In past columns, I’ve tried to focus on some larger issues, or at least issues that loom large from the perspective of the administrator’s chair. But administration is not all about grand gestures and transformative changes; most of the job consists of the small stuff – the sort that people often say not to sweat, except that if no one took on that duty to perspire, some important aspects of the university experience might start to expire. So in this, my last column, I plan to give a sense of what the administrative life is really like, in all its routine glory and drudgery.
In some ways, administration is like being a student all over again. Your time is no longer your own to control and instead is carved into carefully scheduled blocks, during which you sit and other people talk. Usually you make an effort to contribute, but some meetings are about you simply listening to them. You hope you have answers to their questions; you hope you have questions they can answer. Sometimes you hope you can find questions they can’t answer, because that usually leads to a more interesting meeting the next time, but you’re rarely so lucky – academics are almost never caught out without something to say. By the end of the day, you’ve barely had any time to yourself; you realize you’re already behind, and you still haven’t done the reading for the meeting first thing tomorrow, and so your file folders and laptop follow you to dinner, to the couch, to bed.
Administration is like doing research. You usually work in a team with complementary specialities, but there are long hours of solitary contemplation and sifting through the publications and observations of other administrators. Sometimes you try to build on the work of those who’ve gone before you; sometimes you try to undo a mess they left behind; occasionally you can get a grad student or two to help do some of the intensive legwork. Instead of grants, you chase funding envelopes, and if you think the tri-councils are sometimes capricious and arbitrary, I’d like to introduce you to governments and donors. You’re judged on “output,” not effort, and in every opportunity for assessment there is someone who expected more, or disagreed with your whole approach to the issue.
Administration is also like teaching. You’re often dealing with groups that have some common interest. There are prerequisites to establish, objectives to achieve and assessments to make. Often your goal is to get those groups to do some work that they’d rather not do because their preferences lie elsewhere, and sometimes your plans have to adapt to the fact that too many people just “didn’t do the reading.” It can be a struggle to keep people engaged with the problem at hand – presentation skills matter more than they should, and there are important communication and organizational techniques to learn that can make you a more effective administrator. You tend to know more about the big picture and overall priorities (because you’ve specialized in the issue), but you expect to learn something interesting from your interactions. Dealing with large groups is unavoidable, but some of the most productive discussions occur outside the formal schedule, in small groups and one-to-one chats. It’s a joy to work with the keen participants, but probably even more satisfying is when a reluctant “student” suddenly “gets it” and starts contributing to solutions and to everyone’s understanding.
Administration, fundamentally, is about learning. Unusually, in an institution as full of silos and internal boundaries as a university, you learn about all of your colleagues. Some of that knowledge comprises facts you’d rather not know – the occasional but inevitable failures and missteps that befall individuals in any sufficiently large population.
But you also learn so much about what your colleagues are accomplishing – their successes, their aspirations, their dedication. One great privilege of university-level administration is that you are perched at the ideal viewpoint to perceive the truly expansive scope of impacts that universities and their faculty, staff and students have upon the community and the world. You see how it comes together, and also how terribly unstable is the delicate balance that sustains the whole operation. It’s an equilibrium in name only, constantly in need of adjustment, accommodation, correction, calibration. That sort of “administration” is sometimes viewed askance, as a necessary evil. What I’ve learned is this: it’s not so bad.
I’d like to thank University Affairs for the opportunity to write this column and especially Peggy Berkowitz for wise and gracious editing.