Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is it possible to be an intellectually serious administrator?

I'm not sure this is the right question.  I don't mean, by asking it, to imply that the administrators I work with are intellectually un-serious, or that intellectual seriousness is an important characteristic of administrators.  (In fact, if one were to rate it, it would have to fall somewhere below "flexible," "tireless," and "good-natured" on the list of desired qualifications.)  Nor am I sure that "intellectually serious" is exactly the thing I am wondering about.  That thing might be closer to "intellectually wise"  than intellectually serious.

The thing I am wondering about is the virtue or characteristic that allows administrators to put things they face into perspective and context, and to make decisions based both on immediate demands and that perspective and context.  And it is also the thing that allows administrators to weather their own inevitable mistakes, expedient compromises, failures to communicate, and flights of fantasy in a way that maintains the respect of the faculty, staff, and students.  This cluster of virtues I am calling "intellectual seriousness."

The day-to-day life of an academic administrator works against this these things in two ways.  First, it demands an intense, sun-up to sun-down focus on the job itself.  Most days the first thing I think about is work, and the last thing I think about is work, and in-between it is thinking about work that lurks in the interludes between episodes of actual work. 

Second, within that focus on the job, the actual work is undisciplined.  It is almost impossible to focus for extended periods of time on a single issue.  One hour a meeting may be about curriculum, followed by a quick talk with the college attorney, and then on to a budget discussion, followed by recruiting a student and then lobbying for resources from the Provost.  Tossed in may be hallway questions from faculty, and a quick unexpected discussion about assessment, and a call from the CTO.

In contrast, a life of intellectual seriousness is structured in exactly opposite ways.  While the administrator's life is narrowly job-focused, an intellectually serious person is curious, her life focused on asking questions, on determining context, on learning the literature.  And while the day-to-day practice of an administrator is undisciplined, the life of an intellectually serious person is disciplined--blocks of time put away for teaching, for research, for intellectual attention.

Of course an intellectually serious approach to the life of the college may not do much good for keeping the college flourishing.  But given that most administrators were once intellectually serious in their fields, it is worth thinking about how to bring aspects of that former life into the practice of administrators. Much of the weight will fall on those administrators to be sure.  I, for one, am appallingly poor at setting aside time for disciplinary focus.  So are all of the administrators I work with.  I don't know where their minds are before they get to work and after they get home, but my sense is that most of them keep mental companionship with their jobs all the time.  These may not be bad characteristics.  In most instances colleges and universities get a lot of good work out of people like these, who give themselves over to the hard work of running the institution.  I wonder, though, how many institutions miss big opportunities because their administrators have embraced undisciplined focus as a way of work.

Writing this has put me in mind of Kermit Hall.  Hall was an important legal historian whose work I studied when I was working on a curriculum revision for the American Heritage Program at BYU.  I stepped down from that role to become the Executive Director of Utah Campus Compact.  The state Board of Regents invited me to speak to a meeting one spring, and I found myself sitting next to Kermit Hall, who had the year before become President of Utah State University.  In a quiet moment I told him how much I admired his work, particularly the Oxford Companion to American Law, which had come out during his presidency at USU.  He told me that when he began his administrative career he also began to set aside half a day every week to work on scholarship.  He maintained that practice through his presidency at Utah State and through his time at SUNY-Albany where he went after leaving USU.

Hall died of a heart attack while swimming at Hilton Head at the age of 61.  He was on vacation at the time.  I never worked closely with him--I have no idea what sort of a President he was to work with, or what his institutions missed because he was a scholar.  But he was an intellectually serious as an administrator, and that, from my perspective, was a good thing.

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