Tales from my journey from faculty to senior administrator and back again: what matters?
About 25 years ago, just as I got tenure at Syracuse University where I loved teaching, was managing five grants (including an NSF [presidential] Young Investigator award), and participated in every department, university and professional service I could, I was offered and accepted a rotation as a program officer running the program for Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology at the National Science Foundation. I discovered in that role that administrators were not necessarily evil people (I had thought they were) who wore business suits, were addicted to wielding power indiscriminately, and were on a mission to make faculty lives as miserable as possible. In fact, I discovered that in the program officer role that I could facilitate the success of others and of the organization. I also discovered that facilitating the success of others was rewarding, and much to my surprise, I found out I was good at it.
I then moved out of my faculty role an into a 25 year long journey as an administrator, including as the chief research officer at the Desert Research Institute, then the University of Missouri and then Rice University. I seemed to facilitate success in those roles-- and success isn't hard to measure-- the quality and quantity of research grew dramatically in all three institutions.
But, still, what I was proudest about in my career was seeing lives of students transformed because they met me when I taught at Syracuse University. Thus, I missed the entirety of the academic mission. I also discovered at Rice, that although elite private universities have spectacular students and faculty, and more financial resources than their public counterparts, that my heart was in the transformational power of public higher education. So, I was willing to ignore the political guerilla warfare that surrounds every public institution, because I really believed that public higher education was one of the greatest transformational forces that people have ever invented.
That led me to a role as Dean in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU- a truly transfomational place. And, to provost roles in three public institutions (Northern Arizona, University of Arkansas, and UNCG). In all of those places, I seemed to facilitate good things like improving student success measured by retention and graduation, improving the quantity and quality of research, hiring great people, and supporting the full range of disciplines in a university and in friend and fund raising. In these roles I always made some time to teach, but my schedule only allowed me to teach smaller seminar type courses. Those were always the best hour or two of the week.
Yet, although I came into work every day as a senior administrator with a single goal: making my college or my institution better, and I felt and received feedback that my efforts had a positive impact, in the end it didn't seem very meaningful. The turnover in senior admin positions is high, and each new person usually comes and undoes what the last person did. And, let's face it, how many of you can remember who your president/chancellor, provost or dean were when you were in school? I was an undergraduate in a close knit forestry school at the University of Maine and a doctoral student at Yale's close knit School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, so in both cases the dean was an advisor to me so I remember them. I don't think I ever knew who the president was and definitely had never heard of the provost at Yale or Maine. But, I remember just about every one of my professors. There are a couple of professor who were really bad and I still feel animosity toward them. But, others transformed my life with their enthusiasm, their belief in me, and with making their subjects exciting. These are people I have never forgotten and will remain grateful to them forever. And, I have tried to pay forward the exceptional teaching styles, the caring, and the believing in students that characterized the best professors I had. I think about those individuals almost every day.
In January 2021, I had no choice other than to return to the faculty at UNCG- it was a painful experience. But, in doing so I am back to teaching subjects that I love (organismal biology, ecosystem/biome science, and evolution). We are a minority serving institution, with a large number of Pell grant recipients, a large number of first generation students, and a large number of adult and non-traditional students. These students inspire me every day.
Also, I have suffered from depression for my entire life and anxiety over the last 10 years or so. I made a commitment to myself to always be open about my mental health challenges in order build awareness that conditions like depression are diseases, every bit as much a disease as cancer, and far more deadly to students in their early twenties. I also talk about it because I want people to know that it can be managed, but that you can't manage it alone, And, I want students to see that I am not afraid of any stigma associated with admitting struggles.
I knew as provost at UNCG that our student body was in crisis with mental health, partly related to COVID. And, I also knew that many of them had to work many hours while going to school, had families and children to take care of, commuted long distances and had financial hardships. But, the extent to which mental health, financial instability, work hours (many [40%] of students classes I teach work 30+ hours/week while taking a full load), and home issues serve as obstacles to their education was far greater than I could ever have imagined. In my first undergraduate class here that had 52 students I got to know all of the students well. There may have been 10 students who had any resemblance to what I would consider a "normal" student, living close to campus, working maybe 10 hours a week, and was able to create blocks of time for school work.
So, I engaged with my active and project-based learning teaching style. Any student that missed class was contacted by me with a message that simply said "I missed you today, are you Ok?" - many would respond that they weren't OK and began to open up as trust was built. I talked to students about mental illness. At least 60% of the class was suffering from severe depression, debilitating anxiety, uncontrolled ADHD, untreated Bi-Polar disorder- some were in treatment, some were not. Most came from immigrant or first generation families that do not recognize mental illness, so they had little support. I worked with these students, met them where they were, was flexible with them in due dates, etc. It was a lot of work. In my Evolution class of 120 students, we used digital checkpoint surveys five times during the semester. Each time around 60 students would reveal significant mental health or off campus challenges in each one. Every one of those students was contacted by me. I exposed myself as way to build trust. This engagement was the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my academic career. This editorial shows the impact of this kind of teaching through an unplanned experiment.
I received strong student evaluations. More importantly, student comments indicated that I changed their lives, kept them from dropping out, gave them the strength to seek behavioral health support, and facilitated their love of the material ( If you are interested in seeing comments [99% positive; 1% not]), let me know. I had 220 students my first year teaching and received around 200 email notes, comments in evaluations or comments that were made in Canvas telling me that I was the most caring professor they have ever had, that I had changed their lives, and even made them feel better about people.
I love the subjects I teach (in my case ecology, organismal biology, global change and evolution). I am curious and interested in students who awe me every day in how they overcome challenges I could never have imagined when I was an undergrad. I relish the impact I can have on students, and how that impact grows as they go out into the world and pay it forward. In many ways I feel sorry for the 25 years in administration- I really felt like I had a positive impact in the moment. But, I don't think the good I did in those roles will last.
The moral of the story is that despite being paid about a third as much as I made as provost, but still working the same 60-80 hour work weeks (even in the summer, where my grants cover about 0.75 of a month but a work full time all three), I discovered that my calling is to be a teacher-scholar. The difference I can make in the world by supporting students who will pay it forward and forward is infinitely greater than the impact I could ever have as a senior administrator working in a cloistered echo chamber, where we argue about the future of higher education, while we try to make the ridiculously large number of university stakeholders with competing interests happy, and where we succumb to the idea that time is infinite and free making it possible to believe more can be done with less- especially those faculty!. And, much to my disgust, even though I am politically liberal, as administrative leaders we had no choice but to buy into a "woke" agenda, appease those who feel like victims, and act as thought police while we try to protect academic freedom, and try to not get our heads taken off by Republican and/or Democratic legislators.
Unfortunately, I think the increasing guerilla warfare between campuses, boards and politicians; the increasing power and money awarded to university leaders, far outpacing the growth of salary and autonomy for faculty (and staff); the increasing chasms between the vast numbers of stakeholders in a public university; the unsustainable fiscal model of public higher education; a growing sense that faculty (governance, resistance to change, work ethic) are the problem instead of the solution since faculty are the only employees capable of delivering on the mission of student learning, research, and community engagement; increasing pressure for universities to be social engineers (e.g., woke or anti-woke), not just educators; and the stress that chancellors are under trying to make decisions tightly squeezed between a really hard rock and an even harder place, has created an environment that increasingly selects for leaders (increasingly, not always, and maybe still a minority) who support my original hypothesis stated in my first paragraph (evil people who wear business suits, are addicted to wielding power indiscriminately, and are on a mission to make faculty lives as miserable as possible), because the political narrative is that faculty are the problem (just as teachers are the scapegoats for K-12). I'd like to think I was not evil and I worked with a chancellor at the University Arkansas who definitely was not And, I certainly know many leaders who want to do good just for doing good. But, leadership jobs in higher education are leading to emotional suicide for far too many good people.
I guess that my journey was not linear, but some weird shape, perhaps and octagon where one lands where they started. In my case, I started and "ended" (not dead yet!) as: engaged teacher: active researcher: and energetic member of the department and the greater faculty, who believes that administration is truly the dark side.
Life's journey's are never linear. And, as Jackson Brown sang "no matter how fast I run, I can never get away from me"- but me always catches up to us. Hopefully, one is happy when that happens. Although I carry hurt and anger in my trunk as I return to where I started, I am happy that me caught up to me and we were glad to see each other. So, now I hope I can stop running from me and take a rest.
BTW- I currently teach BIO 431 (The Biosphere- 50-60 students); BIO 330 Evolution (100-160students); Plant physiological ecology (11 students) and our required class for entering Ph.D. student on environmental health sciences: from organisms to ecosystems. I also have a cadre of undergraduate students in my lab (taking BIO 499) and 2 Ph.D. students working with me in some capacity. And, I serve as the Graduate Program Director for the department
10/14/2022 02:58:12 pm
I enjoyed your post. There are good administrators but my experience has been that they “are moved on” by the college administration. The lack of respect shown to faculty in general is why I chose to retire from full-time teaching two and a half years ago. I still teach part time but the constant attempt to quantify education is doomed failure. This is not a short- term endeavor. Years down the road is when you see results.
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