Stepping Up

Brian Taylor

December 17, 2012

Nearly two years have passed since I "stepped down" from my last administrative assignment—a move I've since come to regard as "stepping up" to full-time teaching.

I didn't necessarily feel that way at the time. The move from administration to faculty required significant emotional and cognitive adjustment. For more than 20 years—as a department chair, dean, and program director—I had been "in charge." Now, as a regular, rank-and-file faculty member, I was only in charge of my own courses.

In addition, I had grown accustomed to being "on the inside"—serving on important committees and councils, always among the first to know about the latest policy or program, and even at times having significant say in their formulation. Now I was just like all of my other faculty colleagues: in the dark and out of the loop most of the time.

And finally there were the financial implications of returning to the faculty. Leaving administration cost me thousands of dollars in salary, and even though I've been able to make up much of that by teaching in the summer, the impact on my family has still been noticeable (especially when you consider that faculty members at my institution haven't had a raise in six years).

Two years later, I am here to report that the move from administration to faculty has been, for me, overwhelmingly positive. I'm not advising any of you to leave your administrative positions or promising that, if you do, things will work out as well for you as they have for me. I'm just saying that, in my case, in return for anything I might have given up in terms of prestige, influence, and income, I have been more than compensated in other areas.

Free speech and academic freedom. Most mature people recognize that speech is never really free. You can say what you want, perhaps, but there's often a price to be paid—and it could be your job. One purpose of academic freedom and tenure in higher education is to mitigate that harsh reality, to make it difficult for administrators to fire faculty members who say unpopular things.

But administrators don't have those protections. Even if they're tenured faculty members, and they can't literally be "fired," they can be removed from their administrative positions and lose thousands of dollars in salary, along with other perks. As administrators, they "work at the pleasure of the president," and when you work at someone's pleasure, there's a natural tendency to try to make sure that person is pleased.

Sadly, I failed frequently at that—not because of my job performance but because of the things I insisted on saying in print.

For example, I was once called on the carpet because of something I had written in an opinion essay for a local newspaper that was perceived as critical of the state-university system. "Administrators," I was told, "can't say that sort of thing."

To be fair, and to the administration's credit, I was never fired after that incident (or several others I could relate). I'm not even necessarily questioning my bosses' right to admonish me. I just realized, finally, that they were correct: As an administrator, you really can't write those kinds of things. So instead of deciding to stop writing them, I decided to stop being an administrator.

Similarly, as an administrator, you can't really speak out on the campus about what you might perceive as bad policies or poor management. Outwardly, at least, administrators have to be "supportive" of their bosses. If they want to effect change, they have to try to work within the system. Many administrators are quite good at that. I think I was actually pretty good at it myself. But I reached a point where I just got tired of keeping my mouth shut about things I saw going on that I thought were wrong. That's another reason I decided to leave administration.

As a faculty member, I feel free to speak up. There is still some risk; unhappy administrators could certainly try to make my life miserable. But they couldn't just fire me, not without a long legal battle that they would probably lose. I don't work at their pleasure anymore, and I no longer worry about pleasing them.

Work-life balance. Your time, as a midlevel administrator, is not your own. You can sit at your desk all day, bored half to death, and then suddenly at 4:30 p.m., a crisis will arise that you must deal with immediately. It will keep you at work until 7:30 p.m., meaning that you walk into your daughter's dance recital 45 minutes late, after the flower fairies have already performed.

When the college holds an open house—on a Wednesday night or a Saturday morning—you might be able to cajole a few faculty members into helping out, but you will most certainly be there yourself, staffing your department's booth and (quasi-) cheerfully answering questions.

And when a freak snowstorm rolls in at 10 p.m., while all your faculty colleagues are enjoying hot cocoa in front of their fireplaces, you will be frantically making phone calls to ensure that everyone knows the campus is closed the next day and no one attempts the treacherous drive to work. (If you can't relate, remember that I live in Atlanta.)

Those sorts of things don't happen all that often, but they happen often enough and are unpredictable. As an administrator, in exchange for the salary and perks, you just have to accept that putting the rest of your life on hold in certain situations is part of the job.

As a husband, as a father, as someone with myriad interests outside of work, I reached a point where that trade-off was no longer acceptable. Full-time teaching—even at a community college, where the standard load is five courses a semester—simply provides a more flexible lifestyle than administration. That's especially true if, like me, you have enough seniority on the faculty to be involved in setting your own schedule.

For instance, I'm a morning person, so I start teaching at 7 a.m. and, even with office hours, am usually able to leave the campus by 1 p.m. or so. That frees up my afternoons for grading, class preparation, research and writing, volunteer work at my kids' school, and even the occasional long walk in the park with my wife. I'm still busy, but I'm busy attending to tasks that, for the most part, I've chosen for myself and don't find onerous (except maybe the essay grading).

The difference that has made in my life has been astonishing. I've always been relatively fit, but my blood pressure has come down considerably since I left administration. I sleep better. My lower back pain is less frequent. I'm less irritable and enjoy my family and friends more—and I think they enjoy me more, too. I thought I was happy enough when I was an administrator, but there's really no comparison between those years and the quality of life I have now.

Work-work balance. Perhaps the best result of my decision to trade a corner office for the classroom, though, has been the opportunity to arrange my professional life so that I'm finally doing all the things I've been wanting to do for years.

Supposedly one of the drawbacks of leaving administration is that you have to go back to teaching. I know plenty of administrators who blanch at the thought.

I've always enjoyed teaching, but I'm finding that, this time around, I enjoy it more than ever. Sure, there are aspects that can be tedious—did I mention essay grading?—but nothing gives me a charge like being in the classroom and interacting with students. For the most part, it's fun. I don't even mind teaching five courses a semester. Given the reality that I have to work for a living, there's very little else I'd rather be doing.

In addition to getting to spend more time teaching and less time doing paperwork or sitting in interminable committee meetings, I've also had more time to devote to my writing. Even as an administrator, I cranked out regular columns for The Chronicle and for our local newspaper, mostly because I was determined to do so. But since "stepping down," I've actually been able to publish a couple of books, something I've always wanted to do.

It's true that I had been plugging away for years at both books (one academic, one creative nonfiction), but it wasn't until I left administration that I finally had the time and energy to devote to the challenging tasks of pulling the disparate parts together, finishing the manuscripts, editing and revising, and then landing publishers.

Mostly because of those books, I have also had numerous opportunities to travel around the country speaking to various groups. Just in the last two years, I've received more than 20 invitations to speak at colleges, universities, schools, conferences, and professional meetings—most of which I've been able to accept. I have to work around my teaching schedule, but I've found that people are remarkably accommodating.

The result is that I'm finally doing, almost exclusively, what I've always wanted to do: teaching, writing, and speaking—in other words, being a professor. I took a long (and not altogether unenjoyable) detour into administration because it paid well and I had a growing family, because I was fairly good at it, and because, frankly, it seemed the path of least resistance.

But now I feel as if I'm finally back where I belong, among the ranks of the full-time teaching faculty. And for me, at least, that has definitely been a step up.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.