How to Fix the Awkward Administrator-to-Professor Transition
It is time to shift how higher ed talks about, pays, and makes use of presidents, provosts, and deans who return to the faculty.
Unlike in most professions, retirement is not the clear finish line for a career in academic administration. Higher ed often sends its ex-leaders back to work on the faculty. To outsiders, that tradition seems quirky at best. Even on campuses, plenty of people view this career transition as largely inconsequential for the institution and the former leader.
Which is too bad because it has so much potential. The practice of academic administrators resuming faculty work has serious implications — positive and negative — for campus culture, practices, policies, and balance sheets.
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Unlike in most professions, retirement is not the clear finish line for a career in academic administration. Higher ed often sends its former leaders back to work on the faculty. To outsiders, that tradition seems quirky at best. Even on campuses, plenty of people view this career transition as largely inconsequential for the institution and the former leader.
Which is too bad, because it has so much potential. The practice of academic administrators’ resuming faculty work has serious implications — positive and negative — for campus culture, practices, policies, and balance sheets.
Over the years, former leaders have offered friendly advice to peers who endeavor to go from “the dark side” to the light. But on the whole, higher education still primarily operates in the dark when it comes to the administrator-to-professor transition.
To deepen our collective understanding, I interviewed more than 50 former presidents, deans, and provosts who returned to the faculty (some by choice, others involuntarily) at a mix of four-year institutions. I shared some of their advice on leaving administration in an earlier column. But beyond the career logistics, their experiences signal a need to revise our underlying assumptions about postadministrative life. How can we make better use of this pool of expertise?
Our go-to metaphors are misleading. Most leaders I interviewed favor the neutral term “stepping away” to describe what academe has long called “stepping down.” Only a few of them said they experienced this professional transition as a demotion. Instead, most described it as a welcome shift — a change in responsibilities, an opportunity for personal reinvention, and a chance to resume the intrinsically rewarding work of teaching and research that brought them to higher education in the first place.
In short, they still sought to add value to their institutions. Their new status was a change from the typical silos of professor and administrator — not inherently better or worse, just different.
Many ex-administrators I interviewed had similar objections to “stepping down’s” sister metaphor: “returning to the faculty.” They maintained that they had never abandoned a faculty sensibility upon accepting administrative responsibilities (no doubt their critics would disagree).
The larger trouble with “returning to the faculty,” however, is that it suggests someone can be either an administrator or a faculty member but never both. That binary calcifies what many see as a growing antagonism between the faculty (labor) and administration (management). Swapping out loaded terms in favor of neutral ones — “stepping away” or “reprising full-time teaching and research” — is a more accurate reflection of the roles that former leaders usually assume on their campuses without the added antagonism.
Why leaders step away. While campus rumor mills may be quick to suggest otherwise, relatively few administrative resignations are triggered by bad behavior, criminal malfeasance, or interpersonal drama. Leaders step away from administration for many compelling and legitimate reasons. Among the common reasons they cite publicly: They have finished a significant campus project (like a strategic plan or fund-raising campaign); they feel called to complete a scholarly project before retiring; or they want to spend more time with loved ones.
Those reasons are real. But leaders also have other motivations that they are less forthcoming about in public. Under the assurance of anonymity, many of the former leaders I spoke with attributed their decision to step away to feeling burned out or finding that formerly interesting professional tasks had grown stale. You can weather only so many 60-hour weeks, sleepless nights, campus crises, and graduation ceremonies. Some confessed they had stayed in their roles for too long, past their prime effectiveness.
How former leaders spend their time. We lack good data on what ex-administrators “do” upon reprising their faculty duties. In my research, I found that former leaders tend to choose a particular orientation for their efforts and then stick with it:
- The internally focused types center their professional activities on their campuses. They chair committees, mentor junior colleagues, resume teaching, engage with alumni, and stand ready to support their successors.
- Others approach their faculty roles in a predominantly outward-facing way, and direct their energies beyond the campus. They join civic groups, serve on nonprofit boards, become officers in their disciplinary societies, publish mightily, or forge new collaborations. They still meet their campus obligations, but may not go beyond the minimum.
Many onetime leaders are undertapped assets. Their leadership skills could align with many of an institution’s most urgent needs, but that happens far less often than it should. Typically, the new leadership is hesitant or self-conscious about reaching out to “the old regime,” so many potential contributions go unrealized. Given the many pressures facing them today, institutions should be far more intentional about matchmaking between an unmet campus need and a former administrator well primed to deal with it.
Plenty of former deans and provosts are still willing to flex their administrative skills and their professional networks on behalf of the institution — albeit to a lesser extent. Former leaders are well-positioned to lead a faculty committee, assist in reaccreditation efforts, or even serve as department chair. Some would welcome the chance to support projects they once nurtured (e.g., convening a lecture series). Many former deans and provosts said they would gladly mentor early-career scholars or serve on an advisory board for a new center. But most ex-leaders think it more politic to wait to be asked to serve in any of those roles, and it’s on the institution to “step up” and make the request.
Of course, some former leaders have fully satisfied their administrative itch, don’t see eye to eye with their successors, or have zero interest in doing more than required. And there are circumstances when it is best for onetime leaders to perform their faculty duties under the radar, or even be given the incentive to leave.
3 Ways to Improve Leader-to-Professor Transitions
Beyond modifying the language we use to describe leadership transitions or adopting practical strategies to ease the predictable tensions accompanying a role change, my research points toward three broad solutions.
No. 1: Align compensation, identity, and role. James H. Finkelstein and Judith A. Wilde — public-policy scholars at George Mason University — have done extensive research on hundreds of executive contracts, comparing how presidents are paid and how much presidents will be paid upon returning to the faculty. While there is no standard, many contracts include generous terms and conditions. The most extreme cases, what Finkelstein and Wilde called “platinum parachutes,” use an administrative salary as the basis for future faculty compensation. For example, a former president might receive 75 percent of their presidential salary upon returning to the faculty (not to mention discretionary funds, administrative support, or other perks).
Not only does that level of compensation put a significant long-term financial strain on institutions, but it is also out of step with how former administrators navigate their faculty roles and responsibilities. I propose an alternative to using administrative pay to determine a former leader’s faculty salary: Upon leaving administration, leaders should receive a paid sabbatical year and then earn a nine-month salary representing the average of all professors of equivalent rank in their home department. Market differences prevail, so a president who returns to the economics department will probably earn more than one who returns to modern languages. Fundamentally, the practice ensures that faculty members are paid equitably for their contributions, regardless of past administrative service.
In justified cases, former administrators could be awarded a named professorship, honorary chair, or research support commensurate with their achievements. But beyond one-time “re-start-up” funds to furnish a lab or purchase materials, institutions should not entertain additional financial requests.
No. 2: Normalize succession planning. Expecting any campus leader to serve indefinitely is unrealistic and, increasingly, foolish. The most recent “American College President Study” affirmed the continuation of many trends, including that presidents are serving shorter terms than their predecessors. More than half of this year’s study respondents (55 percent) stated they plan to step away in the next five years, with few intending to seek a presidency elsewhere. And yet, only 30 percent of respondents said their institutions were actively engaged in succession planning.
We need to accept that this game of institutional musical chairs is here to stay. Add the expectation of cascading administrative vacancies to the growing list of challenges facing higher education, along with the looming demographic “cliff,” unsustainable financial models, and declining public trust in the power of a college degree. Knowing what we know, we need to think differently about how we prepare internal candidates to step into interim roles and how to ensure strategic and operational continuity.
No. 3: Rethink leadership roles so people want to stay on the job longer. Higher ed must accelerate its efforts to make senior leadership positions more sustainable, appealing, and accessible to talented candidates from all backgrounds. When we talk about why administrators step away in the first place, many point to long hours, heavy demands, and burnout. As we work to rightsize these duties so that they are more manageable, we can also explore ways to accomplish those duties differently.
There seems to be some uptick in appointing leadership teams to serve in roles once held by individuals. For example, Colorado College selected two long-serving administrators as interim co-presidents in 2020. Likewise, while searching for a permanent provost, Washington State University, the University of Mount Union, and St. Catherine University each opted for a co-provost model in which duties were divided between two senior leaders on an interim basis. Institutions might consider formalizing the “co-leaders” model as a permanent solution. Dividing duties — and presumably pay — could help a college use its resources more sustainably (while building some useful redundancy).
Since the day-to-day demands of leadership can be intense, colleges might provide mini-sabbaticals for senior leaders to recharge, think, and learn. While it is hard to imagine a president or provost disappearing for a semester, their absence may be less noticeable between Thanksgiving and early January or during the quiet month of July. A month or a few weeks’ time can provide the perfect chance for an interim administrator to step up, thus strengthening succession planning.
While the issues surrounding stepping away are complex, the ability for senior academic leaders to reprise faculty roles and responsibilities can ultimately result in win-win situations for individuals and their institutions. With a bit more open dialogue and fiscal restraint, these transitions can be smooth, productive, and sustainable.