Sept. 18, 2006
Administration: Not just the law of the land
Gary Teal is senior associate vice president for administration at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.
What do you think of when you hear or see the words “university administration?” Students often see administration as the group who is unwilling to listen to new ideas, makes far too many rules, increases fees and won’t allow them to have fun. Faculty may view administration as the group that charges too much in overhead, provides too little in return and won’t let them have fun as well. Synonymous with bureaucracy, authority and city hall, a collision with administration may place you where Bobby Fuller was in his 1965 tune of “I Fought the Law, and the Law Won.”
As I reflect upon my 20 plus years at Emory, I wonder when I became part of “the administration.” I don’t think it was when I was a manager of payroll and accounts payable back in the 1980s. I was too busy paying employees and vendors, hopefully on time and most certainly the correct amounts. I don’t think it was when I assumed a director of projects title in the early 1990s. I was the guy pushing the ball forward and getting a myriad of projects completed, again hopefully on time. It must have been 10 or so years ago when I was promoted to a title with “vice president” in it. I have been very fortunate to progress from “assistant” to “associate” to now the “senior associate” titles—all with “vice president” as the suffix.
Once I had a title with VP in it, the number of requests from faculty, students, staff and others in administration grew exponentially. I quickly moved from the “Shell Answer Man” (for our young readers, he was a 1970s guy) to a person asked to solve problems, achieve resolution and invent better processes along the way—an administrator. I found myself moving further and further away from transactional, detailed accomplishments and closer to someone who never could succinctly describe what he did all day when he got home late in the evening. I no longer paid people. I no longer completed tasks within a project. I listened, analyzed, developed alternative solutions, offered advice and listened some more. I represented Emory before big companies, gracious friends and government officials. I found myself in situations where I had very little subject matter knowledge but was nonetheless asked to act in the best interest of the University. This was not only new and fun, but it also gave me a chance to be the ambassador for Emory that I always wanted to be. I was an administrator.
Wikipedia reports that the word “administration” comes from the Middle English administracioun, deriving from the French administration, which is itself derived from the Latin administratio: a compounding of ad (“to”) and ministratio (“to give service”).
To give service? Administration? Us? Yes, that is exactly the purpose of university administration. In fact, the most effective and welcomed administration takes on the role of servant-leader: an approach in which leaders serve others while keeping a focus on achieving results that align with the University’s values, vision and mission. Administration is both an art and a science. You learn techniques in the classroom that help you as an administrator, including classes in management, finance, communications, psychology, etc. Perhaps, that is the science component. The art component comes from hundreds and hundreds (and even thousands) of experiences working with faculty, students, parents of students, staff, donors, governmental officials, the surrounding neighborhoods, other university administrators and many others within the general public.
I believe the most effective (and appreciated) university administrators are those who realize their job is primarily to serve students and faculty. No one ever created a university with a mission of employing administrators. No university ever received a top ranking based on the value of its administration. Instead, the best administration is one that reaches out and serves its students, teachers, researchers and clinicians. A wise and experienced administrator once told me to remember that administrators don’t attend classes, don’t teach classes, don’t conduct research, don’t publish and don’t take care of patients. So, he said to me, our job has to be to support those who do these things and help make them as successful as possible.
As a former high school basketball referee, I was taught that the best job I could hope to do would be to simply blend into the game, and not become a separate event within the game. The less I am viewed and considered (meaning booed, hissed and even cheered) by the teams, coaches and crowd, the better the job I am doing. That may seem strange at first, but it is very true. Top-flight administrators try to do this at their universities. They enable the students and faculty to achieve and succeed, while they stay in the background in the servant-leader mode.
We are fortunate at Emory to have an administration that follows this path of servant leaders. President Wagner is an excellent example of what administration should strive to accomplish in terms of selfless leadership. That does not mean that he and many others in administration don’t make unpopular decisions.
Maintaining the focus on achieving results in alignment with Emory’s purpose, mission and vision has to be the absolute top priority, and it must be the guiding principle for our administration. That approach may lead to unpopular and unwanted decisions, but decisions, nonetheless, that are intended to produce the best results in the long term. And if any entity should be thinking long-term, it should be universities.
I am sure this article won’t make you rush out to Hallmark and buy a happy Administration Day card to send to your favorite administrator, but hopefully it will encourage you to support administration and likewise to challenge administration any time you believe service can be improved so that Emory is advanced in its mission and vision.