Over the past year. I’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s "Tangled Up in Blue" hundreds of times. This verse resonates:
I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell.
It fell on me last year. Working as a cook is a different thing from working as a university dean, but the song captures the complexity of feelings that I experienced — along with many ex-administrators I’ve spoken with — when contemplating the end of our careers in academic administration.
Some people who leave campus administration retire from academe altogether. But most, like me, take up other roles — usually as faculty members in the disciplines in which we earned our doctorates and began our academic careers.
In June 2017 I completed (not voluntarily) 11 years as a full-time university administrator, eight of them as dean at two universities. Right now, during a year of leave, I am finishing some long overdue research projects and preparing with excitement to return to the classroom in the fall. And (naturally) I’m working on a book about the deanship at American colleges and universities.
Near the end of Dylan’s song, he declares that "the only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew." I’m trying to do that. But beyond a mix of emotions, I’m also dealing with a lower salary, a loss of visibility and professional status, and a bittersweet recognition that in all likelihood, this is it. I will spend the rest of my career as a professor, a job I had enjoyed but hadn’t anticipated resuming.
Don’t cry for me, or for any of my colleagues in the same boat. We know we are fortunate to have tenured positions to return to: I am unbelievably lucky to be able to do work I always loved in teaching and research at a great university with a noble mission.
But I’ve observed a lot of administrators flounder when they are no longer in a leadership position. I don’t want to be one of them. Indeed, I have struggled quite a bit over the past year. In a series of essays for The Chronicle, I will explore the practical, as well as emotional, aspects of leaving administration.
Most administrators are relatively well-paid, devoted, and competent. It is in the institution’s interest as well as our own to make our transition to other roles as effective as possible. So how to serve the interests of both parties? Whether you "step down" (what a ridiculous euphemism!) voluntarily, or through a boss’s decision, or, in that rare instance, by mutual agreement, you and your institution will have to answer some complicated questions:
Should you take a leave? Large universities commonly provide a year’s leave (without any teaching or service duties attached) to senior administrators who "step down" after multiple years on the job. It is clearly in the ex-administrator’s interest to be granted a leave. Although most of us try to keep our research and teaching going to some extent while in administration, the fact is: We have some catching up to do. Few of us actually make a seamless transition back to full-time teaching and research.
It is in the university’s interest to provide that time. Foisting an ambivalent and rusty faculty member immediately on students will not be beneficial to them or to an academic department. In some cases, the ex-administrator will decide to apply to other institutions — for either faculty or administrative jobs — and a leave can help with scheduling interviews. Again, it’s in everyone’s interest for that ex-leader to have a little breathing room.
Should you accept a special assignment? A common university tactic is for the boss — typically the provost — to ask the soon-to-be former administrator if there’s something special he or she would like to accomplish. Institutions with healthy endowments will sometimes invest money in especially promising projects, hoping to take advantage of the ex-administrator’s expertise.
Those projects protect the status and dignity of the people who have stepped down, and they benefit the institution as well, in multiple ways. The former administrator’s salary is a sunk cost, and for a good project there might be a better return on investment than from the ex-leader’s resuming ordinary teaching and research responsibilities.
Will your salary change? Probably. And significantly. If you’re a long-serving and decorated dean, you may see no salary adjustment upon your return to the faculty. But for most of us, moving from a 12-month administration paycheck to a nine-month faculty salary involves a painful cut in our earnings.
Different institutions have different rules. If it’s in your contract that you will return to a salary at 75 percent of what you were making as an administrator, then you know what lies ahead. Other institutions have rules limiting an ex-administrator’s salary so that it remains in the general vicinity of faculty pay within the academic department where the former leader now teaches. It’s important to figure that out before signing the contract for a full-time administrative position.
What about office and lab space? If there are special facilities that will enable you to become productive again, or to carry out a special project, ask for them. But it doesn’t benefit you or the institution to play the prima donna. If you don’t need special space, don’t ask for it.
Once the terms of your second life are set, your executive office and schedule may start to look pretty bleak. In most cases you will still be doing your job, for anywhere from a month to a year. From my conversations over the years, people respond in different ways to "lame duck" status. Some revel in the glory of their final months, others shirk and cower.
The only thing that’s consistent here is the institution’s response to administrators on their way out. Simply put: The machine rolls on.
However beloved or hated you were, your staff members will continue doing their jobs — in much the same way they ever did — once the new boss arrives. People will miss a supervisor who has been kind and celebrate the departure of one who hasn’t. As a lame-duck administrator, your job is to keep on working as hard and as ethically after the announcement of your departure as before.
Likewise, however angry or triumphant you are, as a departing administrator, you need to ensure that all the good people who report to you (or who are in your broad purview) are supported, commended, and prepared to continue doing great work under a new leader. It’s about the institution and its mission, after all.
As difficult as this will be, you should probably praise and support the bad people, too. Retrospection is fine (and inevitable), but retribution is a no-no. Now is not the time to make changes you always wished to make but never had the guts to.
Your schedule as a soon-to-be ex-administrator will be busy — just not quite as much as before. You won’t be attending meetings on future initiatives, even those in which you played a key role. You will have fewer lunch meetings, and more time alone in your soon-to-be vacated office.
I spent those final days focused on continuing to do my job. With the extra time, I packed up my books and belongings. And, of course, I spent a lot of time anxious about the future. In that moment, it was hard for me really to think ahead, as much as I knew I needed to.
In the next column, I will talk about the adjustments you might experience in your relationships and emotions when you are no longer in charge.