Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The accidental administrator

Dung beetleAls Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren akademischen Verwalter verwandelt.*

* As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous academic administrator.

The AALS hiring combine is upon us. These days, hardly anyone gets a law teaching job who doesn't appear in the AALS's Faculty Appointments Register. Among the hundreds of candidates who will vie for a tenure-track appointment, surely a few future deans, provosts, and presidents lurk. Yet few if any of those candidates will imagine themselves destined for administrative rather than academic work.

A friend of mine with no professional connection whatsoever to academia brought to my attention a fascinating essay by Sharon Stephens Brehm, an academic psychologist whose career has included stints as president of the American Psychological Association and chancellor of Indiana University at Bloomington. Chancellor Stephens Brehm writes:
Sharon Stephens Brehm[I]n 16 years as an academic administrator, I never met a student or a faculty member who said that his or her goal in life was to be a provost . . . . On the other hand, I have met a fair number of students (but no faculty) who said they wanted to be a college or university president. Students aspiring to a presidency are always a bit startled when I tell them that to want to be a president is equivalent to wanting to be a basketball player after spending several decades as a figure skater. Because most presidents in higher education have a doctoral degree and initially are employed full-time as a professor, their original motivation was to teach and contribute to their discipline through scholarship, research, or creative activity. Surely there are some individuals who decide early on that they want to be a president (or provost or dean), but typically academic administration is an unanticipated, often accidental diversion from one's original academic career path.
Sharon Stephens Brehm, Coming Full Circle: From Academe to Administration to Academe, in Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You (Robert J. Sternberg ed., 2d ed. 2006).

Chancellor Stephens Brehm's essay makes fascinating reading for three categories of people:
  1. Anyone contemplating the jump from academe to administration.
  2. Anyone who has made the jump and still wonders what happened that odd morning after a night of uneasy dreams.
  3. Anyone interested in ensuring that academia attracts, retains, and rewards the best administrators available to it.
I plan to return to this theme from time to time — probably whenever I feel that special tingle in my antennae.

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