Leadership : Up Close and Personal

Vol. 12, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editors: 
Virginia L. Clark & Frances E. Andrews

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 12, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2000. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review.


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Kappa Omicron Nu


Higher Education Administration: One Sociologist’s View

Graham B. Spanier

Dr. Spanier is President, Penn State University

Reprinted by permission of the Pacific Sociological Association with revisions by the author (Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 295-300)

I’ll be honest. The principal reason I became an administrator is because I grew increasingly frustrated spending endless hours, days, weeks, and months of my life on committees that were supposed to recommend choices, solutions, and directions to other people who either didn’t listen to what the committee had to say, in some cases never intended to listen to what the committee had to say, or did listen to the committee but made a different decision. Most readers don’t have to imagine the frustration of a young assistant professor investing his or her life in all this wasted effort; we’ve all been there. I suppose, too, that I’ve always had a lot of social worker in me; the opportunity to serve has always had appeal.

I developed an idea early on that I could make a contribution, that some of my ideas might work out better than what some other folks might be proposing, and that there was a lot of bad management around—lots of people wasting lots of other people’s time.

This is the kind of thinking that draws attention and often results in yet further invitations to get involved. I had no idea whatsoever, though, that I would at some juncture, after some intermediate steps, find myself in the positions of Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs c Chancellor, and President.

Within four years after my initial faculty appointment at Penn State I was asked to serve in two administrative positions simultaneously, as Professor-in-charge of a 700-student undergraduate program in Individual and Family Studies, and as Divisional Professor-in-charge of this large interdisciplinary academic unit of 40 faculty members and 100 graduate students within the College of Human development at Penn State. I still considered myself very much a faculty member in these roles.

Unlike the orderly progression that typically characterizes one’s career in the professorial ranks, there is often nothing predictable or rational about progression in administration. Witness my case. Penn State hired a new dean for my college against the advice of the search committee and the faculty. Disaster struck. The dean was fired nine months later, after doing some serious damage. During those nine months, many of the top scholars in the college, having heard the rumors that our jobs were in jeopardy, began interviewing elsewhere. When I returned from an interview with my second job offer, a representative of the university administration asked if I would accept the position of Associate Dean for Resident Instruction to help put the house back in order. I had wanted to stay in the first place, so I accepted, thus launching a more clearly identified administrative career that would involve me more fully in university-wide administration. I subsequently served for four years as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, then to Oregon State University as Provost, followed by the position of chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and President of Penn State University.

Sociologists as Administrators

Although no sociologists have ever asked me the question, perhaps because they know the answer, many other kinds of scholars have: “Does your training in sociology help make you a better administrator?” I don’t think so. Sociologists are considered experts on human interaction, organizational dynamics, power and authority, social stratification, and status attainment, among other things. These are many of the variables that operate day by day to influence the course of the administration of higher education. Yet I must confess at the outset to doubting that my background as a sociologist has much to do with whatever success I might have enjoyed in higher education administration. In this respect my contribution to this collection of essays may introduce a dissenting view.

It is probably true that the personal inclinations that interested me in sociology in the first place also helped stimulate an interest in administration—an intense curiosity about people, human relationships, the dynamics of social organization, and dysfunction. But from the first moment I caught myself starting to think like an administrator—or stated differently, taking the administrator’s perspective—I can’t honestly recall making very direct connections between the arenas of sociology and higher education, either by design or by accident.

I have developed a great deal of admiration and respect for exceptionally talented administrators from other disciplines who seem to discharge their responsibilities superbly without any hint of training in the formal aspects of human or organizational relations. I have seen chemists and physicists who score an “A+” on human relations, oceanographers who have mastered concepts of organizational management, home economists who are skilled strategic planners, engineers who can charm big money from a donor, and philosophers who are amazingly deft with budgets.

I do find that my areas of greatest strength in sociology—family sociology, research methods, and demography—serve me well. My training in marriage and family relations, including some clinical training, often helps guide me through occasionally delicate personnel discussions. My strength in methods and statistics often is helpful in issues of institutional research, planning, and budgeting. And while all senior officials in higher education have had to take crash courses in demography because of the influence of that powerful force on our enrollments, tuition, budgets, and curricula, that part of my job comes much easier to me as a result of my background. But for every advantage I derive from my discipline, my colleagues from other disciplines bring something of equal value from theirs.

Some of the luckiest administrators will be those who are quickest to grasp topics such as biotechnology, computing, economic development, technology transfer, material sciences, international relations, natural resources, and health and human development. Having a keen grasp of legal issues will also help in our increasingly litigious society. The critical point, then, is that there is no one appropriate academic route to academic administration. I truly believe that it is something like an athletic accomplishment. To be really good you must want to do it, be willing to make the sacrifice, put in the hours of preparation, and stick with it against sometimes great odds. But apart from such commitment, only some will move to positions at the highest level, because some basic personal characteristics must be there to begin with, and they are not easily learned. The most dedicated athlete may simply not make the cut. Similarly, some faculty just aren’t cut out for administration, despite a keen interest in it.

The best training ground for administration, then, is the academic department. All faculty members must take seriously their role as departmental citizens: committee service, involvement in promotion and tenure reviews, graduate and undergraduate student advising, and the like. Those who might like to consider administration, however, can and should do more, and most universities provide ample opportunity for such involvement. I have started “faculty associate” programs designed to bring faculty members into the administration on a half-time basis for a year to work on special projects, learn more about administration, and assess whether this is a route they might like to pursue in the future. I strongly recommend such opportunities because they can expose one to the options without forcing an irrevocable career change. The American Council on Education operates such a fellowship program on a national basis.

Being Both Sociologist and Administrator

Many discussions about the transition from faculty member to administrator inevitably imply that they are not only two distinct roles and two distinct jobs, but that there is an implied career change, moving from one phase of professional life to another. I have personally rejected this distinction, although I must acknowledge that it has been at some price.

I received my doctorate when I was 24 years old; by 25 I was already well absorbed into the administrative life of my college, albeit as an assistant professor. I was elected chairman of the College Faculty Organization at 26 (this undoubtedly said something about the marginal importance of the position at the time). I was drawn into committees, odd jobs, and more committees. I also had a very active research program, taught a full load of two course per quarter, one each term with 200 students, advised my assigned quota of 35 advisees, and participated in the usual range of activities in my field. Although my interest in administration emerged early, that was not what I had come to Penn State to do, and I was not about to let these administrative opportunities sidetrack me from my true mission to teach, do research, and write. The inevitable consequence for me was that almost from the beginning I was doing both—the faculty role and the administrative role. This continues to be a personal commitment for me.

With each increasingly responsible and demanding administrative assignment I did a little less teaching and research and a little more administration. However, my commitment always to do some of both never wavered. I almost certainly do each job a little less well that I would if I concentrated on only one. But I carry around inside me an unshakable belief that academic administrators must find a way to continue with their professions. To stop doing so is to stop being an academic administrator and to start being a corporate manager. If we want corporate managers, maybe we should hire such types in the first place.

Continued involvement in the profession doesn’t have to focus on the collection of original data. It can entail involvement in association leadership positions, an occasional book review, an essay of the sort that an “elder statesman” might write, and teaching a course from time to time.

Such involvement is also good insurance. Administrative positions have always been vulnerable, and are increasingly so. Academics must preserve the opportunity to return to a productive role as a faculty member, not just the right to return to a tenured position.

One Sociologist’s Advice

A sociologist interested in administration can get as many opinions about higher education administration as he or she has colleagues. My perspective is of one who mostly believes in the system (I’m a part of it, aren’t I?), someone who likes being an administrator (I could have opted out at most any time), and someone who does not believe that horns immediately grow on anyone who moves from the faculty ranks to the administrative ranks (I’m sometimes amused, more often frustrated, when I detect that I am being defined as the enemy, since I prefer to think of myself as helping the faculty guard against the enemy). With that background, here’s my advice:

  1. Today’s complex universities provide ample opportunities for administrative service. One need not be the chair of the Sociology Department to have an opportunity to serve. There are other options—in interdisciplinary centers, in the college or university administration, in the graduate school, or through faculty governance.
  2. No one should ever move into administration unless he or she has respect for the role of an administrator. It is fashionable in some circles for administrators themselves to complain about what a terrible role it is. When an individual claims to be serving only because someone has to do the distasteful job, they are doing a disservice to the institution as well as to the many administrators who care about what they are doing.
  3. On the other hand, if one has the knack and the desire, I strongly recommend letting this interest be known. There is a lack of top-notch administrative talent, and such interest should be encouraged.
  4. It is important to establish a track record of scholarship before moving into any academic administrative position. One may be offered such a position without the track record, but one should hesitate to be in a position to act on tenure, promotion, merit increases, hiring, and academic policy without strong credentials. Many administrators without such a record of scholarship become victims of extensive second-guessing and grievances.
  5. Never accept an administrative appointment that has a good possibility of jeopardizing your most important goals. Assistant or associate professors who become department heads, for example, run risks, especially before they are tenured. Assurances from deans and others don’t always help because deans change; and after all, the record is what mostly speaks in tenure and promotion cases, not deals with appointing administrators. I accepted administrative positions early, before tenure, but only because I was sufficiently confident about the outcome and willing to take the risk.
  6. Don’t even consider administration unless you can tolerate controversy, disagreement, and anger. You may become a public figure. Not only will your picture be in the paper from time to time, the student paper may feature you in unflattering editorial-page cartoons. Sweet people who you once liked to lunch with may send you venomous letters. Anonymous letters are popular on some campuses. Signed letters to the editor are big in some towns. And petitions or letter-writing campaigns are well-known forms of communication to administrators. These things are destined to make anybody feel bad. My plea is not that administrators should have thick skins. Rather, one needs perspective. One must be prepared to feel bad, be able to survive it, and then bounce back quickly—very quickly—and get everything back on track. If you can’t handle the occasional attack, don’t subject yourself to it. (On the other hand, if this happens a lot you are probably doing something wrong and shouldn’t be in the job in the first place).
  7. Don’t accept an administrative position unless you have superior abilities to manage, write, make decisions (easy or tough), and do these things in a timely fashion. Many administrators are selected because they come across well in interviews or they are well liked. Similarly, many individuals think they will be good administrators because they get along with everyone. This can turn sour quickly if the day-to-day things aren’t tended to.
  8. Don’t accept an administrative position unless you are prepared to make every decision in relation to what is best for the institution. You should have your own agenda, of course, but every decision must be weighed in relation to the good of the university. The easy decision is often one that is not best for the department, college, or university in the long run. If you can’t make that tough decision, don’t take the job.
  9. Be prepared to get blamed for things that aren’t your fault. The higher you go in administration, the more true this becomes. As your arena of responsibility broadens, you will be associated with a larger scope of activity. Do not go into administration if you have a constant need for positive reinforcement; many positive outcomes are long-term, and by the time they come to fruition everyone will have forgotten that you were responsible.
  10. Finally, don’t move into administration if you are afraid to lose your job. It has been said that university administrators lose their jobs for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. You must be sufficiently secure in your “home” profession that you can make the right decisions, take the necessary risks, and stand up to the competing pressures in your administrative position. Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution. Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle.