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When It’s Time to Leave Academic Administration

When It’s Time to Leave Academic Administration

What follows involves a delicate topic, probably insufficiently discussed because of its delicacy.  But this issue deserves airing, and ultimately some wider discussion toward informal guidelines.

I’ve had occasion, as a dean and now provost, at two different institutions, to watch the complex dance of administrator departure. The phenomenon is complicated enough to warrant some comment.  Obviously, I’m thinking of best practices for myself, among other things (though I’m not gone for a while).

I was talking with a colleague recently, from yet another institution, who will be stepping down as provost before long, and this reminded me of the issues involved.  He thinks the only proper course for him is simply to leave his institution and, probably, academic life. He can’t stand the idea of being around while a successor alters his achievements.

The point is valid. One very good way to leave administration is simply to go away, at least for a while. George Mason has a terrific example of a former, and very powerful, president who retired pretty completely, allowing his successor to establish himself, and returning to attend events with every appearance of pleasure but staying resolutely out of university life otherwise.

But this is not the only viable course. A former dean at my previous place went back to his department and stayed completely away from administrative issues (until ironically, much later he was called back for a consulting role), even though the president implicitly but publicly criticized the school’s operation during his tenure. He did his job as a faculty member with every appearance of satisfaction and almost never, and then very privately, commented on other issues.  His contributions were real, and had nothing to do with reminders of his previous role.

But challenges abound. Many administrators face the dilemma of not having taught, or researched, regularly.  Some are able to use a leave to re-prepare themselves—we have one example currently in the works—but others may assume they can jump back into teaching with no particularly timely materials available.  Pretty obviously, if one contemplates a return to faculty after an administrative stint, it’s really desirable to maintain an active teaching role (which has other advantages): otherwise one risks high-paid, and highly visible, lack of utility.

And there are the more obvious issues of tone and politics for ex-administrators who hang around.  Some, impatient with the real or imagined stumbles of a successor, and galled by being out of the limelight, simply race back into unit politics—in my opinion, quite inappropriately, even when some of their critiques are valid—and stir things up as a not-so-loyal opposition.  Others, less politically engaged, merely make it clear in conversation or even public body language that their successors are not up to the mark and that attention should still rivet on their own prior, superior achievements.

Effecting the transition constructively is, in sum, a really difficult test of personal balance and control, and surrounding colleagues have a role to play in encouraging propriety as well. The obvious guidelines (for those who don’t simply retire altogether) are:  remember you’re no longer in charge and that things will inevitably change, make sure you’ve retained the capacity to contribute in other than an administrative role, keep a low profile. If one can’t take true joy in faculty pursuits, probably it’s best to consider some other option.  But we can all recognize that there are real adjustments involved. Ultimately, it’s a test of personal flexibility and generosity of spirit.  Since I intend to hang around after administration—but at a distance from administration, it’s a test I hope to pass.