Beki Grinter

Confessions of an ex-academic administrator

In academia, academic management, European Union, France, research on March 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

I’ve been an ex-academic administrator for about nine months. This has given me time to reflect on the pros and cons of returning to the faculty ranks.

Where to start?

The end was very abrupt, and somewhat unplanned. Crucially there was no transition plan. It was an end, not a moving up. More about why that matters later.

It was initially very hard, while also feeling like a real relief. The volume of email I received dropped substantially, which was nice. I was no longer on anyone’s critical path. But simultaneously I was not in the “people who know” loop either. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the case that administrators know about some things earlier than the rest, but I think there’s a good reason. Organizations are political and symbolic entities (for a great treatment of what I mean, Morgan’s Images of Organizations), not just rational entities (and here I am referring more to Simon’s version of organizational rationality). Information can be used to position not just individuals, but organizational entities, strategically. Of course some individuals do tend to use information for personal rather than institutional good, but organizations are also human. And I am accepting of some people having a “heads up” in such a way that they can act on behalf of me and the organizations I am in.

I guess I missed knowing, and I also missed feeling the type of usefulness that’s abundant in making progress in academic administration. You still have students of course, but that’s a different type of usefulness. Administration, in the very short time I was there, was a new set of skills to learn, a new type of utility, a new personal/professional growth.

About two weeks after the abrupt departure, I took another interesting step. I left the country to go to France to teach for a semester.

So, I was always bound to feel cut off, it would have been the same if I’d been a faculty member. Any organization, and perhaps especially an academic organization, is a fast changing target. But that was a profound disconnect. Initially that exacerbated the feeling of feeling so very isolated and cut off.

However, now I would recommend it. The separation was ultimately far more beneficial than the initial shock of separation. I used that time to do three essential things. First, come to a peace with my departure. Second, get used to the new place I was in. Not just being in France, although that was fantastic as a distraction and provided another set of journeys in personal development. Third, with the first and second completed I could now begin to see a way forward. And France was very good for that. I read, and I thought, and I made some career decisions that I’m starting to implement.

My final thought, some people leave an administrative position and have somewhere to go. I didn’t, as I said. I suspect that having a place to go helps, and sometimes it’ll be a promotion. But, I am reminded of Bryant’s observation that no-one should have an academic administrative position because they want it. He has a variety of reasons, but I’ll add one, which is that wanting one makes it so much harder to give it up, particularly without an obvious transition plan. And as he does point out, academic administration is absolutely unforgiving, it has no memory, and it can change suddenly.

In the academy where tenure and faculty governance tend to promote very stable organizational structures, academic administration presents an interesting contrast.

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