Tag Archives: administrivia

Back to School, Administrator-Style

I confess: the first day of fall term always gets me.  I love the shiny new-ness of it all.  The term and the academic year lie in front of you–anything is possible!


But I will also confess that as an administrator, a little bit of that fall luster is lacking. When I was a full-time faculty member, I usually had been away from campus for big chunks of the summer.  I’d also been in a different kind of headspace: doing research, taking time to think, and with any luck, do some writing.  I would return to campus with renewed resolve.  I was all about the bouquet of newly sharpened pencils that Tom Hanks describes in “You’ve Got Mail.”  This would be the year that I would get all my lecture notes organized!  This would be the year I would stay current with the journals in my field! (we will put aside, for now, whether or not I achieved these things.  I suspect you know the answer).

But as an administrator, I work on a 12-month contract.  Sure, I take vacation in the summer, but I don’t really get long breaks from campus.  And yes, I try to carve out a little bit of time for my research, but it usually takes a back seat to more pressing administrative projects.  There’s a continuity to my work life now that means fall doesn’t feel like the dramatic shift that it used to when I had been away geographically and cognitively during the summer.

Administrative work, in addition to its continuity, can also easily become drudgery. Reports, meetings, spreadsheets, and other bits of administrivia can wear down even the best and most enthusiastic administrators.

So rather than get mired in my meh-ness or let my 12-month contract define me, I’d like to propose some strategies for recapturing some of the fresh start-ness of fall term.  Consider this a back to school primer of sorts, for administrators (though faculty may find some useful tips here as well!).

  1.  Identify something about your administrative work that brings you joy.  It can be big or small, but you need to find it and make time for it.  Maybe it’s helping faculty connect with grant opportunities.  Maybe it’s developing new curriculum.  Maybe it’s finding a new way to make a cumbersome university process more streamlined.  Use the start of a new year to reconnect with the part(s) of your job that you enjoy and let that provide a jump start for the next twelve months.
  2. Identify something that you could be better at.  If you’re like me, graduate school didn’t prepare you for administration, so the learning curve can be steep.  For example, when I started in administration, I was AWFUL at Excel and spreadsheets.  I have worked on cultivating this skill.  Embrace the start of a new school year to say that this will be the year that you learn how to do a certain task or figure out a certain problem.  It’s okay to be bad at something.  It’s not okay to continue to be bad at it if it’s essential to your work.
  3. Pay it forward.  If you’ve made it into the ranks of administration you probably have some seniority at your institution.  One thing that can restore a sense of resolve and purpose to the start of the new year is reconnecting with your faculty colleagues and helping those individuals thrive.  So reach out to those junior to you and be a mentor or an ally.
  4. Find a way to teach or interact with students.  I have strong feelings about why administrators should teach (which I will save for a future blog post), but for now, I will just say that much of what is missing in higher ed administration could be remedied by administrators reconnecting with the classroom and students.  And it’s good for you, too.  Nothing helps me transcend administrivia and spreadsheets better than the unscripted and unvarnished perspective of students.  So maybe you don’t have time to teach an entire course.  What if you guest-lectured for a colleague in your disciplinary area?  What if you sponsored a co-curricular activity that gave students the opportunity to meet and provide feedback to the dean/associate dean/provost?
  5. Vow to do one thing that is about taking care of you.  Maybe it’s getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, or taking time for a hobby that makes you happy.  Whatever it is, take advantage of this time of fresh starts to make it a priority.

I hope these strategies or any others you might identify will help you reconnect with the newness of the fall term.  May it be a year of sharp pencils, well-written reports, and easily comprehended spreadsheets!



Show Me the Money…or at least the course release

Since starting this blog several readers have urged me to take up the question of chair compensation.  So I conducted a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and discovered what I had suspected all along–it varies widely and in distressing ways.  Some chairs receive almost no monetary compensation and only a slight reduction in teaching.  Others get higher salaries (usually the result of going from 9- to 12-month contracts), generous stipends and course releases.  At some particularly enlightened institutions, chairs get to “keep” their increased salaries and/or are eligible for an immediate sabbatical when they go back to faculty status.  I am sure that a more systematic review would only increase the depth and complexity of this variation.  Within my own university, for example, it varies enormously among our six colleges.


Now certainly some of this variation is a function of department size.  And that makes sense.  If you chair a department of 4 at a small, private college your compensation will probably not be the same as someone who chairs a department of 40 at an R1 institution.  This distinction and others point to several key questions and issues.

The first: what is chair compensation meant to acknowledge or remedy?  Generally speaking, becoming chair represents an increase in workload and often an expectation of more time spent in the office.  I could do some of my chairing tasks from home, not unlike how I used to write and grade from home on the days I didn’t teach, but my presence in the office is more necessary now.  Questions to be answered, fires to be put out, you get the idea.  And certainly, all the chairs I know, both here and at other institutions, say that with the increase in demands for accountability and cuts in staff positions at the department level, there has been a marked increase in the amount of paperwork, report writing, and general administrivia they are required to complete.  And so, compensation is typically a combination of some increase in pay and a reduction in teaching load.  But–and this is an important observation–chairs still teach.  At most institutions this makes them different from associate deans, vice provosts, and certainly deans and provosts.

This brings me to the next question: how do we understand and envision the role and responsibilities of an academic chair?  By asking them to continue teaching we clearly see the merit in keeping them connected to the essential mission of the department: educating students.  As we increase their administrative burden, however, we pull them in a different direction.  And somewhere in this mix, I would contend, they also need to think about the difference between simply managing (staying on top of the paperwork) and leading their departments (helping the curriculum, research, and programming stay vibrant and engaged).  And all of this completely ignores the question of research.  Are chairs expected to keep up on this front as well?  At some institutions (my own included), the answer is “yes.”  While finding time for research amidst these other demands is undoubtedly a struggle, we risk disrupting or derailing the research potential and agendas of these individuals, if they chair for years at a time.  At most institutions they will not serve as chair for the entirety of their career–what happens when their term is finished and they have to jump start that part of their faculty profile?

So with all of this in the mix, what exactly is our understanding or vision of the academic chair?  Administrator but also teacher but also scholar?  This is the crux of the issue.  We can negotiate, bargain, and fight for better and more just compensation that is commensurate with our workload and performance expectations and that compares favorably to best practices at other institutions.  But this is just haggling over details.  Until we have a clear answer to this question–which would necessarily vary by institution and department–any discussion of compensation and the combination of components (salary increase?  stipend?  course releases?  some combination thereof?) will be limited at best.  Each institution needs to define the role of the chair in this fraught academic environment of mission creep, administrivia, and accountability and then compensate accordingly.

Managing or Leading?

I once had a conversation with a colleague who was finishing up a term as a faculty administrator.  I asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment had been.  His answer was revealing.  He said that he had kept the department running smoothly and stayed on top of the paperwork.  His assessment was probably accurate, but it pointed up to me the distinction between managing and leading.File:Management Grid.PNG

As department chairs we do have to keep our units running smoothly and stay on top of the paperwork.  Attentive management creates a healthy work environment, fosters confidence among the faculty and students, and even sometimes earns you political capital in the reporting structure of your institution.  It is easy, however, to become too caught up in the managerial side of being chair.  The culture of many institutions now is shifting a larger and larger portion of university bureaucracy onto the plates of chairs–what I sometimes refer to as the work of “administrivia.”  It is easy to be consumed by this work and to make it our defining purpose.

But being an effective chair also requires being a leader.

There are, of course, many ways to lead and different leadership styles (and the graphic for this post is meant as a humorous aside, not a guide!).  And these will be pursued in more detail in future posts.  But for now, I want to make the perhaps obvious, but often-overlooked, observation that if a department chair is only a manager, and not also a leader, the department will suffer.

The trick then becomes finding the time, amidst the administrivia, to cultivate an effective leadership style and then to identify where you are going to lead your department.