After Administration: The Search for a Professional Niche

Full vitae justice dec.16 istock 1166586117

Getty Images

By George Justice

The provost who fired me is retiring in June. I can’t say I’m sorry about that, and I got a good laugh out of the botched rollout of the internal search for his replacement. That rollout was orchestrated by the other guy instrumental in my firing. When I clicked on the link in the message announcing the job posting, it took me to some sort of weird Russian document site.

It’s probably not good that I got pleasure out of that, three years after being demoted as dean of humanities at Arizona State University. But it definitely is good that I can wholeheartedly endorse the outcome of the search: The new provost, who will take office next summer, is a brilliant, highly ethical scientist and dean whom I worked with when I was dean. She will diversify the senior leadership, some decades after she attended the university as an undergraduate.

A friend texted me: “Are you on good terms with her?” Yes. “Do you think you’ll be up for another senior leadership position?” No. No way. Not in a million years.

It’s not that I’m not interested in what is happening either at my university or nationally in higher education. Sometimes I even look wistfully at ads for leadership posts and email messages from search firms. But there’s no way the new provost, whatever she really thinks of me, would tap me for a major administrative role.

I mean, I even dutifully fill out the questionnaire each fall about universitywide service I would be willing to undertake. Each year since losing my job as dean, I’ve volunteered for the university’s Graduate Council. After all, at my previous institution — a top research university — I had been dean of the graduate school and an elected board member of the national Council of Graduate Schools. I continue to serve on national panels for important initiatives in graduate education. Each year, however, I am not chosen for my university’s Graduate Council.

The resentment I felt three years ago has morphed, at least somewhat, to bemusement. And what I’ve discovered in the past couple of years — what I want to emphasize to faculty members who have returned (willingly or not) from administrative offices to faculty departments — is that my greatest professional pleasure, and my usefulness, has come from looking in the nooks and crannies of academic life rather than in the major areas of my institution. Taking initiative in my career at Arizona State, on campus and off, has required relinquishing aspiration to formal leadership roles.

Even a year after returning to the English department, I still felt pangs of misery on entering the new department building (a project I had worked on as dean), which sits just across a small courtyard from where the college deans have their offices. Every walk to my new faculty office that first year was an unhealthy reminder.

I needed a change of scenery. Arizona State has five campuses. I had the idea that I might temporarily transfer my work from the main campus, in Tempe, to the one in downtown Phoenix. We have a really vibrant campus downtown, with a small humanities faculty that provides courses largely to the undergraduates of the professional schools housed there. The head of that humanities faculty group is a visionary and ethical leader. I approached my English chair (also a visionary and ethical leader), and asked if I could work downtown.

The move was approved for a year. I was surprised by how much a prospective relocation buoyed my spirits. Almost immediately, new ways for me to contribute began to materialize.

Even before my official arrival downtown, the head of the humanities group asked me to take part in the creation of a degree program focusing on issues of culture, race, and democracy. I know some things about that subject matter, but I know a lot more about the process of building curricula. It was great to sit around the table with creative, committed academics and simply try to be helpful. That curriculum, recently approved by the university’s regents, is just one of the projects Arizona State has undertaken on the issues of racial justice that have rightly dominated the news since last summer. For me, that experience has transformed my understanding of the possibilities of doing productive work, on my campus and beyond.

The downtown faculty group in languages and cultures is very unlike a traditional, large English department at a research university. There is not only no Ph.D. in English; there is no major in English. My downtown colleagues are largely nontenure-track instructors teaching five courses a semester.

Few academics enjoy departmental meetings, but meetings with these new colleagues have actually been a pleasure. We focus on issues of service to students and on working conditions for contingent faculty members. Despite their heavy teaching loads, my colleagues are committed to their students, to one another, and to the research that not only informs their teaching and public service but finds outlet in the same peer-reviewed publications that tenured colleagues tend to view as their domain.

I’ve also looked outside the university for places where I can contribute. I’m a proud lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. I happened to have dinner with some of the great leaders of that organization after giving a talk (pre-Covid-19) at the society’s annual meeting — something I wouldn’t have had time to do as dean. After chatting with the group’s incoming president about her organizational priorities, including her commitment to diversifying the society and making its meetings more inclusive, I was elected to its board. I sit on the society’s new equity, diversity, and inclusion committee, where I serve alongside a group of energetic members — a few of them from academe, most not. The genesis of that work predates last summer’s protests over George Floyd, but it has become especially important now.

My advice for others out there making the often-awkward adjustment to postadministrative life: Find particular places — outside of the administrative track you were on — where your previous work experience is relevant and can make a difference. In my own career, I may not be on the university’s Graduate Council, but I can still share my knowledge with graduate students as a guest lecturer in the Graduate College’s “Preparing Future Faculty” course.

Here are some other things you can do to get out of the doldrums after you’ve returned to the faculty from an administrative post:

  • Schedule conversations with people you really enjoyed working with, whoever and wherever they are. Don’t go in with an agenda.
  • If you hear from them about projects that capture your imagination, volunteer to help.
  • Don’t be discouraged if things don’t quickly fall into place in your postadministrative work life, or if some of the seemingly good ideas you have turn out to be unworkable.
  • When you participate in someone else’s initiative, savor the experience of not having to lead — and not having to compete for attention. (Being an ex-administrator without ambition at your institution frees you up from the rat race of faculty life, too, which does require that kind of competition.)
  • Be creative and open in your teaching. “Meeting students where they are” can help you shed old pedagogical baggage and embrace the truth and beauty of this wonderful generation of students.

Regarding that final point, this past fall, I taught a new course, “Cross-Cultural Writing,” which focused on student responses to a set of literary works by Black and Indigenous people of color of the past decade. The topic was outside my scholarly specialization but within the realm of my recent commitments. It went very well, even if I am still a bit clumsy teaching an online, asynchronous course. One student even thanked me for being “a part of the gradual solution” instead of part of the “toxic, rotten problems.”

I have to return to the English department on the main campus next fall. The reasons provided are flimsy, but they’re the same ones that I sometimes gave as dean to faculty members wanting to switch campuses. I’m OK with it — although I had envisioned the temporary move as becoming permanent, my return to English will be just fine. I can still collaborate with my colleagues downtown, and students are students: I love teaching and have some ideas for interesting future courses.

There are plenty of places where we ex-administrators can make a difference, and enjoy being a small “part of the gradual solution.”

George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University and formerly the university’s dean of humanities.

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.