Friday, August 24, 2012

On administration, vocation, and going over to the dark side

At least since 1977, it has been possible for faculty members to "go over to the dark side."  This phrase is always directed (in jest or in anger) toward former faculty members who have become administrators.  As such, it betrays a great deal about some faculty--that they see administrators as impediments to faculty governance, or as a sign of administrative bloat, or as highly compensated power-seekers, or simply as representatives of the meetings, task forces, committees, reports, studies, regulations, rules, and procedures that are the most visible manifestation of administrative work.

There is undoubtedly some truth (and falsity) in each of these characterizations.  But they miss what is a bigger temptation in administration--that upon going over to the dark side, one will gradually replace belief in something bigger than the institution with loyalty to the institution and the techniques that make it work.

I describe this as a temptation, because it is technique far more than power or regulation that provides pleasure and reward to administrators.  It is the ability to solve problems, to work out conflicts, to find funding, to enroll students, to entice donors, to serve the institution and make its infrastructure stronger that brings satisfaction.  And after a time, a good administrator develops an entire repertoire of tactics that get this stuff done.

Let me be clear--getting this stuff done is good work, and institutions without a good dark side are likely to be short-lived.  But let me be clear also that becoming a technocrat can erode one's sense of vocation, of filling a higher purpose in work.

Vocation erodes for three reasons.  (1) Administrative work is generally non-reflective, and as such one can go very far down a path without thinking about the path's meaning. (Note that I am not saying the path itself is bad, simply that it is unexamined.) (2) Administrative work is busy, and as such it creates an energy, a motivation, that emerges largely from activity, rather than from purpose.  (3) Administrative work lacks a way to act out a sense of vocation, and educational institutions rarely reward vocation in administrators.

Let me say a bit more about point number 3.  Earlier this summer, while taking my first week-long vacation since I became an administrator ten years ago (see points number 1 and 2 above), I read Chris Anderson's Teaching as Believing.  It is an incredible book and wise both about how learning takes place and how the professor's vocation aligns with that learning, even in a secular setting.  Anderson is a Catholic deacon and an English professor at a state university, and his effort to give meaning to academic freedom by bringing his sense of vocation into the classroom was inspiring.

I was hard-pressed, though, to imagine what a book with the same spirit as Anderson's, but written about administration, (call it Administration as Believing) might say.  It is certainly the case that many administrators act ethically because of a set of religious or philosophical commitments to what is right.  And it is true that religious institutions often bring the religion's faith commitments to bear on administrative practices.  But it is also the case that administration rarely feeds one's sense of vocation, which instead gets built outside of work, or through relationships that exist at work, but outside of the real work of the organization.

By saying all of this I mean simply to say that institutions and administrators would be better off if going over to the dark side did not mean slowly losing the sense that one's work was about both earthly things (solving problems, launching initiatives, etc., etc.) and things that have meaning outside and beyond the institution that sponsors it.  Faculty members and students are encouraged to seek that level of vocation.  Administrators ought to as well.

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