Skip navigation
From the admin chair

Drifting sideways and moving forward

Why we choose university administration.


Like many other academics, my feelings about university administration evoke a kind of Marxian analysis. But while some faculty surely see the “administrative centre” as an economic vampire, sucking the life blood from the knowledge workers, I think of it more as a club that I’m not sure I should have joined, once I realized they would allow a person like me as a member. You need a good sense of humour in this job, and Groucho beats Karl for that, all day long.

How did I, as my predecessor in this space Doug Owram put it, “drift sideways” into administration? It certainly wasn’t anything I planned as I set out on my academic career. But not far into my second faculty position, I found myself in a department that needed a new chair, just as a significant generational turnover loomed. I was given to understand that administration was largely a matter of “taking one’s turn,” and because I was younger than most of my colleagues, and more female than all but one of them, it made sense for my turn to come around sooner than I had expected. Sure, why not?

What I soon learned was that it is less about turns than it is about temperament. Not everyone is suited to administration (though some inevitably need to learn this lesson the hard way). I wasn’t susceptible to the “your turn” argument several years later when the office of the provost came calling, but I had learned by then that administration is an opportunity as well as a responsibility: a chance to help nudge a highly inertial and hard-to-steer institution in more productive and provocative directions.

But opportunities have opportunity costs. In drifting toward Service, I had to work hard to stay engaged with the other areas of effort that service is meant to promote and protect: Research and Teaching. Even as provost, I have insisted on teaching at least one course every year, while supervising a few students and maintaining a slower but steady research output.
One reason is almost selfish: teaching regularly forces me to read the current material in political science that I might otherwise find an excuse to defer indefinitely. It’s a means of staying connected with my discipline when much of my day is occupied by matters of process and procedure and budgeting and intra/inter-institution relationships.

But it’s also for me a genuinely enjoyable activity – I really like teaching, and much of the reason why I accept the responsibilities of administration is so that I can help make sure that good teachers who enjoy teaching can continue to teach in better and more effective ways. Staying connected with my students – and by extension the student-learning experience – and with my instructor colleagues – and by ex-tension the departmental faculty experience – helps me, I think, do a better job of making decisions that strongly impact and, I hope, enhance those experiences.

Those decisions, and that gentle nudging of the institution they entail, have gotten harder over the years, as more obstacles and challenges have emerged. The relentless drumbeat of fiscal constraint is hard to reconcile with the academic ideal, which in many ways is about eliminating constraints and ensuring the unfettered pursuit of ideas. There is a balance to be found between accountability – showing those who fund universities that their funds are well-spent – and necessary autonomy; as in my own field of political science, this is a constant, dynamic tension. Serious questions are being asked about who pays for education, and how much, and what that implies for academic freedom.

There are even some who think that the very notion of the university is becoming obsolete due to the disruptions of information technology. Personally, I believe the notion of a special place set aside for scholars – for teaching, research and critical thinking – has survived and, more importantly, adapted to the vast social transformations that separate the 21st century from the early middle ages; I don’t think it is about to be done in by the Internet.

But that doesn’t mean that the institution’s supporters can afford to be complacent, or smug, or drift sideways. We need to continue to adapt and change, and we need to initiate that change or it will be initiated for us. Being in position to help shape that change is the benefit that balances the costs of an administrative career, and I’m looking forward to sharing a vision of an active, coherent, relevant and contemporary Canadian university over the next several issues.

Maureen Mancuso is provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Anath Tikkum / October 31, 2012 at 11:43

    Interesting perspective from the other side. My prejudice about administrators is that they are by now using up more resources than faculty itself, especially the presidents and vice-presidents among them, and they are one element of the reason why we have a financial crisis at many universities.

    But I am looking forward to more columns discussing the future role of the universities in modern societies. They originally replaced the madrasas and the monasteries as places for learning and maintaining the culture. In the modern age they were the key center for reflexivity. Given the current emphasis on efficiency and usefulness this aspect – reflecting on the direction of our society as a whole – is about to be thrown out completely.