Another Burden of Administrative Life

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I have half a dozen experiences a day that convince me all over again why I’m grateful to not be an administrator in higher education any more. But a new one occurred to me today. Or rather, over the past couple of weeks but they coalesced into an idea today.

As scholars, we are rewarded for (and probably choose our paths because of) our obsessiveness. We get the methods exactly right. We run the data set a dozen times because something just feels funny about it. We search out that last reference, go through the bibliography again to make sure that we’ve italicized and dated everything correctly, craft that sentence a third time to make it musical and not merely clear. We craft the sequence of the semester to make it an aesthetic experience instead of a pile of testable ideas.

As administrators, not only do we have way too many projects to do any of them as well as we want, we also have to get them done through the proxy of colleagues who are occasionally neither as talented nor as diligent as we might hope. This is the universal fate of any manager, of course, but a particularly galling step for managers who are most comfortable as intellectual perfectionists.

One of the great learnings of any administrator—and perhaps the hardest one to master—is to let things go out the door when they’re not quite as ready as you’d hope. You can’t be the last resort, finishing everyone else’s job to your own standards, because you simultaneously make yourself crazy and hinder their growth. You either have to turn it back to them and say “this is unacceptable, here’s why, here’s what you need to do, and I have to have it back in 48 hours…” or you have to sigh and let it go.

And that’s emotionally difficult, because it’s YOUR department or YOUR school or YOUR university… and you feel the pressures of having your reputation carried at least in part on the shoulders of others.

Here’s a one-item test to see if you’re ready to be an administrator. Think of a project you have responsibility for, and say the words—out loud—”it’s good enough.” If it makes you cringe even a little bit to say that, you should avoid administrative life, as it will be a poison to your system.