8 Dos and Don’ts of Stepping Away From Administration
How to manage the surprises and challenges that await you on returning to the faculty.
You had a good run in senior administration but it was time for a change. You announced plans to return to the faculty, were feted at a grand reception, and moved into a humbler office. Now the real work begins: Embedded in higher ed’s most awkward career transition are both opportunities and obstacles.
At first, you may grieve what’s been lost — money, power, courtside basketball tickets. But returning to the faculty — voluntarily or otherwise — holds many “glass half full” moments. In doing research for my new book,
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You had a good run in senior administration, but it was time for a change. You announced plans to return to the faculty, were feted at a grand reception, and moved into a humbler office. Now the real work begins: Embedded in higher ed’s most awkward career transition are both opportunities and obstacles.
At first, you may grieve what’s been lost — money, power, courtside basketball tickets. But returning to the faculty — voluntarily or otherwise — holds many “glass half full” moments. In doing research for my new book, Stepping Away, published by Rutgers University Press, I’ve assembled some general advice to make the process of leaving a senior administrative position just a little smoother for former leaders and their institutions.
Don’t leave it all to chance. One reason that resuming your faculty identity is such an uneasy process is that most former administrators receive scant guidance about how to comport themselves. Some boundaries are intuitive and clear. A former president is freed from the responsibility of developing reports for trustees. An ex-provost will resume teaching a set number of courses each year. But many expectations are decidedly murkier:
- Are there limits on what you, as a former leader, can discuss if you run into a trustee at a social event, or if a trustee calls on the phone?
- Is it appropriate for an ex-dean or a former provost to serve in other leadership roles — say, as a department chair or a head of an influential committee? Which roles?
- Where should a former president or provost sit during faculty meetings? Are there some meetings you shouldn’t attend?
- How much is a former administrator (most likely already tenured) expected to publish after rejoining the faculty?
- Should your institution hold onetime administrators to the same teaching and research standards as other faculty members?
The answers to those questions will depend on local circumstances and personalities. Actions deemed appropriate on one campus may cross unspoken lines on another. Before leaving office — or even afterward — you should not be afraid to seek guidance on how to deal with such ambiguities.
Do balance “stepping up” and “hanging back.” Volunteer too often in your new faculty role, and people might think you are trying to reclaim lost power. But hang back too much, and you risk depriving yourself of fulfilling work and denying your campus the benefits of your gifts.
You can’t possibly anticipate every nuance of this career transition, but you can set some general principles to guide your behavior. Are there moments (colleagues gossiping about your successor’s performance) when you should hang back and keep a low profile? Occasions (a controversial vote from which you must abstain) when you should slip out of your faculty office unnoticed to avoid attending? Issues (broad speculation about a confidential personnel situation) on which you should hold your tongue in a departmental meeting?
Yet returning to the faculty can be a chance to temper moments of silence and strategic absence by stepping up and making relevant contributions. Might you offer to teach an intro course that no one else is eager to take on? What about chairing a committee that would benefit from your relationships and administrative acumen? Could you facilitate an introduction between a colleague and a publisher? Will you mingle with alumni at a football tailgate?
Regularly revisit the balance between hanging back and stepping up. For instance, in your first year away from administration, you might adopt a blanket moratorium on attending campus events. The break will give you time to decompress and allow the college to adjust to new leadership. Perhaps in Year 2, you might accept invitations that align with your new priorities.
Don’t assume that everyone knows what returning to the faculty means to you. “Stepping away” announcements seem to be on the rise nationwide. But keep in mind, most people on your campus will not know what to make of your return to faculty life. Many will jump to the false conclusion that you are retiring, full stop. Others might be suspicious of your motives, deciding to keep their distance, presuming a scandal or wrongdoing.
To the degree that you feel comfortable, be forthcoming about your decision and your plans. Will you write a book? Teach a majors’ seminar? Start a new campus project? Will you take a more hands-off approach and focus on re-establishing your work-life balance (e.g., travel, time with grandkids, serving on the board of a local nonprofit)?
Cuing others about what the transition means to you will help them understand how best to engage with you.
Do seek advice. The simple act of asking for help is one of those high-mileage strategies that almost always makes returning to the faculty much easier. What you learn will provide clarity and practical insight, while gently reminding others that you are performing unfamiliar tasks.
Ask your faculty colleagues about new course policies they have adopted in recent years, or seek their advice on navigating your college’s learning-management system. Ask your chair to be a partner in helping you revive a dormant research program or get up to speed on current debates in the discipline. Ask the department’s office manager how to order textbooks. Ask your spouse how you can contribute more around the house.
Don’t treat your return to the faculty as a chance to resurrect the past. It hardly seems reasonable to pick up your faculty career wherever you left it — five, 10, or (gasp!) 20 years ago. Instead, honor how your years in administration have changed you. Leverage what you’ve learned as an administrator to reinvent your faculty persona. For example:
- In department meetings, help others see the bigger picture when a discussion has devolved into the weeds.
- If your colleagues are struggling to draft compelling requests for more funding or faculty lines, share your insider knowledge.
- If you find that doing traditional disciplinary scholarship no longer suits you, consider alternatives, like joining the editorial board of a journal.
- If your administrative career led you to develop highly specialized expertise (e.g., crisis management, shifting budget models, lobbying state legislators, leading effective teams), consider how you might make it the focus of your future work. Share that knowledge by teaching a course on higher-education leadership, writing about the topic, or mentoring aspiring leaders.
Don’t be overconfident about the ease of resuming faculty life. After years of marching to the drum of a busy calendar, having newfound freedom over your schedule may leave you feeling dazed and confused. You may find all sorts of faculty tasks — such as grading or catching up on recent scholarship in your field — to be far more onerous than you remembered. However difficult your transition, the important thing is to keep learning and growing from whatever this chapter brings.
No matter how prepared (or not) you feel to make this role change, even the best advance planning can be a pale substitute for day-to-day experience. There will be good surprises, too — an unexpected research collaboration, an invitation to speak at a conference, a chance to co-teach with a colleague.
Don’t expect the changes in your life to be limited to work. In my research about presidents, deans, and provosts who returned to the faculty, many of them reported adjustments on the home front. Shifting roles and responsibilities at work ushered in changes (often for the better) across the other domains of life.
For instance, many former administrators started dressing more casually, felt more present in their relationships, and enjoyed improved mental and physical health. Be grateful that a job change can be a prelude to a new worldview and all that it brings.
Do be patient. This is a big change — and not just for you. Faculty colleagues may slip and refer to you by your old title (Dean So-and-So). Some on campus may assume that you have much more inside knowledge on, and influence with, the current senior leadership than you actually do. It will take time for people to stop seeing you as an administrator and start accepting you as a scholar, a trustworthy colleague, and a true peer.
While you can’t rush the reassimilation and acceptance process, you can nudge it along by giving your fellow professors cause to see you as something other than a decider in chief. Invite (and keep inviting) faculty members to join you for an agenda-free, casual coffee. Practice asking more questions and talking less. Be ready to deftly change the subject when someone asks you about a recent decision made by your successor. Trust that, before you know it, you will be left to enjoy the invisibility and anonymity of being just another faculty member.
Be patient with yourself, too. If your resignation came quickly or involuntarily, it may take time to process the initial shock and lingering sting of it all. It is understandable to feel angry or sensitive if your successor kills a pet project of yours. Things might go differently than planned the first time you teach a new course. After years of dashing from meeting to meeting, you may be surprised how long it takes to adjust to less-scheduled days.
In my research, I learned that for many former administrators, returning to the faculty often coincides with another major life event — the death of a parent, the move to a smaller home, or the emergence of health problems. On its own, a job change or any one of those events could be debilitating; the combination can be overwhelming.
If your world is suddenly topsier or turvier than anticipated, there is a potential upside: Your new faculty role will afford you a greater degree of professional flexibility to deal with such a mix of crises than would be the case if you were still in administration.
Expect that it may take two years (or longer) to truly feel at home on the faculty after a lengthy period of administrative service. At times you may feel unmoored, uncertain, or even a bit lost. But gradually, you will experience fewer of those days and more of the kind that remind you of everything you once loved about being a faculty member.