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Careers Café

In praise of university administration

BY UA/AU | MAR 24 2014

This is a guest post from Christoper Buddle. Check out his blog, Arthropod Ecology.

In academia, professors are sometimes offered interesting opportunities to take administrative appointments, and we have the chance to say “no” if the fit or timing isn’t good. Terry McGlynn recently wrote about declining an opportunity for such an appointment, and I know of other (close) colleagues who have recently turned down similar positions. For many academics, the fit is never good, partly because it doesn’t interest them, sometimes because they are in the wrong career stage, and sometimes academics just detest anything to do with university administration, and see it as a necessary evil.

I have recently accepted a high-level administrative appointment in my own faculty, to start in June. When I posted this news on Facebook, an acquaintance wrote “there goes another one to the cesspool of university administration.” Many of my colleagues simply cannot fathom why I would willingly accept an administration position that may reduce my productivity as a successful researcher. I fully respect those who turn down administrative appointments when they do so thoughtfully and carefully, as Terry did in his post. I have much less respect for colleagues who quickly dismiss and denigrate such positions and consider administration to be a waste of (precious) time.

In fairness, you seldom see a series of arguments about why you should join the administration, and why such opportunities are exciting, challenging and rewarding. I think it’s critical that these be expressed, as I believe strongly that administration is vital to the success of academic institutions as we head into a somewhat uncertain future. We need profs to want to work within the administration, and see those positions as a valuable use of time, and as an opportunity to continue to shape universities into institutions that support all facets of higher education especially given current fiscal constraints.

With that backdrop, here are five reasons why I’m motivated to accept an appointment in university administration:

1. It’s part of the job: When I read the description of what I’m supposed to do as an academic, there are three tasks: research, teaching and service. Administration falls under service. Academics oversee how universities operate: higher-level administrative appointments (principals, provosts, deans, associate deans, chairs, directors) are typically held by academics – people that understand the unique culture of academia, have been “in the trenches,” and have a perspective about what it means to work in an environment where getting anything done with professors can be akin to cowboys trying to herd cats.

We are sometimes called upon to contribute to the process of running the place; sitting on committees to re-think academic policies and procedures, hiring new tenure-track professors, or developing a white paper on strategic directions. Without academics agreeing to help with administration, universities would grind to a halt. By default, we all must take a turn and step up to the plate (at least occasionally). There’s a lot of karma in academia, and helping out with administration now and then certain can lead to good things and it’s good to be tagged as a “team player.” Your dean or chair may think of you more positively at promotion time, or you may end up being recognized for an award because you are a visible and active part of your community. It’s everyone’s duty to help out, willingly, with university administration. By no means does this mean everyone ought to jump at every opportunity for an administrative appointment, but it does mean such opportunities must not be quickly dismissed.

2. Improving the workplace: I spend most of my working time in an office, located in a department, within a faculty, at a university. Although I sometimes sit on editorial boards, attend conferences, or do field work, the majority of my time is, literally, in that office. As such, I want that office to be within the best possible work environment, and if it’s not, I am pleased to work to make it better. I am not suggesting that things are broken in my own workplace, but rather I sometimes have ideas about new systems and new approaches to the everyday operations happening in the halls of a university. I know of a lot of profs who actively criticize the “administration” and criticize how things could be better, but unless these individuals take an active role in that administration, their voice won’t make a difference.

3. Known knowns: The world of academia can be frustrating at times because many things we do have poorly defined end-points or boundaries. For example, research is a process that is extremely drawn and has an unknown ending – one question leads to another, one published paper leads to the next, experiments fail, and research programs take decades or lifetimes to complete. Administration is often a process with a start and an end, whether it’s a committee on student discipline in which all decisions are made within a two hour space of time, without “homework,” or whether it’s a report to senate about a new learning management system. Committees have terms of reference, and administration has “solvable” problems that take months or years to deal with, rather than decades.

4. Validation: in my experience, you get thanked for doing university administration. You are recognized by your dean and chair, or by the members of a committee. If you take part in helping students as part of your administrative duties, they are appreciative of that help. More broadly, taking part in administration gets you noticed by a suite of really interesting people within your university, from staff through to other colleagues, other deans, provosts and principals. You gain a broader appreciation for the university, and your university appreciates the service you provide. This kind of validation is important – it makes us feel good about coming to work, and makes us want to keep working hard.

5. A good fit: University administration is a suitable kind of work for people who excel at and enjoy multitasking. Administration is about many different tasks, and ever-changing duties. I personally enjoy this kind of variability in my job and that may be part of the reason why university administration fits my personality. It’s full of interesting problems to solve, and allows you to work with a suite of fascinating, intelligent people from a range of disciplines.

In sum, by no means do I expect this post to change people’s minds. I do, however, hope that this explains some of the reasons why I see university administration as a valuable use of time. Hopefully these ideas resonate with more academics, and we can see administration as an exciting and important part of our jobs. The future of universities does depend on the professoriate becoming fully engaged with the process of administration.

The UA editorial team.
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  1. Philip Hultin / March 31, 2014 at 10:49

    Sounds like the author just MIGHT be the right kind of university administrator – one who understands that the university does not simply exist so that s/he will have something to administer. Problem is, after a certain amount of time many academics who enter administration seem to forget what it’s like to labour “in the trenches”. The lure of “big projects”, “strategic initiatives” and travel to set up “internationalization” programs just becomes too tempting, and all too often the academic is consumed by the administrator.

    I agree that critics of administration should also work constructively with administration, but after 10 years on my university senate, I have to say that my voice doesn’t seem to have made much difference. You can jump on the administration train or you can watch it steam by. It doesn’t change which track it’s on.

    • Valentin Lucet / March 14, 2015 at 18:28

      That might be a crazy idea but…
      Would it be possible to give to academics a “mandate” when they enter administration? They could be administrators for a 2-5 years and go back “in the trenches” at the end of their mandate. Therefore, they would never forget “what it’s like to labour” in the lab, as you said.

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