For Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, the opportunity to move up from professor to dean represents a chance to go from lecturing and writing papers on leadership to actually creating new leaders.
As a professor at Yale, Sternberg developed a theory that engaged citizens and leaders need to have a creative vision for improving the world, analytical skills for explaining why their vision is a good one, practical skills for executing their vision and the wisdom to ensure that their ideas support the common good.
In his new role as dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University, he is putting that theory into practice.
"I've reached a point in my life where what I really want to do is apply what I've learned," explains Sternberg.
He has used his theories to transform undergraduate admissions, for example. Sternberg's new system gives applicants the option of completing projects that show off their leadership potential, such as drawing an advertisement for a new product or writing an essay about what the world would be like if Hitler had won the war. The result has been higher standards and more diversity among the incoming class and a higher percentage of accepted applicants who decide to come to Tufts.
Other professors who have moved up the ranks relish the opportunity to get involved in just about every aspect of running a college or university. That variety makes the job fun, says Bernadette Gray-Little, PhD, executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. On any given day, she might meet with deans to discuss admissions or a new degree program, hear about plans for a new building or talk with groups that want to bring art exhibits or performances to campus.
You also get to broaden the scope of your interactions, says Rodney L. Lowman, PhD, president of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
"What I like about the job is that as president, you get to meet students from a variety of different disciplines and areas, not just from psychology," he says.
In his new role, he must also meet with faculty, staff, board members, alumni and people in the community.
"When you're moving into a leadership role, you need a focus that transcends your particular domain and looks at what the needs are at a broader level," he says, noting that part of that task involves integrating all the various perspectives on campus.
Like these three administrators, many psychology professors welcome the chance to work on a bigger scale. But the skills that make for a great professor don't necessarily make for a great administrator. Whether you're a chair, dean, provost or even university president, you need to hone skills in leadership and big-picture thinking and leave behind not only your focus on teaching and research but also such traits as perfectionism and a do-it-yourself attitude.
There's no school to teach you how to be a department chair, dean, provost or college president. But there are some skills that high-level administrators need to have-or develop. One is the ability to delegate.
"One thing you have to leave behind is the sense that you can do everything yourself," says Gray-Little. "You have to learn to choose-and rely on-very good staff."
Learning how to make decisions fast is another must, says Lowman.
"You don't always have the luxury of gathering all the research data you might want, so you have to go with what you have," he says. "You may have a day or even 30 minutes."
An effective administrator also has to shift perspective from his or her own concerns to the entire institution, says Henry L. Roediger III, PhD, dean of academic planning in arts and sciences and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
"You have to see yourself as serving the faculty," says Roediger, who spent eight years as chair of Washington University's psychology department. "That was my goal: to help the faculty do their work better than they could without me."
For Roediger, achieving that goal meant exercising good social skills, listening carefully and being organized. Some chairs and other administrators, he notes, are too disorganized to follow up on faculty members' requests, and just let things slide.
Leading by example is also key, says Roediger. In fact, soon after he arrived at Washington University as chair, Roediger taught an introductory psychology course no one else wanted. "I thought if I did that, it would show them I valued teaching," he says.
Not all administrative roles are full time. Chairs and even some deans can typically still keep doing at least some teaching and research. Roediger's deanship, for example, is a part-time position he calls "dean of odd jobs."
"I wanted to be a psychologist first and dean second," says Roediger, who has no desire to move up further.
Those who do take on full-time administrative roles often need to let go of old work habits, says Gray-Little. In some cases, characteristics that make first-rate researchers or professors hold administrators back, she says.
"You have to relinquish the role of true expert about most things, because you're moving so quickly from one [idea] to another," says Gray-Little. "You have to rely on someone else to have the deep expertise."
Perfectionism also has to go, says Lowman.
"Sometimes good enough is good enough," he says. "You're not going to have everything done at the level you'd like it to be done if it were a research project or student paper."
Relationships with colleagues may also change, says Lowman.
"When you're responsible for people and outcomes and have to evaluate them, you just can't have the same kind of relationship as when you were working on the level of peers," he says, noting the importance of having friends and colleagues outside your institution to serve as sounding boards.
That shift can be hard for academics, he adds. "Many people who go into academia as professors aren't particularly interested in being responsible for overseeing other people, other than students," he says.
Although some administrators teach an occasional class or workshop, most have to give up the bulk of their teaching, research and other responsibilities, such as editing journals.
Sternberg is the rare dean who has barely slowed down after taking on an administrative role.
"I still teach. I still do scholarship," he says.
He does admit to one small change: "I used to write a paper a week," he says. "Now maybe I write a paper every other week."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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