Monday, March 4, 2013

The unwise pleasures of administrative work

Forgive me for writing about something both personal and mundane.

My family and I took last week--spring break at Westminster--and went to Southern California.  It isn't a particularly opportune time to travel if you work in enrollment management (though truth be told, more opportune than lots of other times of the year).  And since I also play a large role in Westminster's current strategic planning process, and since I'm holding down the fort as the Interim Director of the Office of Communications for another week or so, I decided that I ought to work a couple of hours each morning.  Which I did, along with checking my email every ten minutes or so, and also working at night after everyone went to sleep.

The trip was pleasant but not relaxing, in part because of where we spent several days (Disneyland--don't ask why), but largely because of my inability to disconnect from work, and thus to agreeing to be superficially on the trip and superficially at work.

I told myself on Sunday that the habits I have developed are unwise.  They have left me a bit frazzled, and a lot uncertain about the grounds upon which I stand and from which my motivation stems.  I've been reading Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms (ironically including in the wee hours of the morning on vacation and on the flight back), and have been struck by its deft description of my own spiritual disconnectedness and by its recommendations for establishing a "rule of life" --a set of practices that are slower, quieter, and more aligned with what I think I desire deep inside myself.  And I'm committed to taking up lectio divina as a way of paying deep attention to something small ( a few verses of scripture, a poem), and trying to remind myself that a key reason I got into higher education was to focus--to develop a discipline, a profession.

I drove to work this morning, my first day back, with that desire for something deeper on my mind.  I got to my office, and then spent an entire day in frantic activity--bouncing from meeting to meeting, answering phone calls, writing emails, and producing documents. My day touched, among other topics, accreditation; 2+2 exchange agreements; the number of FAFSAs filed by admitted students from outside of Utah; the design of webpages for graduate programs; the intersection of strategic planning and liberal education; graduate education; the strategic direction of the Utah Campus Compact; our commencement program; the transition for the next Director of Communications; our tuition and fees schedule; the college's SWOT analysis; the Utah higher education legislative agenda; the impact of sequestration on federal financial aid; three personnel questions; aligning recruitment, financial aid, retention, and long-term financial sustainability; and recruitment for graduate programs.

That said, today had its pleasures.  This is the largely unspoken truth about administrative work--it has its psychological pleasures.  It doesn't offer just busy-ness, but the opportunity for flow, for making Blink decisions, for moving many things one step further ahead.  The pleasure is part of the reason that administrators thrive in meetings--because meetings are brief periods of focus, in which decisions get made that allow the rest of the rush of the day to take on meaning. It is what makes it possible for them to keep working when the work doesn't carry the intrinsic rewards of working in an area of one's passion. Administration is a "feat of strength"--a demonstration that in the face of overwhelming demands, one can avoid succumbing to any of them (at least during working hours--the feeling at night and first thing in the morning is something else entirely...)  It is a feat of connection--a way of remaining a contributing part of a community whose core purpose you serve but do not participate in.

I've got no deep insights (as befits my role as an administrator) into solving this problem, if it is indeed soluble. But a few thoughts: any effort to make administrative work meaningful in the way that lectio divina, or disciplinary work, or deep commitment to a single task, well-performed are meaningful,  has to grapple with the fact that administrative work is not just all of the things that open it to mockery, but that it is also attractive, pleasurable, and rewarding in ways that other forms of higher education work are not.  Even more, the effort at meaning has to face up to the fact that for all of the grousing about the burgeoning administrative corps in higher ed, administrators do work that is central to the success of colleges and universities. The true challenge, then, is not about time allocation, or better run meetings, or clearer procedures for governance, or any of the other proposed solutions to the administrative problem.  At least in my mind, the challenge is to find ways that the pleasures of administration--which are in many ways unwise--can become wise.

If you know how to do that, let me know.  I check my email constantly...

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