By Nicole P. Foran
“I want to be an administrator when I grow up,” said no child, ever. Can you blame them? The spotlight in higher education has always been on the professors, the educators, the life-changers. The heroes have been specific, whereas the term administrator blankets a diverse group of jobs that are seemingly dull and unglamorous by comparison. The words “bursar’s office” hardly summons up visions of glory. Indeed, to desire to enter into higher education as an administrator as opposed to a faculty member is to want to be Alfred instead of Batman.
So, who are these so-called administrators, and why are they called to this job? Can it even be viewed as a calling, or is it simply a position one falls into when a bachelor’s degree is attached to something like English or history? What type of person is attracted to tinkering with protocols and promoting others’ efforts? To investigate these questions, I examine my own experience working with higher education administrative personnel.
As a student, administrative or staff positions were invisible unless they were frustrating. The most memorable interactions were ones where I would be throwing my hands up in irritation over seemingly irrational red tape and bizarre deadlines. When I did interact with an administrator, it seemed to me that they were simply the support staff for the true change-makers and that their input was to keep bureaucratic wheels turning.
As a young professor, staff positions were unnoticed unless they had a capacity to assist me. (The attitude that administrators are there to help me rather than students is not uncommon amongst faculty members.) Pesky paperwork dished out by administrators seemed largely like busywork meant to justify their jobs, because what were they really accomplishing? Being on committees comprised of both faculty and administrators often felt like two distinct groups being forced to sit at the same table in the high school cafeteria. Faculty could be surly and unwilling and suspicious of the latest batch of “new strategies.” In contrast, administrators tended to be overwhelmingly positive, like they had all passed around a thermos of institutional Kool-aid prior to walking through the door.
So what changed about my perception of working with administrators? Well, I became one. When I was offered the job of Chair of my department, the role was described to me as an opportunity to see behind the curtain. I had never been particularly interested in finding out more about the other side, but as I continued in higher education I felt more deeply invested in wanting to make large scale changes; changes that couldn’t be made by a faculty member in a class room alone. It turns out, administrative schedules are messy and chaotic and stressful. There is no safety blanket of tenure, and the ups and downs of enrollment and the meddling of the state hits harder there than in the relative safety of a lecture hall. Decisions are made and initiatives are proposed which, shockingly enough, aren’t created with the sole purpose of tormenting faculty. Generally, the strategies are well researched and based on data meant to improve student learning. And what’s more, administrators even have their own jokes and *GASP* personalities!
What has changed in terms of my general understanding and expectations of administrators? Maybe some attitudes, certainly not egos…but mostly, having some light shone on their role in creating an inclusive and innovative environment of learning. Information that administrators have an impact on student success—information that has been known and documented for years—is slowly leaking out to faculty due to the increased need for advising, retention, and recruitment (three things that many faculty have little or no training or interest in).
So it appears that while administrators may initially drift or even fall into their paths rather than pursuing them (although that would be a case by case scenario), their role is not superfluous, nor is it just throwing papers into the air and shuffling. They are proud of their contributions, which are actually measurable and visible within higher education communities. If professors are the teenagers of higher education, sarcastically one-upping, rebelling and creating new trends, then administrators are the adults on campus without the luxury of treating each day with irony and caustic glee. Instead, they are congratulating professors for their hard work, and attending conferences where they can discuss teamwork in peace without a single faculty member rolling their eyes.
Nicole P. Foran is the Co-Chair of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Texas A&M International University.