Dear Reluctant Administrator: You’ve Got This
Colleges and universities differ from most other organizations in that not everyone longs to be in charge. At corporations, government agencies, and even non-profits, staff members all seem intent on clawing their way up the ladder, while the intrigue within a typical homeowner’s association or youth sports league might shock Machiavelli.
Academia isn’t completely immune. We have our share of climbers and careerists, lusting for power and prestige. Ironically, they’re usually the last people most of us would wish to work for. We also have plenty of decent, talented folks who are skilled managers and inclined to follow that career path—thank goodness. We need all of those administrators we can get.
Yet we also have, in academia, a fair number of decent, talented folks who have leadership ability but no interest in leading. They just want to be left alone—to teach, pursue their scholarly interests, and serve on committees. (Well, maybe not that last one, so much.) For them, administration represents more work (often for not much more money), more headaches, and less autonomy. Plus, it’s a distraction from their “real job” as scholars.
That’s unfortunate because, as I said, we need good people, especially as department chairs. That’s where most of the administrative work of the college gets done. And I’ve observed, over my three decades in academia, that those who most covet the position tend to be least suited for it, while the ones who are initially reluctant to accept it often make the best leaders.
On the bright side, given the culture on many campuses, those individuals—the reluctant ones—sometimes find themselves taking on the duties of department chair, anyway. Perhaps they were talked into applying by colleagues or recruited by the dean. Or maybe, as is the case at many smaller institutions, it was simply their turn—they “rotated in” when a colleague’s stint ended.
If you find yourself in that situation, reluctantly serving as chair for a fixed term with an end date that can’t seem to arrive soon enough, just know that your time in office needn’t be miserable. You can make it a rewarding and even enjoyable experience.
See the big picture
As dean, I once presided over the formation of a new department, basically splitting a large unit in half. That was easy enough. The challenge was finding someone to lead it.
First, I emailed the faculty to see if anyone was interested. No response. Then I talked to several of the more experienced professors. I was uniformly rebuffed. I briefly considered resorting to blackmail before one faculty member agreed to take the job. When I asked him why he changed his mind, he said, “Because I realized it’s not about me. It’s about what’s best for the campus, my colleagues, and the students.”
That’s exactly right. Good leaders, however reluctant, understand that leadership is often a form of sacrifice for the common good.
Focus on service
For me, department chair was by far the most satisfying administrative job I ever held. As difficult as it was at times—I actually found it more demanding than being a dean—it also provided me with countless opportunities to help others, especially faculty.
As chair, you can serve your colleagues in ways you never could otherwise, using your skills and influence to make their jobs easier. That entails a great deal of work behind the scenes—scheduling classes, horse-trading for space, procuring equipment—that garners little recognition, much less thanks. Your reward will be a happy, productive faculty, successful students, and a smooth-running department.
Sadly, as chair, you can no longer pal around with your former faculty buddies, lest you appear to play favorites. You needn’t abandon those friendships entirely, and you certainly shouldn’t alienate colleagues if you can avoid it, especially if you’re headed back to the faculty in a few years. But you may need to put some relationships temporarily on hold in the interests of fairness and objectivity.
As difficult as that may be, it also gives you a chance to make new friends among people you might not have known before—or bothered getting to know. That includes, in addition to other mid-level administrators, colleagues in student services, the library, the business office, and the book store. They may become some of your best friends while opening new vistas for you professionally.
Several years ago, when I was interviewing for a department chair position, the dean conducting the interview complained (bragged?) that she never took vacation time. I replied, “If I get this job, I promise that won’t be an issue.” I did get the job, and I did take my vacation time. Well, most of it.
One reason people avoid administration is that it can become all-consuming, monopolizing your time, energy, and emotional bandwidth.To survive your tenure as chair, it’s important to engage in a little self-care. Make an effort to eat well and exercise regularly. Get some rest. Say “no” occasionally. Take your vacation days. Spend time with family and friends. Watch a movie. Read a book.
Above all, go home. Don’t work late night after night. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received, as a new administrator, was that “there’s no such thing as an academic emergency.” That might not always be true, but it’s generally true. Most things can wait till tomorrow.
Self-care also involves making time for the things you love, professionally. If the main reason you went into education is that you enjoy the classroom, and now you rarely teach, consider picking up an additional course. If you still teach but find that, with your administrative responsibilities, you don’t have time for writing and research, try carving out a few hours a week for those activities, even it means letting other things slide—like responding to every single email. Chances are, you’ll discover those “other things” weren’t as urgent as they seemed.
Remember, serving others doesn’t mean neglecting your own mental health. Your department needs you. Your institution needs you. Your colleagues need you. But they all need you to be relatively stable, happy, and content with your lot. Harried, bitter, stressed-out chairs are no help to anyone, least of all themselves.
The good news is that you can do both, fulfilling your responsibilities while still maintaining your sanity and having a life. You just have to keep things in perspective, take advantage of new opportunities, and find satisfaction in helping others succeed.
Rob Jenkins has spent 34 years in higher education, 20 of those as an administrator. He is currently an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College and a Senior Fellow at The Academy for Advancing Leadership. A frequent contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications, Rob is also the author of five books, including Welcome to My Classroom and The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders (with Karl Haden). Follow him on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak