Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars

Brian Taylor

October 14, 2010

Like many Ph.D.'s in the humanities, we started out hoping to become tenure-track faculty members and instead found ourselves carving out careers as professional staff members. We became friends in 2006, when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hired both of us to work in different campuswide offices.

In our administrative roles, we both work closely with faculty colleagues. Both of us teach and hold adjunct faculty appointments. Both of us do research, participate in scholarly groups, and present or publish our work. And both of us find our research to be relevant to our administrative jobs.

We are definitely not alone. Especially at large universities, a growing cadre of administrators is being hired with Ph.D.'s. or other terminal degrees in their fields. An informal count on our own campus finds at least 40 such administrators, roughly three-quarters of them women. Many of us continue to pursue our scholarly research, writing, publication, public speaking, public engagement, and teaching while fulfilling our administrative duties. But this cadre of Ph.D.'s did not follow the traditional path, moving up into administration from the faculty. And for that reason, academe has no system to recognize and encourage our unique contributions.

So we're hoping to start a conversation about that on our own campus, where a committee is devising a new five-year academic plan. We've presented a proposal to design a system of options and policies that would better support and recognize the contributions of nonfaculty administrators with Ph.D.'s who occupy an often awkward in-between space in the academic hierarchy.

Already in academe, people are talking about alternate academic careers for Ph.D.'s. But the promise of those careers won't be fulfilled without systemic change. Universities must create formal structures to assist our growing cohort in pursuing scholarly research and teaching while continuing to develop administrative skills and talents.

The problems with the current system. In several respects, then, our work is a blend of administration and scholarship—just like that of our faculty-administrator colleagues who rose to administration through the faculty ranks. But the structures supporting each group's work, however, are markedly unequal. Faculty-administrators usually have an established faculty position and a departmental home that provides a base, legitimacy, money, and other support for their teaching and research. The university rewards and values faculty-administrators who continue to do research and teach.

We administrator-scholars, however, generally carry on our teaching and scholarship under the radar, as an overload on top of our regular jobs. We are often only minimally rewarded or recognized for that work by the university or our offices. Our jobs often are not structured to take full advantage of the ways that our scholarly work could enhance both administrative effectiveness and the university's academic mission. And those academic departments and administrative offices inclined to make more generous or flexible arrangements for us lack precedents, policies, structures, and money for doing so.

Another complicating factor: Faculty work is built upon long periods of focused scholarship punctuated with limited, episodic forays into administration, while administrators necessarily weave their scholarship, as time permits, within a long-term commitment to administration.

The benefits of an administrator-scholar corps. We see an unparalleled opportunity for universities to capitalize on a rich resource already in place and to create attractive career options for Ph.D.'s. Among the potential benefits:

  • We could do so much more good for students. Although some administrators already teach, more of us could be invited to do so. Our long-term commitments to our institutions means we are available to respond to students' requests for letters of recommendation and other forms of support in ways not always possible for adjunct faculty members. If compensated, we could also help departments by serving on thesis and dissertation committees. And because our jobs require us to circulate widely on the campus, we can advise students on programs and opportunities of which their professors might be unaware.
  • We can mentor graduate students. At a time when far too many Ph.D.'s compete for far too few faculty jobs, we provide models of scholars following nontraditional career paths while contributing to our disciplines, institutions, and scholarly organizations.
  • We can foster interdisciplinary collaboration. Our administrative positions routinely require working across departmental lines and across the divides between professional schools and the core liberal arts. We are in a better position than many on the campus to spot opportunities for partnerships, and make them happen.
  • We can connect scholarship to practical problems. Our decision to work as administrators shows that we recognized, early in our careers, the applicability of our knowledge and skills to realms beyond scholarly publication and teaching. Additionally, the research we've done outside the pressures of the tenure track has allowed many of us to develop scholarly portfolios that are innovative, entrepreneurial, and engaged with many different audiences. That expertise can help our universities grow and develop programs that put scholarship to work in the world in new ways.
  • We can counter the accusations about "top-heavy" administration. In our state and others, critics assert that universities have too many administrators who contribute too little to the academic mission. Both the fact and the perception derive, in part, from the fairly rigid boundary between the roles and functions of administrators and professors. Even within academe, there is misunderstanding about the ways that administrators contribute to the academic mission. The system we propose could help to ease such tensions.
  • A formal system recognizing administrator-scholars would help institutions recruit and retain highly qualified administrators who could also fill faculty roles, as appropriate. As the job market for Ph.D.'s continues to shift, universities that nurture administrator-scholars could become the employers of choice for smart, creative people with a deep commitment to the culture and mission of academe.
  • Finally, an administrative-scholar corps would be an incubator for female administrators, since a majority of us with Ph.D.'s in nonfaculty positions seem to be women. A formal system to support administrator-scholars would build a pool of female leaders who could move up the ranks across academe.

Working out the details. A complicated set of questions would need to be answered before universities could create this new corps. We don't have all the answers, but if the university approves our proposal, we hope to pursue them. Among the questions we face are how to:

  • Design a program flexible enough to accommodate administrator-scholars' varying levels of desire and ability to continue their scholarship and teaching. The system would have to account for th demands of each person's primary administrative appointment. Such flexibility has long been available to faculty members who may want some, much, or no involvement in administration.
  • Develop workload-management, compensation, reward, and advancement structures that account for administrator-scholars' research and teaching.
  • Arrange appropriate, stable, and mutually agreeable faculty appointments for this group of administrators in academic departments.
  • Create regular opportunities for administrators to teach in areas where departments have needs.
  • Give administrator-scholars access to teaching and research assistants.
  • Provide research support (research leaves, ability to accept external research awards, travel grants).
  • Offer access to professional-development support (e.g., internal fellowship and leadership development programs).
  • Incorporate administrator-scholars into faculty governance structures.

By intentionally nurturing administrator-scholars, visionary universities could make better use of the Ph.D.'s they already have on the payroll. Taking the steps we suggest would serve students, advance knowledge, respond to calls for greater accountability, offer creative solutions to the Ph.D. career crisis, and build a cadre of professional female leaders for academe. We don't see a downside.

Donna M. Bickford is director of the Carolina Women's Center and an adjunct faculty member in English and comparative literature and women's studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anne Mitchell Whisnant is director of research, communications, and programs for the UNC Office of Faculty Governance and an adjunct faculty member in history and American studies.