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From the admin chair

How it all got started

Or, how a person drifts into a rewarding second career – administration


This is my first column, and the fact that I’m to give a perspective from an administrator’s chair led me to reflect on how I ended up in that chair in the first place.

As a graduate student at Toronto or a junior professor at Alberta, I saw myself as an historian, committed to the discipline and inflicting on undergrads and grad students alike my beliefs on why every Canadian needs to know about the Sydenham system or the Great Depression. Yet, for the last half of my career I have spent much of my time balancing budgets, doing strategic plans and speaking to various organizations on the importance of advanced education. It is a journey, I suspect, that many university administrators look back on with a certain sense of stupefaction.

How is it that some of us drift sideways into what is quite a different life than that of the teacher and researcher? How is it that others successfully avoid the siren song of administration, while yet others would love to be seduced but nobody calls?

Since most administrative careers begin in the vast committee system of universities, I must begin there. For many colleagues, the idea of administration in any form has little appeal. They do their bit on the requisite committees but usually avoid rather than seek out further assignments. Others are more subtle, and after being appointed to a committee early in their career, ensure they’re so bad at it that nobody will ever ask again. A third tactic, chosen by some, is to declare early on that they intend to make a career in administration. Their colleagues will then suspect anything they suggest and nothing beyond the library-fine appeals committee will be allowed near them.

After this process of elimination, the field has been considerably narrowed. The air is so rarified by the absence of colleagues that it’s like a vacuum, drawing you upward. Departmental committees are followed by faculty committees and then by university-wide bodies where you meet those academics from incomprehensible areas whose needs, course loads and publication practices seem so bizarre. In fact one warning that you are on your way to administration is when you can begin to articulate the needs of disciplines where the subject matter is a complete mystery.

Eventually, of course, the committee work leads to appointments. Once again, especially at the departmental level, you must act the reluctant bride, dragged in “just for a term” and only because you secretly know that the alternative for the post would be a disaster! Actively seeking a post is considered bad form.

So far, all of this can be accomplished while maintaining a semblance of a normal academic trajectory. Teaching might be reduced but will continue. Publishing might slow slightly but is essential to your ongoing reputation. Eventually though, a fork in the road is reached and you must throw off the cloak of reluctance and seek out senior office. As a dean or vice-president, you can’t really pretend that this is just a sideline. And that leads to a whole set of questions, all boiling down to “what am I doing here?”

The answer is as varied as the individual. Usually it comes down to the challenge of making a difference, always mixed in with the buzz, the sense of immediacy and authority.

There are costs. One of the great losses is the freedom that academics have to pursue their own interests and to set their daily routine. Trading that in for a corporate-style existence creates sighs of pity from sympathetic colleagues and looks of disdain from those who see administration as the dark side.

So, a career in administration is full of paradoxes. It has little to do with all those years of education. It creates opportunities, but offers a very different type of existence. As a former dean told me, “your mental metabolism changes.” Long-term focus gives way to short-term meetings. Erudite treatises yield to hasty e-mails. In effect, you serve teaching and research by abandoning teaching and research.

For all these contradictions, administration can be a rewarding second career for an academic. And universities need academics to make the switch. Because if we scholars cease to enter administration, the temptation of universities to turn to outside “experts” will grow. That, in my opinion, is not an attractive notion. For even though some may consider that we have moved to the dark side, at least we once experienced the light!

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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  1. Peter Johnson / January 13, 2010 at 07:53

    It is clear you have not lost any of your scolarly soul, and and we should be thankful that some of our brightest and best make sacrifices for their beloved field of enendeavour, towards the protection and common good of their learned brothers and sisters.

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / January 13, 2010 at 13:56

    I can relate to this story. So many professors seem incapable of administering their way out of a paper bag. What would they do without their secretaries?

    Sadly, administration competence – i.e. skills derived from non-academic work, extra-curricular experience, etc. – seem to be completely ignored in favour of the almighty research portfolio when it comes to faculty hiring. It is no wonder that graduate programs are turning out students who lack admin skills and find adjustment to non-academic jobs so difficult.