February 17, 2018

Leadership Lessons for Higher Education Administration | Leading From the Library

Thinking about academic library administration as your next career step? When you do, you become a higher education administrator too. Here are some things you may want to know about moving into higher education administration, and some leadership lessons you’ll learn when you do.

As a fairly new academic library director, I decided to attend a leadership training program geared to college library directors. During first day introductions, each participant explained how he or she came to become a director. Like most of us, I worked my way up through the ranks—from reference librarian to assistant director—and then decided it was time to try leading a library, based on a personal vision of what an academic library could be. Then we came to what looked like the youngest member of our group, who told us that the previous director resigned when she was a reference librarian. The next day the provost came to her office and asked if she wanted to be the director—and apparently she did. That’s one way to become a library administrator. While our profession is known to have its share of “accidental administrator” stories, about colleagues who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in managerial positions at any level, even as the library director, the vast majority of academic librarians who move into administration do so with serious intent and career planning. If you are giving thought to moving into library administration, I applaud your desire to advance your career. Our thinking about a future role in library administration rarely includes what it means to serve as part of a broader institutional administration. There are a few things you may want to know about becoming a higher education administrator.

Dark side

Perhaps the first thing you need to know is that higher education administrators are typically the target of faculty angst and mistrust. That’s why faculty who decide to become academic administrators are often accused of going over to the “dark side” by their former colleagues. While no one maintains statistics, the number of “no confidence” votes for university presidents is said to be on the rise. This is becoming an increasingly popular way for faculty to express their distaste for their institution’s top administrators. It rarely results in the removal of a president, but it does ratchet up the tension between the faculty and administration. Whether you are a president, dean, or chair, in higher education an adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration is an accepted state of being. Perhaps because colleges and universities tend to be more liberal, democratic, and supportive of individual freedom, it’s reasonable to expect that leaders are perceived as practitioners of command-and-control management, less trustworthy, and having weak values and integrity.

Doom by Association

Effective higher education leaders are able to rise above the mistrust and bring labor peace to their institutions. Library directors are generally on better terms with the faculty than the president or provost, but just try making a decision unpopular with faculty—such as eliminating parts of the collection or just moving them off campus without their approval—and you may find yourself subject to the wrath of the faculty. Even if the library leader maintains a “do no harm” relationship with faculty, administrative association alone may target him or her for faculty or labor union anger. Be prepared to have almost any problem at your institution blamed on the administration, and yes, that includes library administrators, too. Pay attention to those Deans and Chairs who know how to weather the storm and even use it to their advantage. There are leadership lessons to be learned there.

Going Corporate

Many individuals who work at colleges and universities are there because they have a disdain for the world of business. Higher education is regarded as a not-for-profit refuge from corporate America. Those who pursue formal leadership positions at a college or university may fear how their colleagues will react to the decision. Though it may lead to accusations of going corporate or selling out, higher education leaders are, in fact, significantly different from their corporate counterparts. In fact, according to the report Leadership Traits and Success  in Higher Education by the firm Witt Kieffer, while there are a few similarities, in many ways higher education and corporate leaders are worlds apart. On the issue of “money, profits, and business opportunities,” higher education leaders had lower aptitudes than corporate leaders. Corporate leaders scored high for “hedonism and pleasure” and low for “helping others; contributing to society.” Higher education leaders were just the opposite. Both, expectedly, scored high on “initiative and a desire for leadership roles.” As you make your move into leadership, if anyone accuses you of going corporate, just point to the Witt Kieffer study as evidence that, in many ways, higher education and corporate leaders are as different as night and day. As a higher education administrator, in both thought and action, you’ll excel by staying true to those noble reasons that inspired your transition to an administrative position.

Generally a Good Thing

Another sign that higher education leaders enjoy their work and find it rewarding is a less rigorous but interesting study from two column authors at Insider Higher Education. In their StratEDgy column, the authors Dayna Catropa and Margaret Andrews polled an audience of higher education employees, and found that the administrators who responded were generally happy with their work. Encouraging others to seek careers in higher education administration, the respondents indicated that their work is rewarding because it is a way to make a difference for many students. They noted that it helps to be at an institution that makes a good personal fit. Having a high comfort level with institutional politics is an asset for success as well. Of particular interest was the recommendation for higher education leaders to keep learning. One respondent said, “Learn as much as you can and plan on continuing to learn throughout your career. Prepare for opportunities.” This statement certainly reflects my experience that higher education administration is a process of ongoing learning as a leader. What makes it challenging are those occasional changes in institutional direction or strategy that require library administrators to adapt to new situations and demands on their leadership skills.

All Librarians ≠ Administrator

For those non-librarians who found their way to this column, I suspect you may be thinking that all academic librarians are administrators anyway, so why am I describing a transition to administration as a career advancement strategy for my colleagues? That’s not surprising, given that surveys or statistical reports on higher education personnel frequently categorize librarians as either administration or support. It’s not that we expect to be included with faculty, although those academic librarians who are appointed faculty status at their institutions would probably appreciate it. But academic librarians are frequently directly engaged in or support educational activities at their institutions. They advance the integration of the library into the teaching and learning process at their institutions. A smaller segment of the staff at your academic library is responsible for the types of administrative work typically associated with Chairs and Deans: strategic planning; budgeting; personnel matters; high-level purchasing decisions; etc. So not all librarians are administrators. Becoming a library administrator happens by choice.

Feeling Like Aquaman

Is it a choice you are willing to make? One aspect of becoming a higher education administrator that may seem intimidating is becoming a part of the institutional administrative team. For library directors, that usually means the Dean’s Council. As a member of this group, you may occasionally feel like you are the Aquaman of the Justice League—not so useful, consulted, or included. Joining this group is actually a good way to advance your learning about higher education and leadership. Hopefully your administrative partners are inviting, inclusive, and open to your ideas. Where they are, library leaders often make a difference. As always, it can help to find a mentor who can help you to better grasp the power dynamics of the group, and how to best get things accomplished as an administrator at your institution.

You Can Do This

For some librarians, there is no choice. They must do it. It is in their blood. Others may need to first dip their toe in the waters of library leadership. If you are at that stage, I’d recommend that you read Andy Burkhardt’s post on how you can start exploring your leadership potential and talent from your current non-administrative position. Every academic library and higher education institution offers opportunities for grassroots leaders to emerge, and, from there, perhaps transition to a more formal leadership role. For the librarians who complain about the ineptitude or weakness of their administration and who point to it as a rationale for never becoming a higher education administrator, I say that it sounds to me like you may be the exact person in your organization who has a vision for how to lead an academic library to better things. What are you waiting for? Higher education administration needs you.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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