The Academic Bait-And-Switch: Do Professors Make Good Administrators?

Academics sometimes have a bit of an unfortunate reputation of being big picture thinkers, with our heads in the clouds (or ivory tower) and disconnected from the realities of everyday life. As a PhD student pursuing a career in academia, I’ve certainly had my fair share of experiences starting a research project, then getting excited by another new idea several days later, only to end up after several months with a dozen great ideas yet none close to being completed.

Why, then, do we expect people who excel at being an academic to turn around later in their careers and lead the “business” side of the institution? It seems like quite the bait-and-switch: faculty are hired for their skills in research and/or teaching, only to be expected later to shift gears entirely and employ a completely different set of skills — ones that they may not actually possess — in leading the institution (aka academic administration).

Perhaps this bait-and-switch is one of the reasons behind why the ivory tower is cracking, and higher education is quickly losing its value proposition. We may have been so focused on hiring high-quality researchers and teachers, that we forgot they need to also be high-quality leaders and administrators.

For those who aren’t as familiar with the academic industry, faculty begin their careers after their PhD or postdoc by searching for an entry-level “tenure-track” Assistant Professor role. Depending on the type of institution (i.e., teaching-focused vs. research-focused), candidates are evaluated based on their research skills through prior peer-reviewed publications and/or teaching skills through course evaluations. Rarely are candidates evaluated based on their leadership and administrative skills — perhaps some departmental service or student leadership is a bonus, but never a necessity.

The trend continues. About six or seven years later, the Assistant Professor applies to be promoted and granted tenure at his or her institution. In doing so, he or she submits a packet of over 100 pages of documentation consisting almost entirely of research publications, teaching evaluations, letters of recommendation, and grants and awards received. Again, leadership and administrative experience might be considered but rarely given strong weight in promotion decisions. Especially at the top institutions, the greatest weight is placed on research publications, then teaching, then service; without strong research publications, faculty cannot get promoted regardless of their teaching and leadership excellence.

Yet all of a sudden, this newly tenured Associate Professor is expected to begin serving in leadership positions. Maybe it’s as a program director to start, then department chair, then associate dean, dean, vice provost, provost, and eventually perhaps even the president of a university. Sure, some faculty stay where they are as purely a research and teaching faculty member, but the upward career mobility is limited after one has achieved tenure and “Full Professor” rank. And certainly, there are some people who pursue an administrative faculty career without going through the research tenure process, but it is rare and nearly impossible to obtain top leadership positions (such as Provost) without having received tenure first.

In many situations, the leaders of our institutions were not trained to be academic leaders who can respond quickly and effectively to the changing landscape of society and higher ed policy.

This is how the system has been set up as a bait-and-switch that hires and promotes faculty for research and/or teaching, but then expects them to lead and administrate. However, the skill sets required are completely different. According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a powerful database of almost a thousand US jobs and their requirements, faculty positions such as Professor of Computer Science or Professor of Psychology require people who love analyzing data, investigating phenomena, and communicating results through writing or in the classroom.

On the other hand, educational administrator positions (e.g., Dean, Provost, President) require people who love problem solving, making difficult decisions, managing teams and projects, and evaluating and taking risks.

I once spoke to a University President who offered an analogy. When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, he was faced with a choice: According to the data projections from the administration team, they could close the university and lay off 500 employees, or keep the university open and risk up to 50 deaths among faculty, staff, and students.

You don’t learn how to make decisions like that in graduate school or even as an Assistant Professor, where your main concern is to complete the research project and get it published in some top journal that only a handful of other academics in your field will read. The work context is completely different as well, even though both jobs are in academia. Research publications take months if not years to go through the peer review and editing process. Decisions in higher ed leadership, especially in the face of crises such as a pandemic, need to be made within days if not hours.

This, I argue, is one of the root causes for why higher ed is arguably out-of-date, inefficient, and losing credibility in the workplace. In many situations, the leaders of our institutions were not trained to be academic leaders who can respond quickly and effectively to the changing landscape of society and higher ed policy. They were trained to be researchers and teachers, because that’s what it took to get their initial jobs.

So what’s the solution?

First and foremost, early career faculty should receive extensive training on leadership and administration. There are plenty of resources and research on what it takes to be a good academic leader. All faculty, regardless of their original field of study, should receive training on leadership, team development, risk management, and related skills necessary for higher ed administration.

Second, in order for faculty to be incentivized to take part in such trainings, the tenure and promotion criteria need to change. No faculty member would sacrifice precious hours attending a training on crisis leadership when they could be instead working on yet another publication to rack up the citation counts necessary for promotion. Unless the candidate in question wishes to remain a research or teaching professor for the rest of his or her career, tenure and promotion should only be rewarded to faculty who can also lead and administrate.

Third and finally, academia should consider outside leaders and businesspeople. Those who are successful in private business are much more likely to have the skill sets necessary to lead large complex organizations, and they have a lot to offer even if they didn’t go through the traditional PhD-to-professor route. Moreover, there’s an entire community of “Alt-Acs” — people who obtained their PhDs but decided against a traditional research and teaching career — who might be qualified and exceptional in academic leadership positions.

Being an academic leader and administrator is extremely difficult, and not a lot of people want that kind of job. Sadly, the system we have set up now in higher education seems to recruit for such positions from a pool of candidates that have not been trained or thus far incentivized to develop the skills necessary for academic leadership. As academia faces a tough season in the decades to come — with the rise of alternative education options, crises in financial aid, and devaluation of the college degree — there is more need than ever before to hire the right leaders with the right experiences and the right skill sets.

Steven Zhou is a PhD student in organizational psychology at George Mason University, where he studies leadership, teams, and statistics. He also serves as the President of the Graduate Student Association within university student life.