Winter 2020

In the Middle

Take My Dean, Please: Advice from a Happy Chair-Turned-Dean

I had the good fortune of being chair of an English department for ten years. I genuinely enjoyed the work. Facilitating conversations with faculty members in the department about our needs and aspirations and then executing a shared vision came easily to me. Our faculty practiced shared governance and shared responsibility. My model of leadership involves consensus building, and our bylaws give all faculty members (tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track) an equal vote on all matters that affect the department as a whole. As members of the same faculty, we were more than collegial; we were cordial. And we shared a  mission of empowering and educating our students. I remained chair of the department until recently, when I was asked to serve as interim dean of the Graduate School. A hallmark of my tenure as chair (the verdict is still out on my deanship) was efficient faculty meetings laced with well-timed humor. It would therefore not surprise anyone in my department that my advice about considering an administrative position would begin with humor. Henny Youngman’s old joke “Take my wife, please” came to mind immediately, hence the title of this essay. A close second was the joke about there being no good academic jokes about chairs or deans. Clever and concise, it goes something like this:

Faculty member 1: “There are no good jokes about chairs and deans.”

Faculty member 2: “Some chairs and deans are jokes.”

Before you become an administrator, ask yourself whether you are willing to give up the solitude of research-oriented reading and writing in order to devote most of your time to working on behalf of others.

This biting critique is ages old. It can also be well-founded, especially if a chair or dean is more concerned with the oftentimes false sense of power that attends the position than with being an advocate for faculty members and students. But not all administrators are jokes. Some are interested in generating meaningful, beneficial change and in implementing innovative ideas. Such administrators see themselves as stewards and find ways to help their universities respond positively to changes in higher education across disciplines. So before you reject outright the reputed dark side of administration, consider these three questions, which every potential administrator should reflect on.

Question #1: Can You Accept the Inevitable Delays in Implementing Your Scholarly Agenda?

People who are or who have been administrators will overwhelmingly tell you that your scholarly agenda will suffer as a result of your administrative role, that it will be difficult to assume administrative duties while spending as much time as you had been on research and publishing. Before I was chair, I could spend several hours a day reading or writing without fear of interruption. My time was my own. I had no meetings to go to, no reports to write, no fires to put out, and no faculty members, staff members, or students to answer to. But as an administrator, my days are filled for me, and any reading or writing I do, I must do after all else is done. Before you become an administrator, ask yourself whether you are willing to give up the solitude of research-oriented reading and writing in order to devote most of your time to working on behalf of others. The reading you will do as an administrator will most often be done in preparation for meetings, while most of your writing will be done in the service of reports. Faculty members whose primary focus is teaching should ask themselves a similar question: Can you accept a move away from the classroom—where an active engagement with students and their ideas was your primary laboratory—to a role that requires regular encounters with faculty members and administrators and where your assignments will typically involve problem solving? In most instances, some publishing and teaching will be possible, if not expected, but the change in rhythms is not to be taken lightly. Even the best laid plan to schedule reading and writing time frequently fails because, somehow, prioritizing scholarship as an administrator often feels selfish or delusional. That is why I make it a point to agree each year to at least three conference presentations related to my scholarship. It is important to me that I stay current in my field, and active conferencing is one of the best ways to do this—both as a presenter and as a listener.

Yes, I teach, and I continue to publish. But it is not easy. Most of my publications in the last five years owe themselves to the fact that I am known in the field and am seen as a valued member of a community of scholars. This has two benefits: first, I have the luxury of writing about ideas I have been mulling over for years, meaning that I am excited by the opportunity to think through these ideas with editors and peer reviewers; and, second, I do not have to search out publishers who might be interested in my work. This is why I think it is so important to be well established as a scholar before assuming a major administrative role. Publishing work others know you are doing is much easier than writing in isolation, with no guarantee that your work will ever be published.

For me, teaching is sacred time. All my colleagues know I am unavailable an hour before class, and I avoid scheduling meetings during office hours. Everyone knows that if I had to choose between administration and teaching, I would choose teaching every time. While teaching is what animates my work in the academy, I am no less committed to research. During summer and semester breaks I focus on my book project almost obsessively. I have been working on a book on Toni Morrison’s editorship at Random House for more than ten years now. There is no doubt I could have finished this project years ago if it were not for the administrative work I have agreed to do. But I have patience when it comes to research. “The project will still be there,” I remind myself, as I steal time to be a scholar during the semester. But my yearning for the classroom cannot be deferred. All this is to say: know what enlivens you and figure out just how much of it can and must be preserved when you take on an administrative role.

Question #2: Will You Be Supported?

No matter what administrative position you assume, you will need support. Department chairs, for example, need the support of all faculty members—non-tenure-track, tenure-track, and tenured alike. The difference between a department that reinforces hierarchies and one that works to mitigate them is palpable. A big part of what we do as humanists is help others imagine what is possible, including a world where we treat all faculty members well without regard for rank. As chair, it is important that you find meaningful ways of relating to all faculty members, not only senior faculty members. For instance, showing concern and compassion for the needs of adjuncts must be as important as ensuring that tenured faculty members have a reasonable workload and graduate students have affordable health care. Depending on your department’s or university’s policy for chair appointments, you may not have many opportunities to gain faculty support before assuming the position. Still, you can gain support after becoming chair by focusing on the needs of the department as a whole rather than on the needs of individuals; by showing that you have done due diligence, know the lay of the land, and are aware of the current and historical realities that inform a given situation; and by being forthright and fair. If an especially productive member of the faculty requests a course release to finish a book, consider implementing a policy that makes such a release available to all faculty members who have books under contract. Before you embark on a self-study of your department, read the last one and be sure you understand how all the department’s parts fit together. Make every effort to hear from every constituent group. Try to see yourself, first, as the person who has the fullest view of the department and therefore as the person best poised to share a vision with the group and, second, as the person charged with executing the agreed-upon vision. When I tell people that this actually works for me, they are quick to tell me how it would never work for them. Factions always emerge; the Americanists vote as a block; self-preservation is more important than progress, they say. But I think this type of leadership can work for anyone willing to do the hard work of leading by example. When we decided to redesign the courses in our first-year writing program and tenure-track faculty members wanted oversight over the process but did not agree to teach the courses, I signed up to teach the section offered to first-semester English majors and minors.

[T]o be a really effective administrator who enjoys life and work, you will need bring into that role the thing that drew you to academia—the life of the mind.

If it is the case that you have never succeeded in mustering support from colleagues, for whatever reason, you are likely to face the same challenge as an administrator. And there are few things more important to administrative success than having the support of the faculty members you are charged with directing. You can have the support of your dean—indeed, that is important—and as a dean you can have the support of your provost. But support from “above” will not go nearly as far as support from “below.” When several departments moved to hiring adjuncts instead of full-time faculty members as a way of addressing a budget crisis, English faculty members across ranks stood in solidarity and supported my appeal to the dean to allow us to continue to hire full-time faculty members. Being an unsupported administrator is a lot like swimming against the tide: you can do it, but it’s only a matter of time before you drown.

Question #3: Can You Make the Work Intellectual?

So much of the work of an administrator is, well, administrative. As an administrator, you will do everything from managing course schedules to fundraising. But you might also have to redesign your school’s general education program. Yes, you will need to be good at strategic thinking and planning; yes, you will need to master the art of compromise; and yes, you will need to be a good communicator. But to be a really effective administrator who enjoys life and work, you will need bring into that role the thing that drew you to academia—the life of the mind. While a prudent response to draconian cuts is nothing to sneeze at, it will not be what makes you proudest. What you will look forward to are those initiatives that require you to reimagine some aspect of the university in order to shore up its academic profile or to design and support projects that speak to the needs of the contemporary moment. Some of my most enjoyable work as an administrator involved collaborating with a team of faculty members to redesign the college’s first-year seminar. We shifted the focus of the course from institutional history and campus life to knowledge production and interdisciplinarity, a shift that prepares students to solve big challenges.

Can you foster collaborations that might otherwise have been unlikely or impossible? Can you make your own unique sense of the world? Can you win the war against the tyranny of the immediate and spend meaningful time thinking about far-reaching, complicated ideas and innovative approaches to disciplines and fields of study? Are you able to translate that thinking into action? If you can do all these things, you have the makings of an excellent administrator—and an agent of change. When students comment on their course evaluations for the new first-year writing course that they are happy they didn’t just receive an exemption from it because the class challenged them to become better readers and thinkers, to understand various literacies, and to participate differently in discourse communities, I feel a sense of pride that I helped design a course whose goal is to create a more engaged citizenry.

Being an administrator is hard work, but it can be done with grace, style, and humor. One day soon I hope to hear someone say, “Take my dean,” referring to me. If and when that happens I hope that those three words form an introductory clause and not a plea. There may be no good jokes about chairs and deans, but somewhere in the making are some good deans and chairs.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Dana A. Williams is professor of African American literature and interim dean of the graduate school at Howard University. She was the president of ADE and currently serves on the MLA Executive Council.

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