Moving to the Middle

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 25, 2012

We've heard a lot lately from politicians about moving to the middle. Should they? How can they? Will they? The same questions can be a useful way of thinking about moving into midmanagement positions in student affairs.

It's a topic that too often gets overlooked in conversations about professional pathways in the field. As someone who learned a lot from middle managers and moved through such positions as I climbed the student-affairs ladder, I would like to share some observations from those experiences.

First let me note that both the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators offer conference programs on middle management as well as regional and national workshops. They're a good starting point for job candidates.

Any discussion of "middle management" in student affairs requires a working definition of the term, but developing one is not as simple as it sounds. In a 1990 book, The Invisible Leaders: Student Affairs Mid-Managers, Robert B. Young (1990) talks about the difficulty of defining middle management. Is it determined by position on an organizational chart? It is identified by span of authority or control over resources? Is it understood through the complexity of the services and programs supervised?

The short answer is all of the above—but not always. A particular position in student affairs at Stellar U. may be accepted as middle management given that it supervises several entry-level staff members and substantial programming. Meanwhile, just down the hall, another middle manager supervises no staff members but plays an important role in policy development and budget oversight.

Put another way, and paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart, we aren't able to give all the specifics of what makes a position middle management, but we know it when we see it.

One of the most important qualifying characteristics is simply to persist in the profession. Newcomers to student affairs face a fairly high rate of attrition, and it is obvious that middle managers will most likely be chosen from among those who remain in the field. While entry-level and senior-level positions are sometimes filled by folks moving into the profession from other administrative realms, middle managers in student affairs are typically selected from within.

Another characteristic of successful candidates for middle management is having earned a master's degree in student affairs, higher education, or a related field. In previous columns I've noted that a master's is commonly required for entry-level positions in our field at many, but not all, types of institutions. That credential is nearly a universal requirement for midlevel positions.

Job descriptions for those posts will often list supervisory experience as either a desired or a required qualification. You may wonder how to acquire that experience given that entry-level posts rarely include the opportunity to directly supervise clerical or professional staff members. However, many starting positions in the field do offer the experience of supervising student paraprofessionals. The lessons you learn from those interactions, as well as from your leadership of programs, services, or working groups, can help in preparing to move up.

Middle managers are often responsible for creating and overseeing departmental budgets. Unfortunately, the professional literature of student affairs suggests that our graduate preparation may not offer the opportunity to develop the requisite budget skills.

How then to get yourself ready to handle departmental finances? As an entry-level staff member, you may be able to gain experience by overseeing a small budget for a specific program. And don't overlook student-leadership experiences in campus organizations with at least modest budgets.

Try supplementing your graduate training by participating in a workshop on budget skills offered through your institution or through a professional association. It might also help to review some of the literature on budget management in higher education. (Here's where I get to plug a 2011 book I wrote with Margaret J. Barr, Budgets and Financial Management in Higher Education.)

The responsibilities of middle management in our field can present some interesting challenges that might be reflected in the questions you are asked during the hiring process. As Don Mills notes in a chapter of the Handbook for Student Affairs Administration, middle managers are often called on to interpret, enact, and explain policy, but they may not be involved in creating it. Put another way, they have just enough authority and power to be responsible but not enough to be in control.

Here, too, as an entry-level professional seeking promotion, you may not have such experience or authority over staff or faculty members. But you may well have similar experiences as a result of your work with students and their organizations. The difference between an awkward silence and a good answer during an interview can be as simple as having given some thought to how the lessons you learned from your work with students can be carried into a new role.

Some student-affairs professionals are convinced that career advancement must come at the expense of direct contact with students. Certainly, each step up the management ladder comes with greater and more complex responsibilities, but it does not seem to me that I am putting in any more hours as a senior vice chancellor than some of my colleagues are as area coordinators or student-life staff members. It is important to affirm that students are the center of our work, and it is always possible to make time for what is important.

Developing skills in time management will assure that you have time for students and for all of the other duties of middle management. Look to mentors or senior colleagues who have set a good example of maintaining their interactions with students while taking on positions of increased responsibility.

A final challenge applies to those seeking promotion within a particular institution. Be aware of, and on top of, how people who "knew you when" may respond to you in a new role. A well-prepared candidate will be ready to handle the perceptions of more senior staff members who still see you as an undergraduate student leader, a graduate assistant, or a new staff member. Similarly, give some thought to how your former peers may react when they start reporting to you.

Throughout this column I've discussed the transition to middle management as moving up or taking a promotion. It is worth noting, however, that sometimes you have to be prepared to move sideways before you can move up. But there may not be an opening now or in the foreseeable future for you to move higher up the organizational chart at your campus. If life circumstances permit, the best opportunity for promotion may be with another college.

One final suggestion for reflection: Do you see a move into middle management as your ultimate professional goal? Or is it a stop on the way to a senior position? One answer isn't any better than the other, but each of the answers has implications for how you prepare for and pursue a promotion.

George S. McClellan is vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. He writes regularly for The Chronicle about career issues in student affairs. If you have suggestions for topics you would like to see covered in this area, suggest ideas in the comments section below.