Thoughts by Richard Bleil
About twenty years ago, a friend and colleague suggested that I should consider becoming a dean. I literally laughed out loud. I was in my first teaching job and enjoying it immensely. I did a few small things to help the college out (like organizing a voluntary ad hoc committee of educators to brainstorm and help each other out on teaching techniques), but I was young, enthusiastic, and like all idealist employees who truly enjoy their first significant job I was thinking that I would keep doing it forever.
I enjoy teaching. It’s morphing, I must admit. Students are becoming more vocal, there are more and more regulations about what has to happen in the classroom, but there’s still something about standing in front of a group of students and talking about a subject that you love.
There came a day that I began to doubt my abilities. I teach very difficult subject matter, typically chemistry, but also physics, mathematics and other related subjects. The typical student in my class is there because it’s a requirement for their major. The subject has a reputation for being particularly difficult, is considered by many to be uninteresting at best (although exactly why I cannot imagine) and is a course that they don’t want to be in and can’t see how it relates to their job. But, at the risk of sounding like a braggart, I have to admit that when I was young, I could at least encourage my students to make an effort.
I don’t know what happened. Somehow, I lost that edge. I don’t know if the students changed, or if I did, or both but the reality is that it’s most likely me. Maybe I got tired, maybe I was treated unfairly by the administration too often, or maybe I just got old. Whatever it was, I lost the edge.
Because of this, and, frankly, other more personal reasons (that I have also written about), I decided to resign my tenure. Unusual opportunities came my way that lead me into administration, not in academia at first, but eventually my friend’s recommendation came to pass as I became a dean. I came to realize a few things.
I came to understand the great things that a dean can do. You have to listen to students; if there is a complaint, it could very easily be legitimate, and ever complaint must be considered. But, it’s important to investigate all sides. Too often, administrators take the student’s word as gospel (something I’ve seen happen to me far too often), but as dean, I was able to protect my faculty and resolve many issues just by simply opening channels of communication.
I also came to understand the difference between leaders and politicians. Far too many academic administrators were politicians, more interested in their own careers than protecting their faculty. I’ve even had other deans throw me under the bus to protect themselves.
Administrators have the potential to influence far more students than faculty. Teachers influence students one at a time, or at least one class at a time. They influence students not only with their expertise, but also by their example. Administrators can chart the course for the entire department, or college for that matter. They can guide faculty to be the example they should be for the students and set standards for quality to ensure that the students are getting the education they deserve.
My friend is at a point in his career where he is wondering whether or not to gear his career towards administration. He asked me for advice, and the reality is that, I can’t give any. It’s such a personal question and depends so completely on personal interests and goals. Administration has great potential to be able to make such a tremendous impact on so many people that could last for years. But it’s also fraught with dangers and plenty of, people who will want to see you fail, often for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with you personally. It’s a position of meetings, and difficult decisions that will make you unpopular. Teaching has great benefits but can also begin to feel like a box. Teaching for twenty years, as I did, means twenty years of covering the same material because, let’s face it, that is your expertise.
So, what advice? I don’t know. I can’t know. It’s good to keep avenues open, though. What might seem like a bad decision today could very easily be a great pathway for tomorrow, just as a new pathway today might be filled with landmines tomorrow. And the best decision?
Well, God only knows.