Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What could administrators contribute to the intellectual life of a college?

Last Saturday the Alpha Chi Honor Society was kind enough to invite me to give the keynote speech at their induction ceremony at Westminster. My talk focused on lessons from Jane Addams' essay "The Subtle Problems of Charity" for students who wish to make a major contribution to the social good upon graduation.

I enjoyed the chance to speak, in large part because I felt like I was contributing to the intellectual life of the college in a small, but real way. I do teach courses at Westminster (about 1 a semester) but most of my work is administrative, and as such concerned with policies, process, planning, and programs of the college. I believe all of these things are essential if a college is to flourish. Without them, the core activities of the institution--the intellectual life of the college and the community life of the college--wouldn't happen as well or as predictably as they do.

But it is also true that administrators tend not to be in a position to contribute much to the college's intellectual or community life, except by helping to facilitate it. Many of us wish we could do more, and do it more directly. As I suggested in my last post, most administrators were once experts before they took on the experience of administration, and most administrators wish that their expertise, however developed, could contribute more to the academic discussions and culture--the stuff that shapes the college's mind, if you will.

So I've been wondering what administrators could do to contribute more. This is in some ways a simple question--keep administrators teaching, ensure that they develop their academic expertise as well as their administrative experiences, welcome them to the department and faculty meetings, encourage them to sponsor clubs and mentor students, require that they read in their fields.

The more interesting (and complex) question is related: What do administrators, as administrators, know and do that can contribute directly to the college's intellectual life? My colleague Mary Jane Chase, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, once suggested that historians (she is one, so am I) make particularly good administrators because their discipline is committed to outlining the grey areas between the black and white worlds recognized by theory.

There is a lot of truth in this statement, which broadened seems to suggest that administration cultivates certain habits of mind--seeing and being comfortable in working in grey areas, valuing compromise, attending to process, respecting particularity, speaking for pragmatism over dogmatism--that should be represented in the intellectual life of the college.

Are there other intellectual habits of administrators that are valuable to an institution? Dangerous to it?

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