The title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again has served as a warning to family members planning a reunion and to alumni venturing back to campus. People and places change, and our imperfect memories often romanticize the past. When we return to what once was a familiar setting, we may feel uncomfortable and out of place, and we may feel disappointed that things are not as we remembered them.
I thought about Thomas Wolfe’s title when I ended my tenure as an academic administrator and anticipated my return to the faculty. The transition from faculty to administration had its challenges. But would the transition back to faculty be a smooth one?
I had not expected my move from faculty to administration to be difficult at all, in part because I was remaining at the same institution. Having risen through the faculty ranks to professor and department chair, I knew the institution, the people, and the responsibilities of the position well. The work itself was not an issue: it was a heavy workload, but I felt prepared. What surprised me was how relationships changed.
Though I had planned to do some teaching and continue with my research while serving in administrative positions, plans changed as demands on my time grew. I still thought of myself as a member of the faculty—one who had taken on administrative responsibilities. But it was clear that others identified me as “the administration.” I have always cringed when I hear faculty members refer to “the administration” or administrators refer to “the faculty,” as though the other group is an entity of one mind, rather than a group of individuals with diverse viewpoints.
By the time I ended my tenure as an academic administrator, I had spent more than twice as many years in administrative positions than I had spent in the classroom. Despite my best efforts, my identity had shifted. I was living and breathing budgets and strategic plans, not syllabi and exams. I wondered how easy it would be to shift back and how well I would be received by other faculty members.
Fortunately, my transition back to the classroom was eased by a year-long sabbatical leave, during which I prepared course materials, took advantage of service opportunities, and reestablished a research program. I was also very fortunate to be returning to a strong, supportive department. I was offered prime office space, courses that I was interested in teaching, and the chance to develop a new program. I was excited to begin the next chapter in my career.
One final concern I had was whether faculty outside my department would accept me as a peer. It seemed that I had lost my peer status when I became an administrator, sometimes clashing with faculty over budget issues or the distribution of resources. It was my responsibility to evaluate their achievements and make decisions regarding their continuation, promotion, and tenure. My decisions were not always popular ones.
Any concerns I had about how well I would be received by other faculty members were allayed with a simple gesture. A colleague with whom I clashed once or twice shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.” I have now been back in the classroom for as many years as I served in administrative roles. It was an interesting journey and it’s good to be back home.