To Ambitious Administrators, With Love

Dear Ambitious Administrator,

First off, let me tell you, I understand you with my deepest empathy, and I write this bloggy letter out of love and respect. You most likely left teaching because you needed the money. That’s a chapter in my memoir too. It’s not something you like to admit, and you certainly don’t share that motivation with your superiors. Talking about money and class status is so vulgar. Shameful. Difficult. I get it. I married somebody who was born into a lower class status than me, and we’ve struggled financially together for fifteen years. We laughed out loud during our marriage vows when the officiator said, “For richer and for poorer.” How can we possibly get poorer, we laughed. It was our way of saying “I do.”

So if you’ve made it this far, can I tell you a secret, Ambitious Administrator?

Your ambition has consequences.

This has been the hardest lesson I’ve learned since I’ve gone into “leadership.” I write this word in quotes because it’s a descriptor that others use about me, but not one that I am comfortable with in my own career. Who I am today is a blend of hard work, really good luck, and the willingness to fail in a very bright spotlight. I raised my hand and said “I’ll do it” at a the right time when a lot of really generous people were willing to say, “Okay, here’s all my stuff and let me know what you do.” (Word up, Quill West).

The word, Ambition, originates from the Latin ambitio (a striving for favor, literally ‘a going around’). It’s a word we value in leadership. In careers.

I want to share a few tips that I’ve learned personally from my own ambition and from my experience consulting with leaders. I need you to understand how your ambition helps and really hurts all things Open. Really hurts Open. Your ambition, in my opinion, can be more disastrous than an LMS transition. Think I’m over-exaggerating? Hear me out.

But before I go on, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this Movement has been good for my career. My ambitions. Quite good. And I’m aware of the criticisms of people like me who’ve made “a career on open education.” I’m so aware of all your criticisms that I sometimes have a hard time sleeping. I sometimes have a hard time getting out of bed.

When I was an administrator, I suffered the same sleepless depressive fate. Now instead of worrying about one institution, I worry about eleven or so (and counting) different systems and consortiums.

Same woes. Same joys. Just at scale. (A Memoir).

But this post isn’t about me. It’s about you, my beloved ambitious administrator, because I know it’s That Hiring Season in my hemisphere.

Spring isn’t about escaping winter; it’s about getting out of That Job.

Oh ho ho, I know yo.

Good administrator jobs are being posted right now in the US. You’re tuning up your CV. Pitching every conference blurb you can write. Having that “What If” conversation with your spouse. Hiding that Big Change on the horizon from your children until the time is right. Drinking more than you normally do. Curling up with your dog in his bed even though you know it pisses him off. Baking cinnamon rolls that you know will make you gain weight. Listening to the live version of “Stairway to Heaven” from 1975 so you can start crying when Robert Plant asks “Does anyone remember laughter?”

No. Nobody ever fucking remembers laughter. That’s the fucking problem…Wait. This is not about me, right.

You, my friend, are mostly likely pretending at work that you aren’t looking for a new job. Amrite? Yoohoo, I see you!

Executive administrators are the only ones who can’t hide during the hiring process. If you’re a finalist for a president, chancellor, or provost position, it’s a press-release. Colleges love to pimp your accomplishments in order to attract faculty. Look at us, the press releases say, we can have a hiring pool of people with [enter academic credentials here]. When you don’t get the job, your failed ambition lives forever on the interwebs.

If you report to one of these exec-level people, chances are your CV will be sitting on their desks very soon. They are waiting to decide your fate. Chances are they already want to hire you but they have to go through The Process that your future institution created. Takes forever. Is a giant waste of time. Hiring committee? Drink!

You thrive on the hope that your ambition will be recognized and appreciated more by that future institution. People will want to know about your ideas. Your ability to lead. Your ability to get shit done. To innovate. To lead.

Allow me to remind you, my administrator friend, that your success is and always will be contingent. Always reliant on. Always connect to. Always part of. Your faculty.

Let me repeat that.

You are successful only if you have faculty who will say yes. Yes to your ideas. Your innovation. Your ambition. Your leadership.

You are successful only if your ambition connects directly to helping students. Not your career. Not your CV. Students.

Let me restate this point. If you forget faculty and students, then you are failing as administrator. I’m writing this bloggy letter with you in mind.

In my own experience, let me be clear, I haven’t been the paragon of perfection. I don’t know the fucking color of my parachute and I don’t give a shit who moved the cheese. Sorry, I’ve been reading too much on leadership lately. Where was I? Right. Administrators, what up.

As a teacher, I struggled with the thought of leaving the classroom to join you. I looked to leaders who I respected, and thought, “That. Job. Looks. Awesome.” (waves at Connie Broughton and Boyoung Chae).

But I struggled personally and professionally for years.

What saved me? I had very cool deans who hired for me for an Instructional Designer job that I loved and backed me up when students collaborated to get me fired. This was pre-Rate Your Professor, but I’m sure they would have used words that rhyme with “Socialist” and “Bitch” and “Liberal Elitist.” No chili peppers.

Having a dean say to me that I wasn’t the first faculty member who faced this issue really saved me. That was one of the hardest quarters of my life. I was thinking about quitting teaching when he said, “I’ve never seen so many students united with such organization and passion. They really hate you! We must be doing something right as a college. Check out the pathos in these letters about you. They’ve substantiated all their claims, so I’m really impressed. I love Susan Sontag, for the record. Would you like some tea?”

That conversation with my dean took me off the roller coaster of thinking I was going to get fired and that I wasn’t a good teacher to the ferris wheel of becoming a better educator ( you go up, you go down). I improved as a person. Changed everything for me. Made me feel like I had a community of colleagues. That cup of tea was a lifeboat in my sea of loneliness as an adjunct. I changed my approach.

Students will often say what you want to say if you give them time. I hadn’t learned that skill of patience. Pedagogically, that’s the power of the pregnant pause and the super slow stare around the room. Look everyone in the eye.

Ask an open-ended hard question and wait. Anyone care to share their thoughts?

Two years later I was nominated as a faculty member of the year. Three years later, I’d was honored with winning that title. Deans–the middle managers of higher ed–helped me become a better and happier teacher.

That block of time on an administrator’s calendar—one hour—one cup of tea—saved me.

You have a lot of power.

Never forget that, Ambitious Administrator.

That’s the story you want to tell, by the way, should you get an interview for an executive administrator position.

Talk about your relationship with adjunct faculty. Recognize them as humans. Describe how your leadership will directly connect to the people who teach 80% of our courses. Create a clear path from your ideas to their work with students. Full-timers will be on your committee because they are held responsible (and paid) for “service to the institution” so they will appreciate (hopefully) how you’ll help them manage the horror of the slow deterioration of tenured positions. Chances are, they love the students at your future institution, and they’ll have good ideas for you. Listen.

Student success, one very wise administrator said to me, is in all of our job descriptions. “It’s not other duties as assigned. It’s our only job. You drop everything when a student needs you.”

I’d add that you also drop everything when a teacher needs you.

“Inbox Zero,” for the record, is a bullshit strategy that workaholic tech people made up. Email can wait. Focus on your people. Always.

And thus, I realize being a good administrator is a very hard job. Impossible sometimes. Yet you want to keep moving up the chain of command. Something drives you. There’s something you want to do. To be. To accomplish.

Perhaps you’re in school while being an administrator because you need that PhD/ED credential. Perhaps you’re writing a bunch of grant proposals because you know it will help your CV. Perhaps you’re pitching a lot of ideas and writing research articles. Conference proposals.

Perhaps you’re making a lot of plans that you hope you won’t be around to see through because you’ll get That Job. That Position. That Appointment.

And you know the words “Open Education” make eyes slow down while they scan CVs. Cover letters. This I know. This I’ve seen. This I’ve benefited from. This I know.

Ambitious administrator, you bust out your best Jean-Luc Picard and Make It So.

Do it.

Make all the damn plans. Fill out every cell in that spreadsheet. Drop all the names. Bust out all the prose power you have to bring Open to your future school. Project textbook savings. Write lovely poetry about faculty collaboration. Whip up cross-institutional square dance moves to create openly-licenses courses that can be used throughout your state. Your country. Fuck it, why not THE WORLD?! Spin projections of scale. Submit conference proposals for work that hasn’t been done yet your blurb makes it sound like you have all the success. All the success. All the answers.

Make shit up.

But pause for a minute. This I ask.

This I beg of you.

Imagine what will happen if you aren’t there to do ANY of the work. Before you write “OER” or “Open Pedagogy” or “OER Degree” take a moment and envision what all that looks like without you.

This is the oldest cliche question in the Leadership Handbook, right? It’s now sexy to call it “Radical Candor,” but it’s really just being honest. Having integrity. Humanity. Empathy.

Can the work go on without you? Will the work go on without you?

Be honest.

If not, then your ambition gives administrators a bad name. When passion’s a prison/you can’t break free. That’s the song that Bon Jovi should have written, btw. But yes, you give administrators a bad name.

You contribute to faculty mistrust of administrators.

Here’s my main beef with you.

Your ambition adds another brick to all the walls and barriers of OER. Your ambition leaves a lot of people bereft of a good leader. This I know. This I’ve seen.

So what can you do? A better salary may be calling. A new location may be better for your family. A new job might be the key to your happiness. I get it. By all means, connect with me, and I’ll try to help you with every connection that I have if you do me one favor. One thing.

Here’s The Thing.

Let me boss you through this. I have a solution.

Leave a map behind for the people who will get stuck doing the work you dreamed up. Make sure people will still love OER once you leave.

Have checklist of things they need to do to be successful. A one-pager executive summary. A spreadsheet. A stack of 3×5 cards. A couple of Post-it notes. Something.

Let a few people above you know you’re on the hunt for a better future. Prepare them for your ambitions. (If you can, I know that’s career suicide in some cases. Believe me, I know).

Let a few people know below you know that you might leave and that they should read up on OER. Introduce them to the cool kids you know. Promote them as OER heroes. (I also know this is a morale killer, but it’s best to let at least one direct report know that his/her life will suck for six months after you leave.)

Write a letter to your replacement describing next steps. Print it out. Leave it in a file where they will find it.

And most importantly, have a conversation with your best faculty member.

This is the most important. If you do one thing, do this. Please do this.

Talk to that faculty member who got shit done for you so you could write that cover letter. That line on your CV. Your career would not have happened without him/her.

That faculty member who said, “I’ll pilot that OER course. Sure, why not? Sounds fun.”

That faculty member who tried and tried and tried and tried and continues to try to get her colleagues to consider OER. Talks about it at every staff meeting. Reads every email that you send. Asks you questions. Loves Open.

That goddamn unsung faculty hero of yours? He/she is still going to be there.

Your champion.

Tell that person you’re leaving. Or trying to leave. She needs to be on the hiring committee for your position, and the more notice she has, the more likely she’ll say yes to that committee.

Okay, my friend, I feel better now. Thank you for reading. Now go write that cover letter. Bring open education to a school that needs you. Get that job.

I’ll leave you with a lovely quote from Rebecca Solnit, from The Far Away Nearby, which is about care taking for an aging parent, but I think it applies to leadership. Yes.

“…you crash into this condition that you have not been warned about, a rocky coast without a map.”

Yours Truly,

Alyson

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, #OER, professional development, adult education & writing. Travels to talk about Open Education during the workweek. Advocates for more girls on bikes during the weekend. Bike racer w/ @queensofdirt A Memoir.
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