Through the Looking Glass: Faculty to Administration

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 16, 2011

In the summer of 2003, I moved out of my office in the history department and crossed the quad to take up residence in the provost's suite. Although shaded by oak trees and innocuously lined with benches, the quad makes me think of Lewis Carroll's looking glass: It separates two nonparallel universes, dividing the domain of the faculty from that of administrators.

While I continued to teach the occasional class, my faculty life disappeared. I was immersed in a world with different rhythms and language; my head and my hours were filled with a host of concerns and challenges that I had never before imagined.

In my first months on the job as the university provost, I felt overwhelmed. It seemed that every day, I found out I was responsible for yet another person, unit, problem, crisis. Daily demands for decisions ranged from the trivial (What color for these new desks?) to the consequential (How will faculty-development money be distributed this year?) to the life-changing (At what point should this student be expelled; that employee fired?).

I quickly realized that administrators rarely get to make easy decisions between clearly good versus bad choices. Rather, they must prioritize, often choosing among good ideas that are all competing for scarce resources.

Consequently, I became adept at counting costs, and not just the financial kind—I had to evaluate expenditures of time and social capital, consider how an initiative would affect students and their learning, and analyze short- and long-term consequences for the university. My job was to focus on infrastructure: budgets and buildings; organization and process; and personnel, personnel, personnel.

I had a pretty good run. On my watch, the curriculum was completely overhauled. The university built a new science building, and the old space was thoroughly renovated. Even more important, I worked with department chairs and deans to hire and nurture a diverse and impressive cadre of new faculty members. Finally, I came to know and appreciate the talented group of staff members who build and maintain the infrastructures—physical, financial, communal—of our campus. They are the "backstage crew" that is rarely seen or thanked but that enables faculty to devote themselves to students. Their efforts had often been invisible to me before my time as provost, but as supervisor and colleague, I strove to make their work more productive and meaningful.

In the summer of 2010, I walked back through the looking glass, and back across the quad to the history building. To my amazement, just as my faculty life disappeared seven years earlier, my administrative life has now faded from view. My head and my hours are once again filled with students, courses, and medieval history. I rarely even think about spreadsheets or board members. I see the president and the CFO occasionally in the gym, and I sympathize with their current concerns, but I'm really thinking about my next class, or how I can engage that student in the back who's struggling, or about an article revision due next week. Even on our tiny campus of 2,200 undergrads, the worlds of faculty and administrators travel on different orbits that only occasionally intersect.

What does it mean that the respective work of administrators and professors is so often invisible to the other?

In some ways, the separation between the two isn't a problem. Administrators exist to facilitate and support the work of professors with students. As the CFO once said to me, "Faculty are production, administrators are overhead." It's an administrator's job to make sure that the lights stay on, the bills get paid, and crises are averted—quietly and without fanfare. Faculty energies, meanwhile, are focused on the university's raison d'être: students. It's best when administrators leave classrooms and labs to the expert care of professors whose favorite reward for a job well done is to be left alone to keep doing it.

Sometimes, however, the invisibility of our respective jobs is problematic. We make poor assumptions about what we do not see or understand, so both professors and administrators can radically underestimate the size, complexity, and strenuousness of the other's job. At the same time, we overestimate the other's power and privilege. And we often cast aspersions on the motives and competence of people working on the other side.

After working on both sides of the looking glass, I know that sometimes our worst assumptions about each other are actually true. But the vast majority of the people I've worked with, faculty and administrators alike, are competent professionals dedicated to the mission and values of higher education. They work hard and consistently put students and their educations in the center of all that they do.

So, how can we cultivate trust in this atmosphere of mutual invisibility?

Transparency is a particular responsibility of administrators. They need to ensure that access to information about budgets and decision making is open to all and in understandable formats. Mutual respect is also important. (Academics are particularly guilty of, and adept at, wielding their Ph.D.'s to belittle the expertise of others.)

We must remember the educational values and purpose that we share. And as we must use those values to organize our priorities, from the micro (What is necessary for a classroom or lab to function?) to the macro (What are the financial realities of being a small, tuition-driven college today?).

Honest conversation across boundaries is essential. We will not succeed by posturing, but by understanding multiple perspectives and working together to create the best learning experiences for our students.

Walking across the quad, in both directions, has been professionally and personally rewarding. It has also been very educational. I learned that we waste enormous time and energy when we allow the appropriate boundaries between faculty and administrative work to become hostile frontiers. Given the abundance of enemy fire from without, we cannot waste time sniping at each other.

Linda A. McMillin is a professor of history at Susquehanna University. She was provost from 2003 to 2010.