Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Hard the "Easy" Stuff Is

I'll admit it - I do sometimes catch a little grief from university professor friends for having gone into administration. And while I enjoy a good "join the Dark Side" joke as much as anyone, there is an underlying current to some of what professors think of administrators. It boils down to this: administration is really much easier than research, writing, and teaching. The corollary is this: only those who aren't any good at the latter go into the former.

This sentiment isn't universally shared, even among those faculty who have good reason to dislike their administrators. But it's out there in the background.

Today was one of those days that showed how false this is. Good administration is hard. It just doesn't look like it.

A modern university is an incredibly complicated machine. You've got tons of departments and programs and faculty, each taking care of students in their own area. You've got tons of students who need to pay their bills, get the proper credit, be advised in the proper classes and course of study, and somehow get through the whole thing in a reasonable amount of time (if they don't drink themselves under their desks, which sadly some do). You've also got lots of programs and support services to help those students, each with its own needs and resource requirements. And all of these moving parts have to work together, even though they're all staffed by different people in different offices.

That's where administrators come in. Real administration doesn't have anything to do with "being in charge" - although I've known my share of administrators who got into it for exactly that reason (they usually stink). What real administration is about is getting things done. And since you have all of these different offices and functions running around, mostly not talking to each other (generally out of habit, not malice), somebody's got to do the coordinating. It is, to use the overused phrase, a lot like herding cats.

What makes it work? An ability to see things from lots of different points of view. An understanding of what you have control (and authority) over, and what is somebody else's job - and a willingness to respect those boundaries. Some creativity in knowing when to enforce the rules and when to make exceptions to the rules. And an unshakeable commitment to one phrase: "How can I help?"

The irony is that administration done well is largely invisible. Students are admitted, go to class, do well, earn their degrees, move on. Departments and faculty have what they need (if not all that they want). Everyone gets to go about their business, which feels pretty normal. It's only when something goes wrong that suddenly people notice that there are administrators who do things - and then, it's easy to blame them (and sometimes, we deserve it!)

The longer I work in different areas, the more I begin to see how hard it is to really make things work. Ideas that seem to simple on paper become seriously challenging when you try to make them actually happen. It's not impossible - and when it works, it's fun. But it's never, ever easy.

No comments:

Post a Comment