I’m just ending my second foray into academic administration. The first one was serving as department head over a department including philosophy, communications studies, and all of our foreign language programs. It was a terrific exercise in mental and emotional flexibility – at one point I was adjudicating a dispute between a faculty member and a staff assistant while also trying to plan the curricular offerings in French while also teaching early modern philosophy while also …. Luckily, my colleagues were very supportive and forgiving of my mistakes. Still, at the end of my service, I posed myself the question, “What if the dean gave you the choice of (a) staying on for one more year or (b) sticking your hand in a garbage disposal?” and I found myself trying to estimate just how much damage a garbage disposal would do to a hand and how long recovery would take (less than a year? would I get good drugs?). Happily, the choice was never presented to me.
Now I’m finishing up foray #2, having served as an associate dean. This assignment was loads easier. No personnel issues. Mainly, my job has been to go to meetings, answer emails, serve on committees, go to meetings, put people on committees, answer emails, go to meetings…. A lot of my work has focused on academic issues like the structure of general education, the overall shape of the college’s curricula, procedures for fairly and meaningfully evaluating faculty, and so on. This is all interesting stuff (to me), and I’ve learned a lot, and I think we made some real contributions. But now, as I transition back to teaching & scholarship, I’m realizing that one’s mind can be wholly dedicated in different ways. In administration, the whole mind is dedicated to organization, procedural justice, political strategy – I think of this as a broad multilateral engagement. In teaching and scholarship, the mind is wholly dedicated to bringing order and significance to a range of questions that go far deeper – I think of it as deep multilateral engagement.
The deep engagement is a LOT harder and and more exhausting than the broad engagement. When it goes well, it is also more fulfilling; and when it doesn’t, it occasions utter despair. I’m guessing this is because more of one’s self is being put on the line – in the classroom, or on the page in one’s writings. Failure reflects, somehow, on the depth and structure of one’s own soul (to dramatize just a bit). If I assemble and present something I take to be important, and it brings only yawns or silence, then (unless I know I was only faking it) I can only conclude that either I or my audience has failed in taking proper measure. Neither conclusion is a happy one. On the other hand, if what I present in a class is greeted with enthusiasm, then at least everyone involved is failing in a similar direction, and that’s not half-bad (indeed, as good as it gets, in my experience). Companionship softens the self-loathing of incompetents.
(Hmm; I didn’t know this tour was going to stop at that spot.) Anyway, I wanted to make a brief listing of some observations made during this second foray. In no particular order:
1. When administrators take any action, they are almost always in a very tight spot. Generally, seasoned administrators try to change as little as possible, under the reasonable suspicion that any change to a system brings all manner of unintended consequences. (Greener administrators, alas, have yet to learn this, and in their ambition can cause great problems.) This means that when there is a change, one should always look for the deeper and more compelling story – the one that makes you say “Ah! That makes sense” – and not just follow convenient rumors.
2. The further up the ladder you go, the less connection there is to anything of academic interest. Maybe this is just what you’d expect. But it is startling sometimes to listen to high-level discussions by people who seem only dimly aware that there are classes being taught, and that items on CVs might refer to intrinsically interesting things. Our university president, who is a decent man, seems only dimly aware of the academic side of campus, as he spends almost all of his days dealing with legislators, donors, and lawyers.
3. Rarely, one finds an academic administrator living an active life of the mind while also administrating – these creatures are valuable beyond any telling, and should be treasured.
4. Vice-presidents very often see the university centered around them, and expend great energy trying to get everyone to adopt their concerns. I guess it’s their job, but it leads to a lot of rear-guard, defensive maneuvering by deans and associate deans to try to maintain resources that will otherwise get sucked up into the building of little kingdoms. In sum: beware the ambitions of vice-presidents.
5. It is also startling to see the consequences of over-specialization in our disciplines, especially in the humanities. This is what makes general education such a difficult and thankless task. I don’t regard myself as well-educated, but out of guilt I have been working to become well-educated for several decades now (a work still very much in progress). But now I encounter junior colleagues who not only do not have this guilt, but sometimes do not seem to be aware of missing anything – “I’m not supposed to know anything about that, am I?”. But I’ll leave it at that lest I give over to excessive old man grumping.
6. I believe it is good for academics to take a turn in administration. It helps them to see how institutions function, and to befriend the people in the offices; it helps them to gain a broader picture of how universities operate, and where they fail; it helps them as individuals work more efficiently, given firmer pressures on schedules. And I think it is good for those turns to be limited. Granted, from deans on up, it is good to have people with more extensive experience. But there are plenty of posts, like the ones I’ve had, that can be entered into and then left again, and from which much can be learned. It’s been a good turn for me; and I’m happy it’s over.