Administration Was a Definite No, Until It Became a Yes

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Five years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I had zero interest in veering off the faculty path to try the administrative route. Yet here I am, stepping into a half-time administrative role at my university.

How did this happen?

I have consistently rejected moving into administrative work, with extreme prejudice. After all, who goes to graduate school and says, "I want to be a researcher and a teacher — and one day, maybe even an administrator!"

An administrative job seems to offer all the drawbacks of an academic position, but none of the advantages. Once you go into administration, aside from losing time for your research and teaching, you also have a less flexible schedule and get stuck in more meetings than you can imagine. And let’s not forget the uniform. As a field biologist, I lack an administrative wardrobe, and wearing suits has always held no appeal for me.

But people evolve, and so do our jobs. What an institution expects of its full professors is different from what it expects of assistant professors. And what we expect of ourselves changes, too. As faculty members, we have great latitude in deciding where our career priorities lie. Over the years, we grow into the niche that we’ve built for ourselves.

Since I swore off the administrative track five years ago, a lot has changed. I’ve become a full professor, I’ve had a sabbatical, I’ve refocused my scholarship in new directions. At home, I am now parenting a high schooler — who is due for a driver’s license in a year or two — so my responsibilities there are shifting as well.

Ready or not, I was just appointed interim director of undergraduate research on my campus. Even more surprising (to me anyway), I’m hoping to land the "permanent" gig next year.

It isn’t funded as a full-time role — at the moment, only half of my workload is reassigned to the job. However, this semester I’m entirely out of the classroom, because the rest of my teaching time was reassigned to scholarship duties. As a result, I’ve found myself on more committees lately, and running more meetings, as I work to meet the responsibilities of the position. I hope to convince the powers that be that this job should be more than just part time, if it’s going to get done right.

This opportunity didn’t come entirely out of the blue — I’ve been working consistently for years to grow undergraduate research on my campus. But I didn’t think I’d ever want to be in charge of the effort. Several years ago, I joined a grass-roots team of faculty members who lobbied the administration to create a new Office of Undergraduate Research. We were pleasantly surprised when it was supported with an appropriate budget.

Since then, however, activity and investment in the office has waned, and nearly every aspect of our original plan remains unfulfilled. I decided that I’d be happier getting the work done rather than just complaining about what wasn’t being done. My frustration at the circumstances grew to supersede my reluctance to take on the task myself. So earlier this year, when I heard about the position opening up in undergraduate research, I quickly threw my hat into the ring.

The main reason I resisted the call up to now was because I feared that this level of service would be the end of my research agenda. Sure, I’ve seen department chairs keep their labs running at large research universities with the help of technicians, doctoral students, and postdocs. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen at teaching-focused institutions like ours. Here, chairs are lucky to steal away occasional moments for research.

I still think that becoming a chair in a large department, without adequate administrative support, is the death knell for your research program. Nevertheless, I have changed my tune about whether you can continue a productive scholarly agenda while doing administrative work. My change of heart evolved because I recently discovered that, unbeknownst to me, I had already become a kind of administrator already.

I hadn’t had an administrative title or paycheck, but I sized up my various service and outreach roles as a regular faculty member. They included university senate duties, editorial work, academic advising, and various task forces on my campus — not to mention writing for my blog and columns such as this one. I was surprised to find how little bandwidth I had for research and teaching anyway.

If I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into so many of these leadership roles — without any corresponding reduction in my faculty duties and workload — then I might as well have an administrative title as part of my formal job.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not going into full-time admin. My paycheck is unchanged: Some of my workload is being reassigned away from the classroom but I am remaining a faculty member. Even if I get the long-term gig, I’ll still be a professor, and I won’t be wearing a tie on a regular basis.

Yet I’m excited because there are several very specific things that our university can do to provide more opportunities for undergraduates to participate in meaningful, well-supported research projects. And I am hoping to make those things happen.

At this point, I still feel that the biggest long-term contribution I can make is as a faculty member. My research lab is still going strong, so at the moment it’s unimaginable that I would love this new gig so much that I would want to do administration full-time.

Then again, five years ago, I was sure I’d never want to do it at all. As with all new experiences, I’ll go in to this one with an open mind.

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