We have long heard of the value of involvement of support groups to talk with survivors of disease, those experiencing challenges due to a family situation or substance addiction, and those for new people to an area or field. In higher education, new faculty support groups exist for mentoring them on how to manage their time between competing demands of teaching, research, and service. But what about a support group for those interested in discussing or exploring higher education administration? When I was at the National Science Foundation (NSF), I started a support group for faculty interested in discussing aspects of moving into administration. I want to share how this group functioned and what activities we did in the hopes that it may serve as a model for others in their own institutions or academic field.
Those of us involved at the NSF all had temporary (rotating) Program Director positions through the Visiting Scientist Engineer and Educator (VSEE) or Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) programs. Being a rotating program director is an opportunity for all academics in NSF supported fields, including STEM education, to work one to four years to develop solicitations, manage proposal applications, convene review panels and make funding recommendations. We all had taken leaves-of-absences from our academic positions to work at NSF.
I learned that one member of my work circle at NSF was interested in moving into a dean position when he told me at a celebration lunch that he was waiting for an email that would indicate whether he would advance to the next round of interviews at an institution for a Graduate Dean position. Later, I met another person through a course at NSF when I mentioned working on crafting a new administrative position with my university. He asked to discuss with me about my career path and in that discussion mentioned that he was interested in higher education administration as was I. This built the nexus of the Aspiring Academic Administrators Support Group that then grew as we heard about others at NSF interested in exploring these career options.
Such a cadre of like-minded future administrators might be built at different institutions through a gathering convened by the dean or provost with faculty who might be particularly gifted at administration or who are involved in leadership training workshops. National organizations, like ACAD, might convene discussion groups around this theme at large national meetings or groups may develop from workshops aimed at training future administrative professionals such as the HERS Leadership Institutes, the Lessons for Aspiring Deans workshop sponsored by the AACSB, the Harvard Institutes for Leadership in Higher Education, or meetings hosted by Academic Impressions. In whatever ways these people self-identify, they can provide an initial core group that develops activities and builds a network of future administrative mentors. Ideally, the group would follow up after the initial gathering with biweekly or monthly in-person or remote meetings via Skype or Zoom to share ideas and build momentum for the discussions and deal with experiences as they develop.
Our group at NSF met about ten times in the five months since we started the group with between two and five other Program Directors from different parts of the Foundation. In those meetings, we did a number of things:
- discussed books and other resources, talking about particular chapters or parts of them
- shared experiences from the leadership institutes mentioned above
- met with current deans either via Skype or in person to gain their insights into what being a dean entails and their particular career path to that position
- met with one soon-to-be dean still at NSF to discuss her experience with the application and interview process as well as to discuss her negotiations with the future institution
- met with an executive recruiter who advised us on the different skills and backgrounds he felt were important to getting into the “of interest” pool of dean applicants and what we could do then and in the future to improve our chances of getting a position in higher education administration
- met with a professional coach who organized an aspiring dean’s workshop to learn what that event and her experience could provide
- discussed our CVs and cover letters, comparing different styles and content and helped critique different approaches to both documents.
- had question-and-answer sessions to practice the skills needed for Skype or on-campus interviews and debriefed after to consider each other’s observations and learn from them
- discussed strategies for working with home institutions to craft activities that might gain us practice and experience in higher education administration so that we can become more comfortable in that role
- shared documents and videos of presentations by dean candidates on a secure website
At the time we were at NSF, the members of the group were looking for Dean (Graduate School, Arts and Sciences, or Social Science School), Vice President for Research, or Associate or Vice Provost positions. Since then, all of us found those types of positions at either our initial institution or another; some have since switched to other administrative positions or other institutions. I’ve been able to keep in touch with four of them on a regular basis and we continue to provide the support and resources needed to be an effective administrator in higher education. There is considerable value in sharing challenges with others outside your organization to gain perspective that might not be possible within the same college or university. My former NSF colleagues feel the same. Thus, this group of aspiring university administrators, initially started at the NSF, served each of us in different ways and continues to be a resource in the future as we advance in higher education administrative positions. Like some of the more common personal support groups for people facing unfamiliar obstacles in life or in their profession, support groups for higher education administrators can create colleagues who work together to strengthen the skills needed for these difficult jobs.