The Chronicle Review

Why Administrators Should Teach

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

March 05, 2017 Premium

Last spring, during a break at a conference for academic administrators, I sat down at a table and pulled out a stack of papers to grade. This mundane act made me a curiosity to my assembled colleagues, mostly deans and provosts. One of my tablemates asked, "If you’re a dean, why on earth do you teach?" Another added, "Why would you do that to yourself?"

These questions gave me pause. Maybe I hadn’t thought enough about teaching as an administrator before. I informally polled other attendees about teaching and deaning throughout the conference — and by teaching, I meant one course a year at minimum — and the answer was clear: Only a few did, and they were mostly at small colleges. It seems that the changing culture of higher education and the sheer volume of our work have made teaching for administrators as rare as spotting a leatherback turtle.

I left the table sad, thinking something important is evaporating before our eyes. A former provost, when discussions at cabinet meetings moved away from the core mission and academics, would bring the focus back by booming, "It’s a school!" I would think, "Well, yes, of course it is." But I now realize her frustration: that being in administration — the myopia it induces, the siloing of our responsibilities — works against seeing that reality.

We try to convince ourselves that the line between administrators and faculty is a chasm — hence the jokes among faculty members who become administrators joining the dark side. But the reality is that the divide is bridgeable and needs to remain so — or it will become a true chasm. The joke will be made real. The classroom can and should unite administrators and faculty, connecting them to the students and more firmly to the mission of their institutions. The notion that faculty teach and deans don’t only leads to further division.

When administrators leave the classroom, they can become detached from students and from the purpose of higher education. I have been a dean for almost a decade at different institutions, and I have always taught. Yes, a course a year isn’t much, but teaching is important to me. I imagine it’s important to other administrators who teach as well. When I speak to administrators, I find those who teach often have a deeper commitment to student-centered values.

It’s too easy to lose sight of the educational mission as an administrator. The news is always bad, the problems many, the work Sisyphean. In teaching, I am reminded of and witness the transformational potential of the classroom, which is at the center of higher education.

Teaching makes you a better and more humane administrator. Even a small teaching load helps you gain a deeper perspective on what members of the faculty face, even mundane things like the course-management systems, book ordering, or the grade-entry process. You see the conditions of the rooms and, more importantly, you get an understanding of the students. Teaching forces you to prepare for classes and to do research, giving you a glimpse of how your field is developing. This provides an understanding of how knowledge advances and the importance of the library and other resources for the educational process.

Administrators who teach are also good for students. Being in the classroom, I have a student sounding board at my disposal. I can ask a class questions about their experiences. Students are not shy, and they don’t care much about titles. But because I am a dean and have some authority, I understand the broad picture of what they bring forward, be it confusion over the curriculum, advising, or financial aid, which then informs my work as an administrator and helps me resolve complex problems.

Lastly, teaching as an administrator is good for your institution and higher education. There was a time when academic administrators came from the faculty, served a few years, and went back to teaching. Some institutions still operate that way. They see being a dean or even a provost as a stage in an academic career, not as the end goal. These institutions are usually Ivy or well-heeled — but not too long ago this was a general rule for all of higher education.

Now, administrators typically don’t come from the faculty — and they stay out of the faculty. This leads to an us-versus-them perspective and a careerist mentality for many administrators, continually on the hunt for the next step up the ladder. For most institutions, the stakes are so high, the margins so thin, and the skilled administrators so rare, that I can understand the persistence of this distanced professionalism. But a gulf between the two sides ultimately doesn’t serve anyone.

Over the course of the conference, I realized that I was not completely alone — there were administrators who taught and others who missed it and yearned to carve out time to do so soon. But the culture of academic administration pulls against this effort. Teaching as an administrator needs to be seen as a strength and encouraged where and when it can be. As administrators, we talk a lot about pedagogy in the abstract but not its application, because we often don’t have recent firsthand experience. This is not only sad but can be caustic as well, and it needs to change.

We must remember that teaching is a nourishing act of hope. It keeps your mind in the creative and research world. It helps you recognize the hard work and changing economics of publishing that the faculty navigates in its quest for tenure. Teaching reminds us of the daily grind of education, how it builds class upon class, term upon term, year upon year. It provides a perspective that no spreadsheet can replace.

Richard A. Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.