Becoming a President's Special Assistant

Brian Taylor

January 04, 2012

I have no ambitions to be a college president. A dean, yes, and maybe a provost. What I want to do from those positions is to work on making the case nationally for the value of higher education. A new job I started this academic year seemed like a great first step.

My new title: special assistant to the president for external relations. What couldn't you do in a job like that?

I had fallen into that job—or earned it, depending on my level of self-esteem on a given day—at my liberal-arts college following a stint as an American Council on Education Fellow that I chronicled in November. The president of my college was willing to slot me into a position in his office where we could make some good use of what I had learned over the fellowship year, and it was just what I wanted. I hoped I could use the position to play some role in helping make academe more responsive to community needs and to get the outside world more involved in supporting its colleges and universities.

So I made big plans to connect the college to business and local government leaders, to create links with other colleges in the area, to look for new ways to promote what we do, and to bring folks to our campus who might not otherwise know about us. I had no job description. I was to design the role myself, making sure to take in areas that had been covered by the professor who had occupied the part-time post before me: handling government relations and finding internships for students at the college.

The previous special assistant had come to the job after years of lobbying work for a major technology corporation, bringing with him huge networks in both government and industry. I would be coming to the position after years of teaching Victorian literature, bringing with me a fair acquaintance with the lesser works of Rudyard Kipling and a good network of English department chairs. There would be some learning to do.

A few months into the work, some learning has been done.

I've learned, for example, that in the president's office of a small college, nobody is ever only in the president's office. I find myself involved in program development with the provost's office, at least partly as a result of some work I do with a trustees' subcommittee. That's two more bosses: the provost and the governing board. Co-chairing a search for an athletic director puts me squarely in the office of the dean of students (boss No. 4).

Those are the only ones to whom I report directly, but I have worked with, sought information from, and sent annoying meeting requests to any number of others, from the dean of global education to the registrar to the acting chief financial officer. It is embarrassing to note how much more I know now about the inner workings of the college—after three months in this job—than I ever bothered to learn in the previous 20 years as a faculty member.

That is not the kind of learning that comes from moving into administration in the traditional way, from professor to chair to dean to provost. I wanted to be in the president's office so I could see it all in action: money, tech, real estate, legislation, physical plant. I wanted to be able to learn about, and work on, the college's place in its region and on the national higher-education scene. In short, I wanted to get better at a lot of things at once.

It's not totally clear to me yet whether that was the best strategy for me. I am indeed learning about a lot of things at once. And it's exhilarating. Each project I complete teaches me new information and new skills: what the steps are in a land sale; how to avoid ruffling feathers when proposing new programs (haven't perfected that one yet); which legislators influence which decisions; where the landmines are on the campus—landmines that sometimes seem to have been marked clearly by staff members, and for staff members, but whose signs ("Danger: Stepping here will trigger a decade-old argument between X and Y") are invisible to faculty members.

The biggest challenge has been juggling all of this new learning while still teaching. A national meeting that would be so valuable for me as an administrator falls on the first teaching day of the semester. If the special assistant's job were my only job, I'd certainly be at the meeting. But I'm a faculty member, too, and I can't have my students start the semester with a substitute teacher or even with me on a screen. So I'll be in the classroom, focusing on my teaching and trying not to think about what I could be learning.

As I've been doing such intensive learning in my administrative role during the first months of the academic year, I've not pushed myself to learn in the classroom. Instead, I've concentrated on trying to teach well. And that isn't really enough for my students.

If I'm not working hard to learn in a given semester, they won't learn as much as they should. The fall semester I taught a course I've taught many times before. I added some new texts, classroom activities, and assignments, but I didn't restructure the course in any major way. Consequently, the students learned a good deal about Victorian literature, but I learned a good deal less than I usually do about teaching. That isn't good for them or for me. The best classroom experiences are the ones in which the instructor and the students are deeply engaged in learning. When I try new techniques, I teach new texts, experiment with a new kind of assignment, risk failure—that's when I'm learning and that's when I'm a better teacher.

The special assistant's job is a dream for me, and in it, I spend most of my time in what the University of Michigan's Noel Tichy calls the "learning zone." Tichy posits three concentric circles, the inner one of which is the "comfort zone"—for me, my teaching, which I've been doing well for many years. That circle is large, and includes my research, teaching, and a certain amount of service work on the national higher-education scene. I can do that work without worrying about much beyond how much time it will take.

The next circle out is the one we should really want to spend the most time in—the learning zone. It's where you challenge yourself, using the skills you already have but gaining new ones as you pick up knowledge. This zone constantly shifts, and as you get good in new situations you have to be careful to keep pushing outward, lest you fall back into the comfort zone. I like living in this zone.

The outer circle, the "panic zone," is where you find yourself if you've pushed too far, entirely out of contact with your comfort zone. I don't think this zone is necessarily a bad place to be. The ACE Fellowship, for example, was a great year for me, but it wasn't a comfortable one by any means. For much of the first few months of that year I was firmly in the panic zone. That's OK for a leadership training year, but I agree with Tichy that it isn't the place to lead one's regular professional life.

So for me, next semester's goals are coming into shape. I want to move my teaching into the learning zone, and not to rely on old habits and syllabi. To that end, I'm doing some work that does double duty: Over semester break I'm taking a digital-humanities workshop that will put me in touch with that exciting new field and will give me ways to perk up my teaching.

I also want to finish up some of those administrative projects I've been pursuing with those many bosses. It's great to work with new people and learn about new (to me) areas of the college, but it's time to give back by producing some results from all those meetings.

And, finally, I want to stop and write more often, to do some more reflecting on the best ways to use what I'm learning in this new job, both on the campus and off.

Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College (Mass.), and special assistant to the president.