Administration to Faculty: Come to the Dark Side!

This is the third and final installment in my series of responses to Kevin about what it is like to be a registrar in a university.

What challenges do you think professors or other researchers face if they try to transition into administrative roles?
Do you have any advice for scholars trying to move into administrative work?

Plenty of others have written on this very issue. Here are a few of the more thoughtful writers on this topic. Dr. Benjamin Caldwell moved to become a Dean and writes about it here. Richard Mahon writes about the pros and cons of making the leap from faculty to administration here. Deborah DeZure, Allyn Shaw and Julie Rojewski have written a very good response to these questions as well.

I will not duplicate these responses, but none of them talk about becoming a registrar, so I will offer my own personal perspective on this kind of specific transition. I will probably over-state some of the challenges, and I recognize that everyone is on a spectrum in these matters, but I think you will see the points I am making a little better if I write with some hyperbole. If you are a faculty member and you are tempted to be offended, pretend I’m talking about someone else. Or you can assume that I’ve gone over to the Dark Side and therefore my sanity is suspect.

First of all, before I describe some the challenges of becoming a registrar, I should probably explain why I found it worthwhile. I have gained a lot of satisfaction in my role as Registrar because I am able to have a broad view of academia and the university I work at. I have access to a lot of data and information that I am able to use to influence policies, decisions and the overall direction of the whole organization. I also serve all the students at the university and so I am able to gain and provide some perspectives because I am not only serving a smaller subset of students. I see my role as one that enables students to get an education and faculty to get a salary. I enjoy these aspects of my work, and I use them carefully and deliberately in my leadership. This is what attracted me to the position.

However, there are some distinct challenges to moving from faculty to becoming a registrar that are hinted at by the writers above when they refer to administration. There are different purposes for our respective careers, and what attracted us to be a faculty member may not be completely applicable to being a registrar. In other words, dear faculty member, you cannot expect that what made you successful as a faculty member will be what is required to be successful as a registrar.

Challenge #1: Competition vs. Collaboration

Being a faculty member is a highly competitive career. Being a registrar is a highly collaborative career. Faculty members are only successful if they grew up with a strong focus on studying, getting good grades, and personal academic success. Their academic careers have been spent in libraries, reading, researching and writing. It is most often a solitary pursuit. We have competed for admission to the best schools, vied for top marks in classes, stressed out over being published in prestigious journals, and competed for limited research dollars and grant monies. Faculty speak of competing for rare positions in universities, and the way they compete is by defining themselves as unique individuals who are able to offer exceptional, valuable, and rare skills to the university. This is a very individualistic and solo approach to a career. Many faculty members have strong competitive genes, and matching egos.

In contrast, registrars are expected to work with a team and to represent everyone’s needs, not just our own needs. Our decisions and work affect the entire institution, not just our own careers. We serve potential students, current students, past students, faculties and departments, parents, governments, etc. We almost never serve ourselves and our offices. We work with academic departments to help set admission standards to recruit the best students. We work with other senior administrators to help set prices for tuition. We propose policies to Senate to encourage student success. We almost never set our own policies because we don’t exist for our own purposes. We exist to serve others. Therefore, we must eschew such individualistic and solo approaches that are crucial to a faculty member’s success and focus instead on working collaboratively with the entire university.

Challenge #2: Individual vs. Organizational Leadership

Unless they teach in a business or law school, faculty members may have little to no experience in organizational leadership and the attending technical requirements such as hiring, firing, HR management, overseeing and balancing budgets, navigating collective agreements, scheduling staff, and other matters of running a relatively large organization. As universities have grown to be incredibly huge, some as large as small cities, jumping from being a faculty member (say in History or Biology) to being the Registrar at ABC University with 35,000 students just isn’t going to happen unless it is a very unique situation. The requirements of leading large offices within the complex world of the modern major university are too technical and too different for most faculty members to be able to make a successful transition without training, proven experience and a lot of support. In smaller institutions, it is possible to make this leap, but in the larger organizations more is required.

Challenge #3: Personal Life vs. Corporate Life

This third challenge is related the the first two challenges, and it is often the greatest cause of fear and trembling as faculty members consider joining administration and “the Dark Side.” Because registrars exist to serve others, our lives are not our own. We cannot close our doors to the world because we want to read the latest research on Portuguese Irregular Verbs. We do not have permission to be absent-minded. We cannot yell at the president of the university from behind the protective walls of tenure and academic freedom. We serve and represent, and as such we must deal with the expectations of our institutions, government requirements, the service industry, etc. I have to dress professionally, shave every morning, work long hours in an office, respond to phone calls and emails promptly, and people other than my wife and kids need to know where I am and how to contact me at all times. My life is no longer completely self-directed – I have responsibilities that others have laid on me.

That’s not to say I haven’t stopped by a forest of faculty offices and thought “How lovely, dark and deep.” But then the bells of my cell phone shake and remind me that I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

Grant

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