It’s Not Really the Dark Side: 5 Tips for Faculty Interested in Administration

Administrators work desk

By Manya C. Whitaker, PhD
Associate Professor & Chair of Education, Crown Faculty Center Director, Colorado College

When I started graduate school in 2006, I had no interest in becoming a professor or joining academe. I wanted to work at a think tank researching youth development to inform public policy. But in my third year of graduate school, I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) for a developmental psychology class and everything changed. I discovered the joy of teaching and eventually petitioned to teach sections of the course. When I entered the job market, I was certain to apply to small liberal arts colleges where teaching was paramount in the job description. Ten years later, I know I made the right decision. But I also confess that in year 6, teaching started to lose its appeal and I sought new challenges.

I asked my chair if I could be the associate chair to ease the workload in the department. He happily agreed, and I had my second professional epiphany—I like administrative work! I’ve always been a person who made lists and found joy in crossing each item off. I have very detailed schedules that tell me what I should be doing almost every hour of the day. I don’t mind meetings as long as they lead to action. But when I began attending chairs and directors meetings, it quickly became apparent that I was among only a handful of people who truly enjoyed this leadership position. Because chair is a rotating role at my college, most faculty resent the requirement to serve in this capacity. I get that faculty don’t enjoy being told what to do, but I was surprised that so few of my colleagues find value in this role. I can’t possibly be the only one who likes this work.

But conversations with faculty both at my institution and elsewhere suggest my experience is indeed the minority. Anecdotal evidence suggests that administrators are often viewed unfavorably by faculty. They are perceived as over-paid, ineffective tyrants who ignore faculty voice and only care about the bottom line. A brief Google search results in plentiful articles describing administrators as uncaring and overly bureaucratic. Is this how I want to be perceived? Are administrators really that bad?

Amid my pondering, the provost asked me to become the interim director of the multicultural center as I rotated into the department chair position. To top it off, this was coincident with the start of the pandemic. If I thought I would ease into administration slowly, I was wrong. This was a test to see if administration was indeed for me.

Two years later, I am happy to say that I still love administrative work. So much so that I recently assumed the position of director of our faculty development center, in addition to being chair. I have a small course reduction (33%), but mostly, I am doing the administrative work on top of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, advising theses, and maintaining my community engagement.

While I am managing the workload well and enjoying myself, there are downsides to being in administration. The number of meetings (averaging 5 per day) and the amount of paperwork take away from research and writing. I prioritize meeting agendas, emails, data analysis, and reports over reading new research and brainstorming conference and paper proposals. My workdays are no longer flexible enough to move things around to accommodate research as I am often working a more traditional 9-5 schedule. Any research I do is in the evenings or on weekends and therefore requires that I violate the boundaries I’ve made to keep a healthy work-life balance. However, I expected a change in time allocation and ensured that my publication record and research agenda were well established before accepting administrative positions. What I did not know to plan for was how my relationships with faculty would change. It’s hard to describe, but my colleagues treat me with a little more deference than they once did. People are more hesitant to publicly challenge my ideas and quicker to look at me when decisions need to be made. Because I believe in distributed leadership, I struggle with this new positionality and continuously work to cultivate environments where everyone genuinely feels that their voice is welcome, valued, and respected.

That said, there are benefits to administration. Every day I feel like I have the opportunity to affect meaningful and sustainable change at my institution. This is not to say that teaching does not also accomplish this, but administrative work can have immediate macro-level benefits. As associate chair of my department, I created faculty onboarding procedures, a handbook for tenure and promotion, and implemented an antiracist departmental bookclub. As director of the faculty center, I’ve introduced an instructional coaching program, communities of practices, and a liberatory pedagogy series that I hope will remain long after my tenure.

These accomplishments create a sense of forward momentum in my career. I am not a person who is happy doing the same thing for extended periods so if I am not given new challenges, I create them for myself. For example, in my first 6 years at my institution, I designed 22 new courses, spearheaded the development of an undergraduate major, and encouraged the department to reenvision our graduate curriculum. I always want to push boundaries, and administrative work allows just that. More personally, being a Black woman in a leadership position is important to me. I had just 1 Black professor in undergrad and 1 Black professor in graduate school. There were zero Black administrators at either institution. I am proud to join the growing ranks of BIPOC womxn university administrators because our presence matters in immeasurable ways.

At this point, I am 90% certain that I will make a complete shift to administration in the next couple of years. I’ve had a very positive experience thus far and am aware of how an administrative role would drastically change my professional and personal life. But I genuinely believe the benefits outweigh the challenges. So for others for whom administration may be calling or who are perhaps interested in dipping their toe in the administrative pond, I offer 5 tips.

Build relationships across campus. I admit that I do not believe that you need to have a firm line between professional and personal relationships; however, I think they are different. If your sights are set on an administrative position now or in the future, it is crucial that you are known around campus. Fellow faculty should recognize your name, know your department, and mostly, have a sense of your professional values and priorities. Similarly, you should know quirks about different departments, institutional challenges that predate your arrival, and to be blunt, know the gossip. This is information you can only get by talking to people.

I am naturally talkative, so I have always been comfortable fostering new relationships. But I am also intentional about with whom I develop relationships. When I first came to my college, I cast a wide net to know as many people as possible. That meant inviting folx to coffee or lunch, accepting invitations to happy hours and dinner parties, and asking if I could observe classes. Even as a postdoc for the first two years, I joined committees, attended department and faculty meetings, and judiciously shared my thoughts when appropriate.

So when I accepted a tenure-track position and was required to teach a full load and do service, I had at least some social capital to cash in to get the course and service assignments I preferred. People in other departments requested that I be on their search committees because they liked something I said 18 months ago in a meeting. That has continued over the years so that my network across campus is expansive. Knowing the faculty is incredibly important as an administrator because it allows you to make decisions aligned with faculty needs and desires, so you aren’t solely relying on your perspective. Such thoughtful decision-making fosters trust and respect that is often missing between faculty and administrators.

Be strategic about service. Service is one of the three pillars of the professoriate and is arguably the most hated among them. Once again, I am odd in that I don’t mind service—as long as it contributes to something meaningful. The problem with most service is that it is a waste of time because committees are ill-conceived, don’t have decision-making authority, or are staffed by people who don’t have the knowledge or skills to galvanize the committee. Service can and should enhance your professional resume by complementing your research and teaching interests.

Make a list of the type of work you’d like to do to contribute to the institution, and then see if those committees exist. For example, in my first year as a postdoc, I joined the college access committee simply by emailing the committee chair, explaining my background, and asking if I could join. He was delighted to have an education professor whose research focused on family engagement and increasing minoritized youth achievement. In later years, as a tenure track faculty member, I would email the chair of the faculty governance subcommittee and ask them to assign me to certain committees. Because that person is tasked with identifying committees for over 200 people, they were happy not to think through one more assignment. I’ve successfully leveraged my social network to serve on the curriculum committee, the diversity and equity advisory board, the campus climate committee, the assessment committee, and other entities working toward equity and inclusion, broadly construed.

Those assignments were perfect for me because they all focused on something in which I am invested and have expertise, so they never felt burdensome. Sure, I was annoyed by Friday 3 pm meetings, but when the result is the creation of faculty exit interview procedures aligned with antiracist principles, it’s worth it. Less valuable committees would have been the financial aid committee, athletic liaison, governance, children’s center, and other groups whose work is uninteresting or misaligned with my skillset. The payoff for being strategic about my service was that it was easy to create a coherent thesis that links my service, teaching, and research when I was working on my tenure portfolio. Now that I am applying for senior administrative positions, I am well-positioned to demonstrate how I’ve maintained an explicit commitment to educational equity across all facets of my work throughout my career. Hiring committees can look at my CV and know what they will get if they hire me.

Get your name out there. Technology and social media have made it easier to build a reputation beyond your institution. We can all name the top scholars in our field whose research we cite and books we teach, but you can increase your brand recognition in multiple ways beyond scholarship. For instance, I started an education consulting business in 2013 that began with working with local families on school choice to now, consulting with national nonprofits and colleges and universities on student, staff, and faculty DEI training. I had a blog that resulted in invitations to write for online news mediums. I attend conferences and introduce myself to people in my field, become Facebook friends, and have them share my posts, publicizing my work.

Reputation is the most powerful capital in academe. Your work must speak for itself early in your career, but later, if you’ve been intentional about building a public profile, your name will do the talking. For good or bad, “famous” academics have very different professional existences than most. They are higher paid, often teach fewer classes (if at all), and are invited to publish in top journals and with top presses. The same is true on the administrative side. If the hiring committee recognizes your name, it means they already know something about you (and hopefully, it’s good!). The more information they have, the better because they are not solely reliant upon application materials which gives you a leg up over other candidates. Further, if you have a strong reputation within higher education, other institutions likely want you, too. And because ego reigns supreme in academe, every school wants to be able to claim they have “the best.”

Learn what you don’t know. Treat this next career step seriously. Being a professor does not automatically endow us with the ability to do everything. Administration is a different beast, and unless you have a degree in higher education affairs, I can promise you there will be a steep learning curve.

Graduate school prepares us to know a lot about a little, and none of it includes administration.

Graduate school prepares us to know a lot about a little, and none of it includes administration. Professors fumble through teaching in their first couple of years because pedagogy is not included in the graduate curricula. But because our jobs do not require that we engage in administrative tasks, most faculty don’t develop these skills through trial and error, as is true with teaching. I hope that department chairs and program directors receive at least some in-house professional development, but they too are asked to assume duties for which they are largely unprepared. When I began my tenure track appointment, I knew when I would become department chair, so I made sure I did what I needed to prepare myself for the role. I attended the one-day “training” hosted by the Dean’s office but didn’t find it helpful beyond learning which offices to consult about what issues.

Instead, I capitalized on institutional membership in organizations like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) and Academic Impressions to enroll in leadership development programs aimed explicitly at chairing and other administrative roles. I have an executive coach (paid for with research funds) who shares resources that facilitate self-inquiry and professional growth. I have friends in book clubs and Facebook groups because they want to talk to other faculty making the shift into administration. Others enroll in online webinars and certificate programs to gain micro-credentials that enhance their resume. I’ve written elsewhere about the surprising outcomes of a leadership bootcamp but will reiterate that I’ve continued to draw from that experience since that writing. In a recent interview for an administrative position, I was able to answer two questions quickly and confidently: what is your leadership style, and how might you struggle in this position. I prepared for that interview with my coach and had other new administrators read my application materials. I wrote and spoke about organizational structures, budgeting, accreditation, and performance reviews from an informed position. That would not have been possible if I’d not invested in myself through continual learning.

Seize opportunities. As an education professor, I am a big fan of Backward Design. Usually applied to course development, backward design principles encourage you to start with the end in mind. What do you want students to learn? How will you know they’ve learned them? How will you teach to ensure they meet learning goals? I use this structure to map my career plan. If I want to one day be a provost or chancellor, what do I need to do to get there? A few years ago, I looked at job postings for my dream positions and noted the experiential and practical qualifications. The former are easy to attain—apply for the jobs that lead to the desired position. But the latter is more complicated. Most ads described the ideal candidate as having the ability to “cultivate an inclusive work environment, multitask, develop organizational priorities, provide useful feedback, implement a vision, engage in continual assessment,” and on and on. Being a professor doesn’t explicitly foster those particular skills, and being a department chair is the tip of the iceberg.

So I sought other opportunities to provide demonstrable evidence of my administrative talents. I chose to focus on internal opportunities such as interim directorships, center or institute directorships, joining the faculty senate and chairing important institution-wide task forces and committees. Alternatively, many of my colleagues have positions in national or disciplinary organizations. I serve on multiple nonprofit boards (both community partners with my institution) that also help make a case for administrative experience. Recently, I joined a journal editorial board to gain a different type of sustained administrative experience. While it may seem a bit patchwork at first glance, like my service, these positions work together to afford me comprehensive insight into academic leadership.

These new insights remind me of how I felt that first year of graduate school. I understood academe, was excited about the path ahead and knew I was on the right track to achieve my goals. Then I had an epiphany that turned things sideways, only to have another aha moment not long after. I wonder if perhaps I am entering this new career phase with the same naïve bright-eyed, bushy tailedness with which I entered academe as a 21-year-old PhD student. I am older, and I hope a little wiser, and I still feel optimistic about making a difference for others. Whether or not a new experience will derail my provost plans, I am confident that following these 5 tips won’t lead me astray no matter my career goals.

Dr. Manya Whitaker is an Associate Professor and Chair of Education at Colorado College where she also directs the Crown faculty center. She is a developmental educational psychologist with expertise in social and political issues in education.