provost’s office, called you repeatedly to yell at you or tell you what an ignorant, lying ass hat you are. Wouldn’t you be inclined to take official action? I would. You can take a firm position without accusing an administrator of bad faith, stupidity or personal animus. This will reward you in two ways. First, s/he will be grateful to you for acting like a colleague instead of a raging lunatic, and s/he will be more inclined to listen sympathetically to what you say. Second, it creates an opening for said administrator to provide a broader explanation for what is going on, and whether you are actually affected by it. This policy maker might either choose to acknowledge that the policy or decision in question sucks for you and that s/he is sorry about that; or s/he might explain some ways the policy doesn’t exactly suck for you and how you might take advantage of it in some way you had not yet considered.

Give people the benefit of the doubt: sometimes they lack knowledge for a reason. One of the things I find endlessly frustrating, as chair of an interdisciplinary program, is that after years of sending detailed memos to various administrators about the creativity and unique contributions of interdisciplinary programs (ok, I’ll be honest — our program), few of them (exactly one, in fact, who I currently work with) seem to to understand many of the basic facts about what we do and how we function. And yet, if you think about it, administrators change pretty rapidly over time, and we faculty are in charge of institutional memory. Ergo, we actually know things that they don’t because we have written a couple decades worth of reports, but they haven’t read a couple decades of reports. Like the patient with no long-term memory, every day brings exciting new information for the best administrators, because if they are fast-track they did something else less than five years ago. This requires patience, restraint and tact, as you explain the same things over and over. Take new administrators to lunch and explain what you are about before you end up in a room trying to negotiate an issue and explain what you do at the same time. I know this is a good tactic, because at Zenith, more often than not they listen — and they buy the lunch.

Administrators are not failed academics. They are ambitious people who probably work twice the hours that we do, and who understand that their task is to create lively, well-organized structures that convert the research we do into the basic elements of the industry collectively known as education. Their work makes teaching concrete, converting it into commodities called curriculum, majors, and degrees that can be sold to students, whether at Yale, Zenith or the University of Phoenix. Oddly, faculty sometimes seem to think they could do these things entirely on their own if need be. Whether each individual administrator does a good job or not is another question, but often what seems like a poor administrator is only a symptom of a dysfunctional administrative structure. S/he could even be
someone who just doesn’t agree with you. No matter: does it help your cause to treat him like a Judas goat or a nitwit? No. It causes this person not to return your phone calls, which will really not help you get want you want. Which leads me to my next point:

You can’t always get what you want. Sing it, Mick. Sometimes people genuinely disagree with you and you have to suck it up, and sometimes there isn’t enough to go around. And honestly, why should you always get what you want? It may be all well and good at the department level to work avidly for the destruction of those who oppose you (not) but university administrations are like the state in one respect. They are arenas in which multiple interests compete to define the mission of the whole. There are winners and there are losers, but there is a third category too: compromisers. Don’t forget that many administrators genuinely regret not being able to serve everyone’s needs, and that when you can offer them a creative choice that allows them to make the most out of limited resources, you may achieve a partial victory. Don’t forget either that although you may take your own needs very personally, the decisions they make aren’t personal. Learning to lose gracefully can pay forward, in the sense that you might be perceived as a reasonable person down the line who is worth talking to and capable of compromise. In other words, you live to fight another day.

Administrators, like God, help those who help themselves. Get your reports in on time. Apologize when you can’t. Asume that if someone doesn’t understand what you have just said that you need to say it better, not that the listener is an idiot bean counter. Follow directions when you are asked to submit something, because whoever is asking for the document actually wants the information they are asking for: it is an act of respect to give it to them, not an act of integrity and your intense regard for academic freedom to withold it. Don’t assume that, as a chair, it is beneath your dignity as a scholar to take the time to learn to read a budget so that you can explain at the end of the year where all the money went. Don’t assume that your field is entitled to resources until the end of time just because you are famous, or because the field you are in has been around for a hundred years or so.

Oh, and let me provide what ought to be an unnecessary example of why no blog post, and few conversations, should be illustrated with actual descriptions of what happened in a meeting: you are likely to only represent your own point of view and your own interests in such a narrative. Furthermore, how would you like it if you went out of your way to try to have a meeting that was fair and collegial, and the administrator paid you back by leaving the meeting only to spread gossipy opinions about what an ass hat you are, or how the whole institution is doomed because of your hare-brained ideas about how things should be? You wouldn’t like it, would you? And yet you would be surprised how often this happens to high level administrators. I suspect the root cause of this is often faculty wanting to claim inside knowledge of processes that they actually have no control over, covering up the fact that they have agreed to something that will upset some faculty colleagues, or wanting to enhance the myth of their own superiority. So think about that the next time you elaborate on some conspiracy theory as if it were actually true, or tell tales out of school to disassociate yourself from an outcome that makes institutional sense.

And remember: If you try sometimes, you just might find — you get what you need.

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