I have been fortunate to have had an academic career spanning several decades and four continents. At first, as with most academics, I was largely focused on research — but I very much enjoyed working with my students.
In my position as a young assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, some three decades ago, I enjoyed participating in a handful of committees and doing other administrative tasks at USC when called on — much to the surprise of my peers, who would have rather spent all of their time focusing on research.
We all have heard the common wisdom at universities: administration is the realm of failed academics. Faculty members fiercely protect their research time. And this time is crucial — especially for young faculty members who are yet to fully establish themselves. However, learning how to work in committees and on other administrative and academic-leadership tasks benefits not just researchers, but also their institutions and beyond.
About a dozen years ago, the opportunity arose for me to move to Townsville, Australia, to lead the school of pharmacy and molecular sciences at James Cook University (JCU). I took the job because I had enjoyed my earlier engagement at USC. I continued on to other important leadership and senior administrative roles at JCU and beyond, finally landing the role of vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Yachay Tech University, a young Ecuadorian research institution in Urcuquí.
I got into academia to do research, but throughout my career, I found myself doing less and less of it. The more successful I became, the further away I moved from what had put me down that career path in the first place. Why, then, take up senior academic administration and leadership roles? And what makes a successful academic administrative leader? I have had a happy career in research administration and leadership, but haven’t seen much published on the topic. If you are interested in moving into that area, here is my advice:
• The university serves students, faculty members, staff and the community. As an academic administrative leader, you serve these constituencies and respect them all equally. Your ego, therefore, has to be in check.
• Remember that service and engagement are rewards in themselves: it can be enormously satisfying when your actions and leadership help others to do their academic jobs better and more easily. This also clearly benefits your institution as a whole.
• Accept administrative opportunities when they appear throughout your career at the university, national and international levels. Serving on scientific committes, or engaging in political outreach with ministers or ambassadors, might seem like something to avoid at all costs for many researchers. But you might well surprise yourself and enjoy the work: give admin and leadership a try and see how you do.
• ‘Street cred’ in the form of a successful academic career, especially in research, is essential when leading academics and getting them to listen to your proposals as a senior academic administrator. This is especially true when making unpopular decisions.
• Attempt to maintain a credible (albeit inevitably reduced) publication record through collaboration during your administrative career. Keep your own scientific interest alive; I found that doing this was personally rewarding in my own career. The additional time commitment is not insignificant, so multitasking could be your best new friend, but the rewards are worth it. Publishing papers is difficult at the best of times, but keep in mind that — unlike the case for many of your colleagues — authoring more papers is not your ultimate goal, so it doesn’t have to dominate your workload to the same extent.
• Consulting with all stakeholders is important. Democratic processes can be messy — but it is essential to keep everyone involved. I have regularly visited staff members in their offices to chat, and I’ve held open meetings for staff to update them on administrative, funding or any other changes, and to hear about their issues. I try to keep my office door open, except for the most delicate of conversations — which are simply best held behind closed doors — and to regularly e-mail staff.
• Be empathetic, consultative and open-minded to the opinion of others. Listen to your colleagues’ concerns. However, it is ultimately your responsibility to make the best decision possible in everyone’s interest.
• See and be seen: walk around, be approachable and meet people in a variety of settings, whether in their office, over coffee, after a seminar or between university buildings and in hallways. Be personable and human: share with people what you like about the institution, the latest advances in research in your and their areas and your opinions about the city you live in. Consider sponsoring get-togethers for everyone to catch up in a relaxed and less formal setting. By walking around, you might also spot things that need fixing, which others might be too busy to notice.
• I’ve maintained a rule of answering all e-mails ‘religiously’, preferably on the day I receive them. I have often been told that I am one of the very few people who always responds to e-mails. People will respect you for it, and they will also feel valued. An e-mail inbox is not a to-do list, but rather a way to have conversations with staff members: reply to an e-mail and then write down what it is asking you to do elsewhere (and then do it as well, of course).
• Think beyond your own institution. A portfolio of national and international activities will add to your profile and street cred while benefiting your institution with added exposure and being of interest to you. It also offers the opportunity for occasional travel, which has its own mental-health benefits. I serve on numerous editorial boards and, throughout my administrative and leadership career, have co-organized international scientific events, reviewed grant proposals and served on various international scientific committees.
An administrative leadership stint offers important rewards to academics who wish to serve others and better their own institutions — which are powerful motivators.
In summary, why might you think about contributing to senior academic administration and leadership, especially if you have an established career? Through this route, you can better your institution for faculty members, students and staff first and foremost — and also engage with society across borders and further the impact of research.