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Administrative Transitions

climbing_ladder

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

The first time I read Hamlet was in my 12th-grade Advanced Placement English class. I remember well my response to Hamlet’s dilemma and his famous inaction in the face of the apparent facts of his father’s murder and what he sees as his mother’s “incestuous” relations with his fratricidal uncle, Claudius. Why, I wondered, could Hamlet not simply kill Claudius and be done with it? The situation seemed clear to me, and the solution much less complicated than Hamlet was making it appear to be.

Several years later I was teaching my first Shakespeare course as a graduate assistant. When we came to King Lear, as a conversation starter I asked the students what they thought of the king and his staging of the famous “love contest” that begins the play. Their overwhelming response was that Lear was “stupid”: He should have understood, after years of experience, that Cordelia was a good daughter who loved him, that asking her to put her love on display in that way was humiliating and foolish, and that he also ought to have known something more of Regan’s and Goneril’s true character.

It was recently suggested that I discuss here the issues that arise in the process of transitioning from faculty member to department chair, and on up the administrative ladder to academic vice president. As I’ve been thinking about how to talk about those transitions, one point that has continually come up is the matter of institutional complexity and the increasingly broad domains of knowledge and responsibility that come with each new, more-senior role.

Since I am trying diligently to retain at least a vestige of my identity as an English professor, it’s natural (and, I think, a hopeful sign that not all is yet lost) that I revert to literature for explanatory assistance. My recollections of my early response to Hamlet, echoed by my students’ later responses to King Lear, have reminded me that things that are, in fact, deeply complex can seem simple and black and white in the absence of knowledge or full understanding.

In the years since high school, I have studied the plays in depth in college and again in graduate school. I’ve seen them on stage in good and weak productions and in movies and videos, and I’ve taught Hamlet and King Lear perhaps five or six times each, including a couple of times to grad students.

I have long since abandoned my initial response to Hamlet, and now have what I hope is a far-more-nuanced response to students’ disdain for Lear’s treatment of his daughters than I did 25 years ago. My approach to those great Shakespeare plays has changed because—I hope—I understand them much better now than I used to: I have surrounded my readings of them with a greater range of contextual information, have encountered the texts repeatedly in a way that has greatly increased their familiarity, have immense amounts more experience as a literary scholar, and have life experience that adds resonance to the human dilemmas the characters face.

Similarly, when I was a brand-new faculty member, a lot of things about institutional operations seemed pretty simple to me. Many times, I thought that the administration was dithering needlessly over questions whose answers seemed obvious, was willfully doing the wrong thing in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or was just being, in the words of my first Shakespeare students, “stupid.” I could not see why long-time faculty and staff members clung to what seemed to me to be silly or counterproductive practices and policies, and was (I am sorry to say) not necessarily prepared to respect their experience and wisdom.

Like myself as a young reader of Hamlet, or my first students on their first encounter with King Lear, I thought things were simple and obvious that would, with more wisdom and experience, not be so simple and obvious, and I thought that behavior whose rationale I didn’t understand was, on its face, foolish.

There are many dimensions to becoming a more-senior institutional member, either by progressing through the faculty ranks or, as I have, by moving up the administrative ladder. Over the next while, I would like to discuss those dimensions and how faculty members might navigate the movement from new hire to institutional sage, or from wet-behind-the-ears faculty member to senior administrator.

But what I want to start with is the proviso that the more one knows about how things work, the less simple an institution and its operations will prove to be. I want to touch on matters of transparency and shared governance, but also issues of confidentiality, the handling of sensitive information, and the external and internal forces that sometimes make doing the right thing hard or impossible.

I don’t want to be an apologist for administration and administrators, per se, but at least to provide some perspective about why we sometimes do things that don’t seem right or sensible, and outline some of the constraints that bind us. I know it’s fashionable to bash administrators, and I certainly know that some of them are weak, not very smart, or even evil. But I also know a lot of honorable administrators at all levels who work hard, every day, to make things better for the members of their institutions but whose hands are tied by various factors that they don’t control and who possess knowledge that can’t be shared.

It certainly looks as though Claudius merits death for killing Hamlet’s father. However, what if the Ghost is an apparition sent by the devil to tempt Hamlet to his damnation? Someone probably knows the answer, but it’s not Hamlet.

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