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The Bell-Shaped Career Curve

Institutional Culture

The Bell-Shaped Career Curve

When many academic leaders begin their academic careers, they imagine (or at least hope) it’ll progress as a continually sloping line upward: faculty member to chair to dean to provost to president. But of course not all career paths can turn out that way. There are far fewer deans than chairs and only one provost and president per institution. So inevitably many of those dreams aren’t going to be fulfilled. But it’s not as though most administrators are frustrated by that reality or end their careers with a sense of failure. Somewhere along the way, many of them decide that the next level of administration isn’t really for them. If they try several times to reach the next level but never make it, they may conclude that further movement up the hierarchy just isn’t worth the effort. Often these people then have a career curve shaped not like the contrail of a jet on takeoff, but like the familiar bell. The person’s path moves from the faculty to administration and then back to the faculty, a modern Cincinnatus rather than Caesar.

What isn’t immediately clear, often even to those on this path themselves, is that the bell-shaped career curve is a time-honored and extremely common path. It was taken by that archetype of everyone’s favorite academic, James Hilton’s Mr. Chips himself. Moreover, we see it in other walks of life as well. Not everyone who’s elected to the town council goes on to become the president of the United States. So even though people may raise their eyebrows at those familiar announcements—often sent by email these days at 4:59 on a Friday afternoon—that say So-and-so “misses the classroom” and found the opportunity to return from the administration to a faculty position “too attractive to pass up,” sometimes they’re actually true. For many administrators who’ve spent years coping with the pressures of academic leadership, the idea of teaching a few sections of Intro to X or a graduate course, discussing significant academic ideas rather than documenting assessment matrices, and asking rather than answering the hostile questions at faculty meetings may well seem like “an opportunity too good to pass up.” Besides, it’s always good to remember that Cincinnatus died peacefully in his bed while Caesar didn’t quite make it to spring break in 44 BCE.

Academic leaders whose careers assume a bell-shaped curve bring their institutions a wide range of benefits. After all, you can be a much more effective chair when you’ve seen the world the way that your dean sees it and make a greater contribution as a faculty member when you realize that the vast majority of administrators, even when they’re dead wrong, really are trying to do what’s best for the institution. The contacts people make in administrative positions can be extremely useful when they’re advising a student who needs to have an exception granted or a policy waived. Less commonly recognized but equally important is the way in which administrative experience gives faculty members insight into human nature. It’s far more difficult to idealize either the faculty or students after you’ve repeatedly seen them trying to game the system, cut corners, and use the institution for their personal advantage (usually describing themselves as the victim even while trying to avoid an obligation or justify some misconduct). On the other hand, it’s also far more difficult to be cynical toward these same groups for too long when you’ve seen the impressive sacrifices many students make to receive their education, the intense devotion professors bring to everything they do, and the genuine improvements higher education makes in the lives of all its stakeholders. “Serving your time” in administration can balance your perspective in ways that just teaching courses and conducting research can’t.

An amazing amount has been written about the post-administrative “re-transition” phase, often by academic leaders who are experiencing or considering that process themselves. Walt Gmelch, Dee Hopkins, and Sandra Damico devote an entire section to “Life After the Deanship” in their Season’s of a Dean’s Life. And here are just a few recent articles that either focus on or at least discuss the transition from an administrative role back to the faculty or to other responsibilities at the university.

  • Battistella, E. L. (May 2009). Making soup from rain: My year as provost. Academic Leader. 25.5, 1, 6.
  • Elmore, H. W. (March 2009). Finessing exit strategies from the interim deanship. Academic Leader. 25.3, 3, 6.
  • Engle, S. (Summer 2006). Returning to the faculty: Advice from a chair. The Department Chair. 17(1), 28.
  • Fant, G. C. (Summer 2004) The parallel chair move. The Department Chair. 15(1), 18-19.
  • Kelly, R. (December 2008). A purposeful approach to chair transition. Academic Leader. 24.12, 2-3.
  • Lees, N. D. (Summer 2011). Preparing for your departure as chair. The Department Chair. 22(1), 17-20.
  • Marquis, L. M. (Winter 2005). Being a good FART (Former Administrator Returned to Teaching). The Department Chair. 15(3), 8-9.
  • Sommer, R. (Summer 2008). Becoming temporary faculty: A former chair’s experience. The Department Chair. 19(1), 3-5.
  • Southerland, W. (Summer 2008). From chair to dean: Strategies for career advancement. The Department Chair. 19(1), 8-10.
  • Strickland, R. A. (Fall 2006). Stepping down as chair and reintegrating into faculty: Chairs Anonymous, Anyone? The Department Chair. 17(2), 25-26.
  • Zappe, C. J., & Gerdes, E. P. (December 2008). Temporary insanity: Deciding to be a dean. Academic Leader. 24.12, 1, 6.

It’s obviously an issue that’s on the minds of a lot of people! As a result, one lesson we can learn from the bell-shaped career curve is that, much more than we sometimes realize, the “faculty/administrator continuum” profoundly affects what academic leaders do. There’s a continual ebb and flow between the administration and the faculty. The unionized environment at many universities, coupled with how most institutions design their organizational charts, creates the appearance of a clear line between management and labor, administration, and faculty. But that picture distorts the reality of higher education. A recent survey conducted by Robert Cipriano and Richard Riccardi indicates that while 22.8 percent of department chairs think of themselves as administrators, a full 74.3 percent view themselves as faculty members. And 44.3 percent of chairs plan to return to the faculty at the end of their administrative work. (Cipriano and Riccardi, 2013, 23.) While those numbers may decline the further one goes up the administrative ladder (in other words, the career curve really does become a sloping line upward for certain people), the fact remains that many deans, even many provosts and chancellors see themselves as faculty members at heart. Returning to the faculty ranks isn’t, in their minds, so much a demotion as it is a homecoming.

If we understand this phenomenon, we’ll do a better job of preparing and developing future academic leaders. Approaches that instill in administrators, even unintentionally, an us-versus-them mentality are counterproductive in an environment where there’s no clear definition of who is us and who is them or where these terms can’t even be applied at all. Leadership development programs of the future will need to focus more on a peer/colleague style of administration rather than a supervision/management style. And academic leaders should always be aware that the troublemaker they want to throw out of their office today could easily have the office next to theirs tomorrow.

Additional References

Cipriano, R. E., & Riccardi, R. L. (Summer 2013). A six-year study of department chairs. The Department Chair. 24.1, 22-24.

Gmelch, W. H., Hopkins, D., & Damico, S. B. (2011). Seasons of a dean’s life: Understanding the role and building leadership capacity. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

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