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Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part One

Leadership and Management

Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part One

There are many habits that make for administrative success.  In my experience, administrators who exhibit most or all the traits discussed here, along with a strong work ethic, energy, an even temperament, and enthusiasm, are likely to be considered successful in their roles. Some will be more ambitious and will move to higher-level positions over time while others will be content to remain the best chairs or deans possible. Both career paths are quite acceptable. However, this piece is written with the former in mind, as some of the characteristics address those on an upward career trajectory.

The characteristics covered are presented in no particular order, although those in Part One are generally more internally directed and the result of reflection on the part of the individual.


Successful administrators should:

1. Establish and maintain personal credibility. This is about being honest and forthcoming in all dealings and being responsive to criticisms and concerns and behaving in ways that engender trust. At the time of administrative appointment, there is a presumption of credibility that carries over from the previous internal post held or that is the result of the vetting process for external hires. In both cases the new administrator must convert this into earned credibility. This is accomplished by keeping their word to faculty, students, administrators, and others. Credibility is also enhanced by being as open and as transparent as possible. In the present climate of collaboration, partnerships, and interdisciplinary ventures, credibility is a key attribute that is gained or confirmed by full participation in the planning, implementation, and oversight of projects, and by delivering on the resources pledged.

Another area that is critical in maintaining credibility is response to criticism. An effective administrator will deal with formally lodged concerns by conducting a thorough investigation and generating a timely response. Responding with an explanation, with or without a promise of change, is essential to maintain personal credibility. The credibility of the department, the school, or the campus leadership often dictates that of the entire unit.

2. Create an environment that supports equity and fairness. Faculty surveys have listed fairness as an important characteristic of their leaders. This presents a real challenge for chairs and deans because, like beauty, fairness is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. Being fair or equitable does not mean that individuals are always treated equally or in the same way.

For example, in the liberal arts, conference presentations are typical mechanisms by which scholarship is disseminated. In fiscally restrictive times the competition for limited department travel funds can be fierce. If the institution has expectations of scholarship, aspirational or immediate, then a determination must be made when proposals to travel are received. The criteria for funding may be based on whether there is a genuine invitation to present, the competitiveness of the speaker selection process, the prestige of the conference, and the history and potential of the competing faculty to produce peer-reviewed publications. The decision on who receives the support is best handled by a policy that delineates the expectations and priorities for earning travel funding. In cases like this, fairness to the institution and its scholarship goals should also be considered—if administrators do not invest resources wisely, the institutional goals may not be achieved.

A similar situation can take place in the laboratory sciences, where space can be a limiting factor. Typically, new faculty members are provided equal amounts of starter space. However, while some faculty members achieve great success in garnering external funding that pays for the space and allows for more research personnel, others may struggle to keep working in the absence of funding. Assuming no other space is available, should the administrator in charge reallocate to the successful faculty members some of the space originally assigned to their less successful colleagues? The savvy administrator would have a widely known and understood policy, perhaps in writing, on how space is distributed.

3. Be able to quickly and accurately frame important issues. Framing is a process where a potential change is examined from every possible perspective to identify stumbling blocks and sources of resistance as well as possible allies and the overall potential for success (Lees, 2016). Framing may ask whether the initiative violates institutional policy, challenges any standard procedures, or circumvents the order of approvals. Framing also involves an assessment of the impact of the change on individuals and on the local politics. Finally, in some cases, it considers the impact on local customs or ceremonial norms. Framing the change agenda accurately can help to identify sources and types of resistance and can distinguish between supporters and detractors. This allows the change agent to modify the proposal, assure individuals who feel threatened, negotiate aspects of the process, and prepare for discussions with those not on board at the outset.

There are some people who can frame a situation immediately upon hearing or reading about it. However, because the responses and decisions that are required in higher education are not usually immediate, we have time to think about our answers; this is when framing should take place. Framing is a skill that can be enhanced with practice, and careful administrators can use peers or associates to help frame their agendas or their responses to those of others.

4. Regularly assess their level of support. There are situations in which the trajectories of career administrators could be short-circuited by an annoyed superior or a faculty group that feels disenfranchised. In some cases, these negatives are the result of actions taken that had known consequences or are the result of a high-energy personality who is driving multiple agenda items without being attentive to the aftermath of each decision.

Administrators on the way up the ladder do not avoid tough, controversial issues or seek to mollify everyone they meet along the way. They realize it is successfully taking on and resolving these types of issues that gets them their next positions. Savvy administrators who make consistent decisions based on sound and known policies, and decisions that can be justified by what is good for students and/or the institution are usually immune from long-term negativity.

Everyone will have detractors but sound administrative practices will prevent those individuals from generating a credible or sizeable following. Even while making principled, justified decisions, a wise administrator will monitor his or her support to maintain a positive momentum. Those close to the individual (assistants, associates, former faculty colleagues, staff) can sometimes perceive situations that the administrator can improve with something as simple as an invitation to coffee. Personal power still works.

Lees, N. Douglas. (2016). The art of framing in academic settings. Academic Leader, 32(9), 4–5.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance and professor and former chair of Biology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

This is the first of three articles on this subject. Parts two and three will appear in subsequent issues.


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