COMMENTARY: So, You Want To Be a University Administrator?

It’s better never to have been a faculty member, and if you were, put that role in your rear-view mirror. 

About two-thirds of the way through my career as a professor, I tested the waters of administration. My first step was to meet with an associate dean to get advice on entering the administrative ranks. His brilliant and only piece of advice was, “Start by becoming your department chair.”

I thought, “Well, that’s great, but she’s likely to be there for a while, so how do I do that? Should I launch a coup?” I eventually became associate chair and took on a few other administrative jobs, but I never really followed that path. This was partly because it didn’t excite me and because I was too blunt and honest when commenting on what higher-level administrators were doing.

It worked out well for me. Still, I’ve realized it might be useful to advise younger scholars about entering the administration ranks and wanting to be top-notch administrators.

First, and perhaps most important, is that when you become a university administrator–except department chair, which is a strange beast that exists in a no man’s land between admin and faculty–you always need to look upward toward senior administrators and never downward toward rank-and-file faculty. One of the primary goals of administrators is to be promoted so that their salary can increase to two, three, or four times that of a normal faculty member, despite not doing any more difficult or important work. That is key. If you look down, the faculty will drag you in that direction with their complaints and criticisms. If you look up, you will find models for good administrative behavior that will win you points in the eyes of those at the top.

Second, it’s essential to understand that quality is a quantitative problem. All things related to the quality of teaching and research can be quantified. Good teaching is evident in the scores faculty receive from students on course surveys (never forget that there is a clear correlation between the popularity of a professor and the quality of their teaching, which is clearly evident in survey results). Research is measured based on how many articles or books faculty publish, the amount of grant dollars they pull in (particularly if indirect costs are involved), the number of times their work is cited, and the impact factors of journals. Awards are a bonus but are not absolutely necessary because their value is difficult to quantify. And, of course, each professor’s personal H-index is essential to understanding whether they are good at research.

There is a simple formula that you will need to keep in mind throughout your administrative career:

Good Metrics → Good Optics → Marketing Opportunities = Money


There is no more important formula for running a university. You don’t get good optics without good metrics, and you need good optics to market the faculty’s research and teaching and the facilities’ opulence.

You need marketing to attract good students—the quality of the faculty isn’t enough. And you can’t have opulent facilities and high-metric faculty without money from donors.

Third, programs and policies are your bread and butter. You must be constantly creating new programs and policies to justify your existence. By doing so, you will have reasons to hire more administrators under your direction and, thus, to build an administrative empire that’s evidence of your fine work. The best examples involve generating huge amounts of meaningless busywork for faculty and complex programs and requirements that make it difficult for students to graduate (this allows you to hire more admin to advise the students).

Doing this has the added value of keeping the faculty so distracted that they won’t have time to bother you with complaints about why the policies and programs of administrators are meaningless and hinder quality teaching and research. Every policy or program you create can be used in your annual review—other administrators will be impressed if you create more, which should lead to a higher salary. Again, remember that producing metrics matters, so the more programs and policies you can create, the better.

Quantity is evidence of the quality of your work as an administrator.

Finally, to make your path through the administration ranks smooth and quick, it’s best to forget you were ever a faculty member. Put that as far behind you as possible because what you do now is about running a university—it has nothing to do with teaching or research. Your decisions and ideas should be based on what’s good for the university’s administration. There’s no need to concern yourself with what’s good for teaching and research. Of course, you must talk a lot about the importance of the teaching and research mission of the institution but understand that your focus is on just that—the mission—the actual performance and content of these variables is not your concern.

As long as the metrics line up, the optics will line up, and everything will be good in university land. You’ll know that you are doing quality work and that your university is a quality institution. Numbers don’t lie.

There are other essential factors in being a quality administrator in the Neoliberal University, but if you keep this advice in mind, you should go far.


Cover cartoon courtesy of Marketing Humor on Instagram.

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