Boundary Spanning in Higher Education: Faculty Perspectives on Becoming an Administrator
Abstract and Keywords
The decision to become an administrator in higher education is one that faculty members may consider. There are many factors that influence this decision, and it is important to understand the benefits and costs to one’s teaching, scholarship, and personal life while pursuing administrative paths. This chapter addresses some of these factors, combining personal experience and the experiences shared by colleagues, while also reviewing the literature on academic administration and offering personal reflections on why a faculty member would consider making the transition to administration. Higher education administration is not for everyone, but with careful consideration of one’s goals and values, it can be a rewarding endeavor.
You have probably seen the television clips: An interviewer asks young children what they want to be when they grow into adults. The responses are varied and aspirational, pointing to such noble pursuits as medicine, law, space travel, and cattle-wrangling on the open plains. Never once have I heard “college administrator!” in that long list of responses. In truth, most of us do not aspire to become an academic administrator. Few of us received any graduate training that would help us lead an academic program, school, or institution (Del Favero, 2006; Gmelch, 2000; Land, 2003), so deciding to become an administrator can leave us feeling underprepared and overwhelmed.
What does it take to be a successful college administrator, and why would a faculty member consider the transition? These kinds of questions are addressed in this chapter, combining personal experience, the experiences shared by colleagues, and the scholarly literature on higher education administration. Though these are informative, I do not claim that the personal experiences are universal to all administrators or institutions. The specific tasks of department chairs will differ from those of deans, which differ from the work of provosts and presidents; administration at a small private college will not be identical to administration at a large public university. Thus, the experiences here should be treated as examples that could apply to the situations that administrators face on a regular basis.
As an additional disclaimer, I belong to the ranks of the children mentioned earlier. I never dreamed about becoming a dean, either as a child, a graduate student, or a faculty member. In fact, there are still days when I wonder how I have arrived in my current position as associate dean of academic affairs in a small liberal arts college. My graduate training in groups and teams certainly has helped me accomplish day-to-day tasks with fellow staff members and students, but I never took a course on administration. It never crossed my mind as a student to shadow my department chair or academic dean, or even to ask them what they enjoyed most or least about their roles. As such, my preparation for academic leadership came through observation of a small sample of experts and a significant amount of on-the-job learning. The preparation I experienced is likely to differ across readers, institutions, cultures, and different kinds of administrative roles (e.g., dean versus chair). Even within the same category of administration, preparation may vary because specific tasks often differ (Robillard, 2000). I have yet to find an associate dean whose portfolio of responsibilities is identical to my own, for example. McGrath (1999) provides a historical account of how deanships vary within and across colleges and universities. Current deans may be humored by Walker’s (1967) very traditional and now incomplete list of duties, or Hall’s (2011) satirical primer on what not to do as a successful academic administrator.
Leadership in Higher Education
Leadership remains a popular research interest among psychologists, and their scholarship tells us much about what factors contribute to being successful leaders, and leadership styles across environments (e.g., Vroom & Jago, 2007). Many different theories of leadership abound, ranging from a focus on the “great person” as leader to an emphasis on complex interactions among leaders, followers, and their situations. I will provide a brief overview of the individual differences and competencies that have been studied in higher education administration, and then discuss how faculty members considering administrative roles can develop important leadership skills.
Individual Differences and Skills
Psychologists are often interested in predicting what personal characteristics are associated with specific behaviors and cognitions. We try to describe and predict effective college teaching (Dunn & McMinn, 2015), for instance, and researchers are similarly curious about leadership in higher education. Are there traits or characteristics that are typical of academic administrators? Can we predict who will be a good department chair or dean? To what extent can positive leader characteristics be learned and developed? How much of good academic leadership is universal, and how much of successful leadership is influenced by a particular situation or culture?
Isolating specific traits that differentiate successful from unsuccessful leaders is unlikely to be productive. Zaccaro (2007) described the history of leadership trait theories, noting that constellations of traits—not traits in isolation—are needed to understand why certain leaders are effective. Moreover, he suggested that such traits extend beyond personality characteristics to include leader cognitions, motives, goals, and so on. Unfortunately, little is known about the individual characteristics of academic leaders beyond general demographic variables and their connection to those traits found among leaders of non-academic organizations. Most research suggests that academic administrators tend to be white, male, married, and at mid-career, for example (Strathe & Wilson, 2006; Wolverton & Poch, 2000).
In terms of gender and academic leadership, several researchers have noted the unique challenges that women face as they pursue administrative roles in higher education. For example, in a study with 209 women, Hough and Holland (2011) found that the majority in administration felt that family issues, stereotypes about women and power, and the lack of role models presented challenges as they pursued their roles. These data reflect trends noted by other researchers (e.g., Tomás, Lavie, del Mar Duran, & Guillamon, 2010). Hannum, Muhly, Shockley-Zalabak, and White (2015) noted that women represent just over a quarter (26%) of college presidents in the United States. They further reported on the experiences of a small sample of 35 women in higher education leadership positions, describing the obstacles and opportunities that they faced while moving into positions of greater power. For example, participants noted similar barriers to college presidency, including a lack of role models, gender stereotypes and expectations about women’s ability to lead, and poor access to the “old boys’ network” that historically has provided entry into positions of power. This was especially true for women from minority racial/ethnic groups. Respondents also mentioned sabotage by and discouragement from others as obstacles to their development. Sabotage and discouragement were mentioned significantly more often by women leaders from minority groups.
To be sure, both men and women from minority groups face challenges in moving into higher education administration. Gasman, Abiola, and Travers (2015) noted that no person of color served as president or provost at Ivy League institutions in 2013, and only two of those institutions had a president of color in their histories. (Minority members fared somewhat better at the dean position.) The under-representation of various kinds of minority groups in higher education administration generally is a challenge across the United States. As colleges and universities become more diverse in their staffing and student bodies, the voices and experiences of diverse leaders will become increasingly important. Readers with interests in diversity and leadership should consult Chin, Desormeaux, and Sawyer (2016), who explore key concerns among a group of 15 diverse leaders of industry, including how to be authentic leaders with diverse characteristics and how to maximize the benefits of diversity in the workplace. Their concerns, challenges, and organizational strengths are likely to be germane to institutions of higher education as well.
We also know that people vary in their individual motivations for pursuing an administrative path. Some are motivated by power or resources (e.g., Hannum et al., 2015; Murphy, 2003), whereas others are more interested in expanding their personal/professional competencies or in serving their institutions. Some actively pursue administrative opportunities; others are recruited or (reluctantly) appointed because “it’s their turn,” or no one else wants the position (cf. Strathe & Wilson, 2006). For those in the former category, Agrawal (2008) offers a helpful guide to preparing portfolios, interviews, and negotiations. Though her guide targets academic deans in law school, the advice is useful for any would-be administrator to consider. Understanding one’s motives for entering administration is important for both the leader and those he or she will lead.
Skills and Personal Characteristics
The literature on individual differences in higher education is scant; research on the skills associated with leadership in higher education is broader. Bryman (2007a) synthesized the literature to suggest 13 task and socio-emotional characteristics of departmental leaders. Among these characteristics were creating, communicating, and facilitating a vision; promoting the department and providing resources for its members; establishing a collegial environment; and being trustworthy and credible. At the institutional level, effective leadership was associated with such characteristics as promoting the institution’s mission and a vision, maintaining strong internal ties and understanding institutional culture(s), networking externally, possessing integrity, and supporting change with resources and consultative processes (Bryman, 2007b).
One could argue that a coherent vision is the umbrella under which many of the other characteristics flourish. A vision provides hope for the future (Brown, 2001; Pence, 2003) and a path forward. An administrator who has a vision that guides the institution can create collegiality among stakeholders who hold that vision in common. He or she can leverage relationships around the vision and behave in a manner that promotes credibility. Pence (2003) argues that, in academia, the curriculum is a prime example of a shared vision and the one that is the most important: “A clearly articulated and well-understood curriculum serves to bind the academic community together, justifying the meaning and value of academic work” (p. 42). This may be the totality of an institution’s curricula, a general education curriculum, or a program’s curriculum. Without a vision, an administrator spends his or her days running to and fro with very little sense of what it is all for.
Although it is crucial for a leader to communicate a vision and motivate followers to pursue it, it also is important for him or her to be flexible, as circumstances change (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010). Especially in the rapidly changing landscape of higher education, administrators must adapt their visions to evolving internal and external pressures on fiscal, human, and curricular resources. Such adaptation requires that administrators routinely scan their environments for problems and opportunities, and that appropriate institutional changes be made in a timely manner. Such changes may involve different strategies for attracting and retaining students through new academic programs; ensuring that institutions update policies and processes to remain compliant with seemingly ever-changing national and regional standards; and prioritizing institutional resources in ways that promote the mission, but without undercutting employees’ capacity for productivity, innovation, and citizenship.
Developing Leadership Competencies
Research suggests some typical characteristics associated with higher education leadership and success. One typically does not choose one’s demographic characteristics, and visionary leadership may, at times, appear to be a skill that some people are naturally better at than others. This reality can leave potential administrators feeling a bit unsure of their ability to succeed in their roles. Moreover, the quality of leadership development programs across colleges and universities varies, if they exist at all. Del Favero (2006), for example, found that few deans reported attending a formal leadership program as a means by which they learned their roles or how to administer an academic unit. Managing a research laboratory or teaching a course offers only limited perspectives on administration, so faculty members may feel even more hesitant about their ability to participate effectively in academic administration.
If one scans the Internet for administrative development opportunities, however, one may infer that faculty members can evolve or be developed into various administrative roles (Wolverton & Ackerman, 2006). I would agree with this notion in that even those who have natural skills to become good leaders can benefit from leadership development programs. These kinds of programs for chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents are offered routinely by such organizations as the American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC), Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), and others (see also Raines & Alberg, 2003). Within institutions, it appears that leadership development varies, and more could be done to identify and develop leaders.
Mentoring is another way to learn about the responsibilities and challenges of administration. Such mentorship can involve administrators at the same level, outgoing administrators who want or need to train their successors, and colleagues at other institutions. As my curiosity about administration increased, I sought mentoring from a colleague in a more senior administrative position. This colleague spent time describing to me the behind-the-scenes workings of the institution (as appropriate, and without violating confidentiality or policy) and how decisions were reached; connecting me with important networks and opportunities for college administrators; and sharing the positives and negatives of leading academic organizations.
This colleague taught me many lessons about the administrative side of higher education, providing me with two non-negotiable rules that I practice routinely. The first rule is that an administrator never travels with a checkbook. Resources in most institutions are finite and must be distributed judiciously. To that end, no administrator should promise resources on the first request, or to those who ask early or often. Making a rash decision about resource allocations can have long-lasting, negative effects. As Gallos (2002) noted, for instance, information that relates to decisions that a dean makes is often “incomplete, dated, slanted, or irrelevant” (p. 174). Administrators should listen to the request and gather information first; resolving the request with resources should come only after careful consideration of an institutional view of how the resources can best be used. It is also good to remember that requests rarely exist in isolation. That is, many requests will come your way, and if you spend all your resources on early requests, you will have nothing with which to support later requests.
The second lesson my mentor taught me relates to human and humane management. Administrators must communicate many decisions. Any of us would be happy to deliver the news of decisions that will make our constituents happy, and there is no better way to deliver good news than in person. Less thrilling is delivering bad news to people, and doing so requires special skill. What my mentor taught me is that it is just as important to deliver bad news in person as it is good news, perhaps more so. Sometimes the bad news is largely inconsequential to the recipient because he or she has little investment in a problem or solution. As investment of one’s identity and effort increase, however, the impact of bad news usually increases. Consistent with moral and social dimensions of leadership (Wepner, D’Onofrio, & Wilhite, 2008), I have found consistently that the personal touch of a visit to recipients’ offices or a phone call is more humanizing than an email or memo that communicates the same information. The recipients have always appreciated the personal visit, even if they do not appreciate the decision that is communicated to them. Gallos (2002) argued that administrators can provide emotional buffering that helps people manage their responses to negative information. Such buffering is probably possible because administrators can offer explanations, empathy, and concern that may be missing from an email or memorandum. Granted, it is not always possible to communicate bad news in person, but every effort should be made to communicate the news in a personal, but appropriate, way.
A third lesson that I have learned from a different mentor involves the public versus private dimensions of administration. For a faculty member with tenure and relative autonomy, critiquing administrative decisions in public forums is common and acceptable. The same is not always true within an administration, however. Disagreements among administrators occur behind closed doors, but a united front is presented in public. Even for decisions and policies you may privately disagree with, public support is expected. Public disagreements generate confusion and discord among stakeholders, who look to administrators for direction and leadership. (In the case of unethical or illegal conduct within an administration, public disagreement may be required or necessary. I have been fortunate not to have experienced a crisis of conscience while working with my colleagues.)
Changes in Perspective
The Internal Lens
As has been noted elsewhere (e.g., Gallos, 2002; Stoloff, Coté, & Heesacker, 2015; Strathe & Wilson, 2006), the perspective that one takes varies according to one’s role. As a faculty member, I tended to focus on my courses and labs, students in my courses and major, and the colleagues and curriculum in my program. Committee work and monthly faculty meetings informed my “big picture.” As I began assuming more responsibilities for different areas of the college, however, my perspective broadened. I could not focus on just psychology and the interests of its faculty and students, but rather had to take a “10,000-foot view” of the institution and all faculty, staff, and students. A similar shift happens for faculty members who become department chairs, because they can no longer focus on just their own courses and students (Stoloff et al., 2015; Wolverton & Ackerman, 2006). Administrators at all levels are likely to find that their perspectives become informed by more frequent interactions with senior administrators, trustees, community members, alumni, and potential donors and partners. Coming from an environment that allows independence and solitary work, this can be quite an adjustment for faculty members to make.
With my shift in perspective came a greater commitment to the institution, whereas my strongest commitment and identity previously had been to the psychology program. This does not mean that I was less committed to psychology or somehow lost my identity as a social psychologist, but the vitality of the institution and its mission had to come first. That was the metric by which all decisions had to be measured, even if it meant making unpopular decisions for specific constituents. For department chairs, commitments may remain strong to their local academic unit, but even they will feel pressure to identify more strongly with the institutional mission and goals.
Another change in perspective relates to the one attitude that appears to be universal in the academy: Administrators are enemies of the faculty, and faculty members who become administrators are suspect at best … disloyal at worst (Lewis & Altbach, 1996; Swain, 2006). This attitude appears to apply to all, no matter how satisfied faculty members are with their current jobs and careers (Lewis & Altbach, 1996). When I was making the decanal transition, I had over ten years of faculty experience at my institution, and I retained my faculty status. (One should never sacrifice faculty rank for an administrative position!) I was concerned with how my colleagues would perceive my move, especially because my administrative experience had been as interim director of a small program for adult learners rather than as a department chair. This transition is not unusual: research finds that a growing number of faculty members do not follow a linear path to senior administration (see Bisbee, 2007), and that prior administrative experience is often the primary means by which deans learn their roles (Del Favero, 2006).
To be effective, I needed to help my colleagues think about this transition in positive ways. Additionally, I knew that I would need my colleagues who were also friends to accept me as an administrator who was now above them in the organizational hierarchy. This is a delicate balance, one that de Guzman and Hapan (2014) refer to as superiority versus relationality. Relationships can be threatened by new roles, unpopular but necessary decisions, and actions that do not seem to respect seniority or past history. It can drain one’s socio-emotional resources, and it is easy to succumb to paranoia about moving to the “dark side” and reinforcing the “us versus them” mentality that oversimplifies faculty–administration interactions. Faculty members who are administrators occupy the strange world of in-between, and I have found that colleagues will respond to how you behave in that in-between space. For example, I regard my dual faculty-administrator status as an asset because I am able to translate between groups and to communicate the needs and concerns of one to the other. Instead of letting boundary spanning become a liability, I try to use it for win-win outcomes. I am not always successful, of course, but I am far more successful than I would be if I were to emphasize win-loss outcomes.
What I learned is that I can set the tone for how people could think about me as a faculty member-turned-administrator. The dual identity as faculty and administrator can be stressful, especially when role conflict arises (Feldman, 2008), and new administrators do not often receive training on how to cope with the identity conflict when it occurs (Gmelch, 2000). If I approached interactions with the faculty as adversarial or allowed internal conflict to overwhelm a situation, they would respond accordingly. If, however, I protected the social capital I had accrued with my colleagues by treating them with genuine respect and support, I would be more effective in my role. I also learned that being respectful and supportive did not (and could not) mean total agreement with my colleagues or approval of all their requests. An administrator who hopes to satisfy everyone all the time will find the role exhausting, unsatisfying, and filled with disappointments.
A savvy reader should be cynical about my overly simplistic, completely positive description of this process. Setting the tone is important, but it does not guarantee collegial support or a path to success. Even for myself, I frequently had to think about my various roles at the institution and to consider whose best interests were at stake. With stakeholder interests come stakeholder expectations, and faculty members naturally have expectations of what administrators should be and do (cf. Bray, 2010; Feldman, 2008). At times, I would feel internal conflict about what was better for the administration or the faculty, looking for the common ground that helps us all realize our mission as a student-centered institution.
The External Lens
Administrators are not focused only on the internal world of their departments, schools, or institutions. Academic leaders often stand on the boundary between the institution and its external world. They must be concerned with the internal goals, tasks, politics, and relationships; they also must be concerned with how the unit or institution relates to those in its community. These include town-and-gown relationships, donor and corporate relations, accountability to accrediting and governing bodies, and the school’s local/national/global reputation. Gallos (2002) describes the nature of work that deans perform internally versus externally, and how their perspective must differ depending on whether they focus inside or outside the institution.
How one arrives in an administrative position also can influence one’s perspective, as well as one’s success (Feldman, 2008). I became an associate dean in an institution where I worked, and I knew a lot about its policies, culture, and people. Administrators who are new to an organization will lack the insider’s perspective that is often helpful for completing tasks and developing institutional memory. There are advantages and disadvantages to selecting administrators from inside versus outside the institution. An administrator who rose through the ranks of the institution does not need much time to learn about the institution (or at least some of its components), and knowledge of processes and relationships with colleagues should make his or her path easier. This may be one reason for why some institutions do not have formal programs to develop internal leaders (Del Favero, 2006), relying instead on more informal means to identify and train potential leaders who already have institutional knowledge and experience. Nevertheless, Shoenberg (1990) notes the advantages of more formal processes for identifying and socializing leaders from within.
Administrators who come from other organizations often bring a different perspective that can be helpful in initiating reflection and innovation. Like a fish that lives in a tank of water, the internal administrator may not question what “water” is. In other words, he or she is so familiar with the institution and its traditions that it becomes difficult to see them through an objective or critical lens. Additionally, administrators who join an institution from the outside are not influenced by existing relationships that can make decision-making difficult for the internal administrator. When friendship is involved, for example, it can be stressful to give colleagues bad news or negative feedback. It also can be difficult to introduce a change in the institution because of how it may influence people and histories. An administrator brought from the outside is not constrained by existing relationships, though he or she should be aware of them and how they can influence “buy-in” and responses across campus.
In the context of relationships with colleagues, perhaps more challenging than the transition from faculty to administration is the administrator’s return to the faculty (Smith, 2004; Strathe & Wilson, 2006). The colleagues whom an administrator once supervised are now peers, and the decisions and actions made while an administrator can influence those subsequent peer relationships. Professionally, it also takes time to readjust to full-time faculty tasks and responsibilities, and that time may be provided through institutionally granted leaves or reductions in teaching load (Willis, 2010).
Evolving Tasks and Priorities
The nature of academic administration has changed dramatically in recent decades (cf. de Boer & Goedegebuure, 2009; Erwin, 2000; Gmelch, Wolverton, Wolverton, & Sarros, 1999). Regardless of the motives a person brings to an administrative role, the boundaries that delineate the traditional tasks of presidents, provosts, deans, chairs, and other administrators are increasingly blurred. For example, fundraising may once have been the purview of a president, but that task may be shared by administrators at all levels because we all work with current or future alumni, donors, and community partners. The nature of work in higher education also requires significant cooperation across divisions and offices. My work touches on many divisions across campus, and saying, “Well, that’s not an academic affairs issue,” just does not work anymore.
De Boer and Goedegebuure (2009) argue that, as colleges and universities respond to market pressures and focus on innovation and fiscal opportunities, deans are becoming more like executives and less like guardians of the academy and its curriculum. Problems and threats to the academy are increasingly viewed through the lens of business and businesslike solutions (Rich, 2006), and academic deans and business executives share commonalities (Wolverton & Poch, 2000). The pressures for accountability are increasing in higher education (Rich, 2006), and the trend toward answering to policymakers, the market, accrediting bodies, and customers is unlikely to reverse any time soon. However, it is unwise for academic institutions to forget their core mission. As Rich (2006) noted, “Universities must succeed as businesses or they will not succeed for long. But they also cannot succeed if they greatly compromise the basic priorities that constitute the academic bottom line” (p. 38). Administrators must balance the demands of many internal and external constituents, keeping the institution and its mission in central focus.
Challenges of Administration
One of the features of administration that I enjoy and find most compelling is the variety in what I do. As a faculty member, my schedule and tasks were fairly routine and predictable. Within that routine schedule, I could find time to prepare for classes and committee meetings; to collect, analyze, and report research data; to serve my institution and my profession. Following three months of relatively predictable affairs, I would enjoy having time to myself in the winter and summer. The cycle would begin anew the following semester.
In the dean’s office, no two days are the same with regard to schedules, tasks, or people encountered. In transitioning to administration, the days of dedicated, solitary time to think in an office or lab disappeared. There are always meetings to attend, many emails to read, phone calls to return, issues to resolve, and campus events to address. (Of course, this is true for department chairs also; see Smith, 2004; and Stoloff et al., 2015). There are more meetings for administrators to attend than I ever imagined, and not surprisingly, meetings are a primary stressor among deans (Gmelch et al., 1999). Challenges of coordinating schedules and preparing for and following up meetings can create substantial burden for an administrator, especially one who lacks support staff. Gmelch (2000) and Strathe and Wilson (2006) describe a variety of tasks that administrators perform and how they vary between faculty and administrative roles.
Leading Meetings Effectively
It is usually not the case that administrators merely attend meetings. Instead, they often lead meetings, or are looked to for decisions and actions during meetings. The assumption that any college-educated individual can lead a meeting appears common and pervasive. Just as few of us received graduate training in how to lead academic units, perhaps even fewer of us learned how to conduct meetings effectively. I suspect readers can recall examples of meetings that were aimless and unproductive, or that were never quite controlled by the person leading them. In that regard, administrators must be prepared for each meeting, and adequate preparation can be difficult when meetings are scheduled consecutively, or when unplanned meetings arise with little notice. What kinds of preparation are helpful?
I have found that meetings without agendas and goals are doomed before they begin, and overly complicated or lengthy agendas can be equally problematic. Agendas help leaders determine who should attend, allow attendees to prepare materials for the meeting, and focus conversations during a meeting. In some cases, drafting an agenda may reveal that a phone call or email may accomplish a goal more effectively than would calling a meeting. It is always okay to avoid holding an unnecessary meeting (cf. Booher, 2009); but if a meeting is called, the agenda should clearly state what is expected. A gathering to discuss options requires different preparation from a meeting where options will be discussed and a decision about the best option is made at that time. A face-to-face meeting may require different processes than one mediated by technology, and leading a small group to identify new academic program opportunities is very different from leading a larger number of faculty in a senate or a group of trustees.
On the issue of agendas, Quast’s (2013) advice resonates with my own experiences leading meetings. She suggests that agendas should be created with the end or goal in mind. That is, envision the desired result of the meeting as the agenda is created so that objectives can be identified, key stakeholders invited, and action steps created. Preparing the agenda with the end in mind can also help you draft portions of minutes ahead of time, with details added after the meeting ends. Agendas help with accountability; a meeting without accountability is rarely a good idea.
I also have found that debriefing is just as important as preparation. For meetings I lead, I endeavor to follow up immediately with attendees by providing a brief written summary and a list of action items, followed later, if necessary, by more detailed minutes. Each action item is assigned to a person or office who is responsible for completing it, and I try to ensure that I am associated with at least one action step. This shows my colleagues that I am ready to work with them on a process or problem, rather than just delegating tasks. The follow-up email or memo is important because it summarizes the meeting while details are fresh in memory, and it allows attendees to verify their understanding of what occurred and to check for missed or inaccurate information. It also holds people accountable.
Scheduled meetings require a lot of time for administrators, and unscheduled meetings can absorb just as much. Faculty members, students and their families, administrators, community partners, and others frequently need “just a moment of your time.” It rarely ends up being just a moment, though, because even quick interactions often result in a number of meetings and follow-up communications to resolve problems, celebrate successes, and keep the institution operating efficiently. “Me time” and chronic predictability do not exist for many administrators, especially those in upper administration. To be honest, the work of an administrator can be exhausting in ways that are different from the work of a faculty member, and so passion for one’s program or institution is critical.
Perhaps the greatest task-related challenge of college administration is managing all the work and decisions that must be made, and often with limited time (Gallos, 2002). The volume of phone calls, emails, and mail increases dramatically. Where those communications may be largely limited to colleagues within the discipline and their organizations now, they will come from many different people and places as a faculty member shifts to administration. Some of those communications will require immediate attention and decisions; others can wait. (A wise administrator will learn the difference!) Some communications will be expected, such as those from faculty and students, but others will be unanticipated. For example, my LinkedIn account was flooded by requests from vendors who wanted to sell their products to anyone with administrative credentials. You have to be prepared for all of that, and you will need to establish priorities so that important work is done in a timely manner. As Cohen (1996) and Gallos (2002) aptly note, however, all of the activities and the pace with which they occur are largely invisible to non-administrators. As such, the administrative role is sometimes a thankless job; what matters to stakeholders is that the job is completed successfully and without undue burden on them. If one is motivated by constant praise and glory, then academic administration is probably not the right fit.
Loneliness at the Top
I also think that it is fair for potential administrators to anticipate that administration is a lonely endeavor at times (McCall & Brazeau, 2011; Strathe & Wilson, 2006). As noted earlier, faculty peers may change the way they view an in-group member who joins the administration. Colleagues who were friends may suddenly become distant, ostracizing you to the furthest corner of the “dark side.” Alternatively, they may expect special treatment because of their familiarity and friendship with you (Stoloff et al., 2015). Colleagues who never spoke to you before suddenly take interest because you have or are perceived to have valuable resources. This experience can leave new administrators wondering who their true friends are. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the pool of colleagues in administration is often smaller than the pool of faculty peers. Administrators, especially those at more senior levels, have fewer peers at an institution with whom to confer. Legal and ethical expectations surrounding confidentiality further reduce the pool of administrative peers and what can be shared with others. Sometimes the argument is made that withholding information is incompatible with norms around transparency, but that logic is flawed in many ways. What is important to remember is that administrators provide a buffer for colleagues (Napier, 1996), and knowing what information should be shared is critical.
Though administrators may feel lonely within their institutions, they will find an external world with new networks. Through listservs, conferences, and webinars outside of psychology, I have developed an additional set of colleagues who teach and support me as I develop administrative skills and abilities. Not surprisingly, I have found a number of psychologists in administrative positions, reminding me that we have many skills that are ideal for working with people in academic organizations. Additionally, one never knows when those new networks will have added benefit, such as help in moving to new positions or institutions.
Conflict Management and Resolution
No matter the institution, administrators often are expected to resolve complaints that cannot be handled at lower levels, as well as complaints that people at upper levels would prefer not to see come across their desks. Students and their parents/guardians may be unhappy with a course grade, requirement, or change in policy; faculty and staff members may be dissatisfied with a decision or with colleagues in a different area of the institution; community members may be displeased with student behavior, campus events, or institutional initiatives. Finding the balance among stakeholders that protects the integrity of the institution is challenging (de Guzman & Hapan, 2014), and conflict will arise. Managing conflict is a primary part of an administrator’s job (Findlen, 2000; Robillard, 2000), and it produces substantial dissatisfaction and stress for both chairs and deans (Gmelch & Burns, 1994; Gmelch et al., 1999). Those who believe that the academy fosters collegiality over conflict will be surprised, perhaps disappointed, by arguments that arise within a department, school, or university. Some may prefer to suppress conflict altogether, but that is rarely realistic or helpful. Constructive controversy (Tjosvold, 2008) can benefit organizations, and administrators must learn to use conflict in positive ways. Sure, it is easy to avoid conflict by closing one’s door or ignoring contentious emails, but a conflict-averse administrator will not fare well in an academic department or institution. The conflict either will erupt, or the administrator will exhaust him- or herself by running from it.
The list of what makes our constituents unhappy can be long, and it is to our advantage to handle problems quickly, consistently, and professionally. Delayed resolutions make administrators appear incompetent because constituents will feel ignored and resentful. Responding with a quick email or phone call, even if only to acknowledge the issue and promise follow-up, can do much to quell anger and frustration. Some problems may resolve themselves during the delay to follow-up; other problems will require substantial research and effort. Though timely responses and decisions are important (McCall & Brazeau, 2011), an effective administrator must discern when quick action is needed and when rushing to a decision is unnecessary and will merely reinforce others’ misperception of urgency, procrastination, or personality style.
Inconsistent decision-making and treatment, in my experience, is a grave mistake for both faculty member and administrator. Rest assured that students know when faculty members treat them differentially, and faculty members and other staff also know when administrators reward the favored few. Making favorable deals with particular students and colleagues brings immediate satisfaction because complaints are silenced, and we also like it when people are happy with us. However, that satisfaction is usually short-lived, as students and colleagues discuss their special arrangements with their peers, which leads to more requests from unhappy people who have not benefitted. And those who benefit often want continued benefit, so special deals can become perpetual expectations. The best advice for administrators is to know their institution’s practices and policies and to apply them consistently, even when doing so may upset friends and favorites (Nefer, 2008). Nefer suggests that difficult conversations with subordinates who also are friends should begin with an administrator drawing a clear line between friendship and the workplace. Doing so sets a professional tone and the expectation that workplace policies and procedures are the same for everyone.
The need for professionalism should go without saying; nevertheless, the news is filled with examples of weak professionalism. Justly or not, administrators represent their institutions to a substantial degree, and their (mis)behavior reflects on their programs, schools, and institutions. It is important to remember that administrative roles are associated with a degree of power, but we all answer to someone with more power (e.g., dean, provost, president, board). We all have constituents who find power of voice on social media and through word of mouth. And although it may bring temporary satisfaction to wield power, it rarely brings long-term personal satisfaction or benefit to the institution. Colleagues may not remember the many times when you used power to help them, but they will never forget the one time you used power destructively (cf. Hall, 2011). Similarly, blowing your car horn at a slow driver who will make you late to a meeting seems justified and redemptive, but you never know when that slow driver is a prospective parent, a potential donor, or a member of the institution’s governing board. Remembering that administrators represent their institutions can prevent embarrassment and loss of credibility. I worry less about what may be printed on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, and more about what will appear in mere seconds on social media.
Imposter Syndrome and Fear of Failure
There are times, too, when I am my own worst critic and fall prey to the imposter syndrome. Because few of us receive formal training in academic administration, a feeling of being a fake is no surprise. It is easy to question one’s own competencies and credentials for administration, working in fear that people will discover the incompetence or that credit for success is not truly due to one’s efforts. In my own experiences, that fear is reflected in such questions as, “Who am I to make that decision?” or, “How long before the president calls to clarify my exit plan?” Those questions can trigger healthy reflection and improvement, but often they lead to anxiety and paralysis. Low confidence in one’s own ability to lead will also be disastrous when you encounter negative feedback about a decision or action you have made (see Cohen, 1996). Such feedback only reaffirms our self-convictions, and ascending to higher levels of leadership does not appear to assuage the fear (Klawe, 2014). Although I have not come across literature on the imposter syndrome among academic leaders specifically, I would not be surprised to learn of a connection to formal training and experience in the role. It is reasonable to expect that anxiety and feelings of being a fraud are lower among those who have received formal training for their roles than among those who received no training; those who have ascended the administrative ladder in a linear manner (e.g., chair to dean to provost) versus a non-traditional one; and those who have occupied their position for a longer time than have newcomers to the role.
I also find that a fear of making errors and failing is a detriment to administrators. In my first few years as an associate dean, I made numerous mistakes. I made a decision that contradicted policy; I did not communicate clearly or frequently enough with faculty, staff, and students; I missed the bigger picture because I focused too narrowly on a specific facet of some issue. Errors happen, and, fortunately, errors in higher education typically are not life-and-death. Nevertheless, one cannot be an administrator and have a strong fear of making mistakes. Nor, conversely, should good leaders promote a culture that lacks psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999). “Psychological safety” describes an environment in which people feel that it is acceptable to take risks, speak up in their teams, and even make or discuss mistakes. Also, they believe that they will not be punished for errors—that mistakes are opportunities for learning. Such safety is correlated with team learning and performance in organizations. What is important is acknowledging, taking responsibility for, and correcting those errors. Attributing responsibility for your errors to others—especially those whose jobs support you—is a grievous misstep that will not be forgotten.
Promoting a culture of psychological safety can be challenging when one would rather make sarcastic or other less-than-civil comments instead. Probably we have had such thoughts as we have read a student paper, or debated important issues with faculty and administrative colleagues who do not share our points of view. It is easy to respond with a biting comment, to send a damning email, to leave a sarcastic comment on a student paper. I have written those scathing emails myself, but without inserting a recipient’s email address. Later, when I cooled off from the situation, I simply discarded those emails. Writing them is therapy; deleting them is closure. I can then respond with a more appropriate email or phone call that is evidence-based and free of incivility (cf. Hall, 2011). I have seen faculty members and administrators suffer great costs to their reputations because they responded quickly and caustically. Trust me—the costs are rarely worth any temporary benefits.
It also is not uncommon for administrators to feel overwhelmed by information, some of which is confidential and should not be shared. Even for information that can be shared, administrators must learn what is important and what will merely overwhelm their employees. Napier (1996) noted that one of the primary roles for a department chair is to provide a buffer between faculty members and the external world, information, and even themselves. For example, Napier described examples of protecting colleagues in her department from administrative tasks, constituent complaints, and burdensome commitments of time that keep faculty from pursuing their teaching and scholarship goals. I would argue that such buffering is the role of all administrators. As associate dean, I often work with students and parents/caregivers to resolve complaints about a course, grade, or instructor. When possible, and as Napier suggests, I try not to involve faculty members in this process—not because I want to exclude and work around them, but because I want to protect their time and energy when possible. Sometimes concerns can be resolved by listening actively and remaining empathetic, even if you cannot schedule the course at a more desirable time, change a grade, or fire the instructor as a parent demands. Faculty members will appreciate not being included in those kinds of conversations until absolutely necessary. Similarly, I try to minimize extraneous communications, understanding that faculty members are busy and that there is rarely a good reason to distract them by sending non-pertinent emails.
Maintaining Disciplinary Passions and Identities
Findlen (2000) noted that, when faculty members move to administrative roles, it is not a promotion. It is a career change. That is perhaps less true when one becomes a department chair, although the challenges of maintaining one’s disciplinary scholarship while chairing are salient and pressing (Napier, 1996; Stoloff et al., 2015). The tasks of upper administration often necessitate that one put on hold disciplinary research pursuits, unless one retains a cadre of graduate or undergraduate researchers who can collect data. Even with such support, it can be very difficult to find time to analyze data, write manuscripts, and attend disciplinary conferences. Gmelch and his colleagues (1999) found that, among samples of deans in Australia and the United States, the disconnection from their disciplines was a significant stressor. It is important to remember that serving in administration may not be a permanent track, so faculty members must maintain some involvement in their disciplines for the return to full-time faculty status (Lees, 2007). This is one reason why administrators encourage faculty members to earn rank as a full professor before they pursue administrative roles (e.g., Stokes, 2015). Because administration can detract from traditional teaching, scholarship, and service—the criteria typically used to evaluate faculty—it can be challenging for an administrator to “catch up.”
The same can be said for teaching. Administrators often negotiate a reduction in their teaching load so that they can complete the tasks of operating a program or institution. Course loads typically decrease as one ascends to higher levels of administration, but reduced teaching responsibilities can disconnect administrators from our most important constituents: students. There is value in academic administrators’ teaching at least one course each semester or year to remain connected to our discipline and to students (cf. Walker, 1967). Disciplinary connections help us maintain relationships with our psychology colleagues and interests. Being in the classroom keeps us close to our students and makes it more likely that we will be aware of their issues and concerns before they become significant problems. Remaining in the classroom, even in a reduced capacity, also helps when administrators return to the faculty and a full course load.
Indeed, the metrics of success for an administrator will vary from those for a pure faculty member, even though similarities exist. Effective teaching may be less important for an administrator’s success than effective leadership, especially in the minds of external stakeholders (Gallos, 2002), and the demands of administration can sometimes detract from effectiveness in the classroom. This may happen, for example, when a dean must miss class sessions because of conferences or meetings. Success in the more focused tasks associated with being a faculty member gives way to broader, institution-wide initiatives. Scholarship in the discipline and its subfields may evolve into scholarship of higher education administration.
Senior-level administrators may need to consider whether the shift away from disciplinary scholarship is worthwhile, and how easy it will be to return to that scholarship if administration is not a career-long pursuit. To be honest, though, I find that I use the skills associated with master teaching (Dunn & McMinn, 2015) when I lead meetings or present to stakeholders. The audience and the content differ from my classrooms’, but my goals are similar: inform, persuade, motivate, and support.
Finding a Balance
Part of my portfolio as an associate dean includes faculty support and development, and I often talk to my colleagues about creating an appropriate balance among the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service. That balance is critical for their tenure and promotion. I also counsel them about their work–life balance. It is a point I stress to prospective faculty members when they interview because they are typically so consumed by a dissertation that they forget that they have a personal life that needs attention. I stress this frequently with junior faculty members. They are consumed by new course preparations, setting up a research agenda, and learning the organization. It is all too easy to lose one’s balance in those first years of faculty life. It is also something I remind more senior faculty members of, knowing that it is easy to burn out at multiple stages in one’s career. Finding a passion that has little to do with one’s discipline or work at the institution can be invigorating in a way that serving on another committee or writing another few pages is not. With renewed energy, we can take on work-related tasks more effectively.
Moving to administration requires sacrifices from a faculty member. As I have suggested here, time, autonomy, privacy, and professional identity in psychology are among the rewards that faculty members may lose when they venture into administrative roles. For that reason, I would encourage any faculty member who is considering the transition to administration to identify that one passion that he or she is unwilling to sacrifice. That passion may involve exercising, cooking, reading non-academic literature, volunteering, gaming, gardening, etc. Once it is identified, I encourage you to protect it and make it a regular part of the work day or week. The demands of administration are varied and numerous, and work often comes at the expense of the personal life (de Guzman & Hapan, 2014). Weekdays and weekends blur; the work day seemingly has no end. Having at least one outlet that is unrelated to the institution is critical to good work and well-being. Pursue it often and without apology. Balance matters.
You may wonder what my outside passion is. Though I would not call self-inflicted suffering a passion, I have pursued weight-lifting and cross-training since joining the administration. The physical health benefits are obvious, especially when long hours can be spent sitting behind a desk or in meetings. What I find most helpful, though, is that working with a physical trainer represents a very pleasant opposite of my job. Someone else tells me what to do, so I don’t have to lead. Moreover, physical training gives me a chance to rest my mind. I can focus instead on my breathing, my posture, and my lifts. A further benefit is that, by training in gyms on or near our campus, I often am surrounded by students and colleagues. Meeting students on their turf can be very useful to me, and through gym banter I become aware of issues and concerns that otherwise would not reach my desk until later.
It is important to note, however, that the would-be administrator is not solely responsible for finding a work–life balance. The institution should also provide structures and policies that promote balance. Examples include family-friendly policies (e.g., maternity/paternity leave, spousal hiring), administrative sabbaticals, and promotion policies that do not penalize employees for personal and family choices. Unfortunately, research suggests that women continue to feel the pressure to choose between academic administration and family responsibilities, or to plan those responsibilities around key academic milestones (Loder, 2005; Tomás et al., 2010). But even male administrators may have concerns for disabled, very young, or aging family members, so policies that support balance will benefit everyone.
A lack of balance and the stress that it produces may be among the reasons why identifying potential administrators at all levels is becoming more challenging in higher education. Without competent leaders who can work with others to implement a strong vision that is mission-consistent and that satisfies multiple stakeholders, it is difficult to imagine how colleges and universities will weather the internal and external pressures that we all face.
In this chapter, I have identified some of the considerations that faculty members should have as they think about whether or not to pursue the path of administration. There are many benefits to becoming an administrator, but there also are costs that should not be ignored. Administration in higher education is not for everyone, and the demands on college administrators are taxing. The decision to enter administration should be made carefully and only after several conversations with faculty and administrative colleagues in the context of one’s professional goals.
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