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Administration Must Be Seen as More than a Necessary Evil

12/17/2018 8:20 AM | Anonymous

Author: Ramon Luzarraga, Benedictine University at Mesa

            Last May of 2018, I completed a term as chair of undergraduate studies for the Mesa campus of Benedictine University. I took office the second year of our existence as a campus and worked with the provost, vice-provost, and our faculty, to construct a collaborative culture of governance of the campus by the faculty. And, I lobbied to have a dean installed for the long term. When those tasks got completed, I stepped away from that office and continued the teaching I maintained during my term as chair. My last act as chair was to persuade the dean to eliminate that administrative position. It served its purpose. She did.

The timing of when I received my office was not typical for a university professor. I was an assistant professor on the second year of a three-year probationary period. My teaching was reduced to a 3-3 load, and I continued publishing. My experience as an administrator, and the circumstances under which I received and practiced the duties of the position have given me insight into how we theologians approach any administrative position or task.

            For the most part, I enjoyed those years of administration. There is something fulfilling about helping colleagues do their work through one’s own work, and together continue with the pioneering work of founding a new campus. On the other hand, that administrative experience clashed with memories of how many of my colleagues in theology negatively perceive administration. It is viewed as a distraction from teaching and, especially, scholarship. Employing euphemisms such as “the dark side,” “the other side,” speaking of the office of chair as a burden over which one ticks off the days until it ends, are some of the many examples used to describe administration as a thankless task which contribute empty calories to one’s academic career.

            The theological academy takes an Augustinian view of administration. It is considered a necessary evil designed to keep order, make sure our respective departments and universities function, enable our students to study and learn, and advance our vocation as theologians. This attitude is confirmed, in part, by the fact that administrative tasks are often given to faculty who have achieved a degree of seniority. Tenure, or a multi-year contract, and/or possessing the rank of associate professor or above, are traditional prerequisites for a department or division chair, an academic dean, or a provost. Administrative work, we advise our junior pre-tenure colleagues, must be kept to a level which is enough for tenure and promotion, but not distract from the core tasks of teaching and publishing.

            Ignored in this vision are those colleagues of ours who discover that they have the gifts and skills for administration and enjoy that work. They may discern administration to be a path on which they could fulfill their overall vocation as theologians. For example, they could administer and publish. Unfortunately, those gifts and abilities are not rewarded by a parallel track toward tenure and promotion which could place administration on a par with teaching and publishing. The paucity of jobs in the Academy alone warrants a reexamination of our attitudes towards the policies and the structures by which we advance in our respective colleges and universities. More important perhaps is the administrative vacuum caused by too few of us theologians entering the ranks of the administration of our respective institutions. We leave space open in our Catholic and other Christian-sponsored colleges and universities to business people from outside the Academy, and colleagues from fields of study governed by a utilitarian ethic, too many of whom view the value of a college and its programs solely by their utility to contribute to the bottom line and their ability to fulfill market needs. We find ourselves protesting why our voices are not heard enough as mission-critical programs get downsized or eliminated in theology and across the humanities.

Our formation as theologians is not just intellectual, but spiritual too. We are educated to see more deeply into the world God gave us. While budgets need to be balanced, we can also envision programs which could fulfill more than market needs, they could fulfill human needs too, and answer God’s call to see that those needs are satisfied. Amongst our number are colleagues who can do more than balance books, they can fulfill the mission of Catholic higher education. They can find creative, and innovative ways to fulfill mission critical tasks while satisfying economic demands. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

            We should examine ways to expand the culture of the Catholic and theological Academy where those colleagues who have the gift for administration and enjoy the work are offered a clear path to advance one’s career and fulfill one’s vocation as theologians. For example, the University of West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, has administrative positions which carry tenure and the opportunity for sabbaticals. While I am not holding up UWI’s entire structure as an idea for our Academy to adopt, I am using it as an example of an academic culture which nurtures and rewards scholars who take the path of administration as a means of service to their colleagues, the advancement of their own academic careers, all in the fulfillment of a mission larger than themselves. If we want to be governed by our own, by people who understand Catholic and Christian higher education fully, and not as a utilitarian means to a profitable end, we must nurture more of our own for college and university leadership.


  • 12/17/2018 9:59 AM | Christine Firer Hinze (Administrator)
    Thank you, Ramon, for this thought-provoking essay. It would be great to engender more creative conversations and thinking in our respective places of work, as well as in the CTSA itself, re how the administratively-gifted and (dare I say) called among us might be better supported and valued in our theological academy, and the academy at large.
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  • 12/17/2018 10:29 AM | Richard R Gaillardetz
    I want to thank Ramon for this perceptive reflection. I am now in my third year as the chair of a large theology department (39 full-time faculty and over 60 doctoral students) and I have only gradually found my way to appreciate the intrinsic value of administrative work that Ramon encourages. A fellow chair once sagely told me that crucial to the embrace of the post was the realization that one could not think of oneself as continuing along the same professorial track as before but with "a few more administrative responsibilities." Rather, the administrator must embrace administration as the primary form their theological vocation will take during their time of service. For me this has meant conceiving my administrative responsibilities as twofold.

    First, my work consists in creating and sustaining the conditions that allow faculty and students in the department to flourish in their work. This means establishing and executing clear policies and procedures to facilitate the smooth functioning of the department. Some portion of this work will attend to "putting out fires," that is, responding to a wide-range of problems and concerns that are brought to the administrator's attention. This speaks directly to the sense of administration as an expression of one's theological vocation, as it it calls forth a capacity for empathy, accompaniment, exhortation and advocacy. Few things are more satisfying for an administrator than being able to help someone work through a difficulty or successfully advocating on behalf of a member of one's department before the larger administration. Few are more unsavory, however necessary, than demanding accountability on the part of those who are failing to fulfill their responsibilities.

    A second aspect of administrative work involves cultivating a vision for how the "unit" which one serves can best realize its particular mission. I suppose this is another way of saying that the work of administration must be more than "making sure the trains run on time." Effective administration requires a kind of leadership in which one trusts one's own vision, while also creating the conditions that encourage all departmental stakeholders to contribute to the articulation and execution of that shared vision. This is ecclesial synodality, as Pope Francis refers to it, in a departmental key.

    Finally, I want to affirm Ramon's sense that administration is more than a reluctant willingness to "do one's part" or "take one's turn" in accepting administrative responsibilities. Agreeing to administrative service within a theology/religious studies department/school must be a response to a real sense that one has a gift of administration; it must proceed from the conviction that pursuing this gift is central to the administrator's realization of their theological vocation.
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    • 08/24/2019 5:41 PM | Daniel Finn
      I agree heartily with Ramon, Christine, and Rick. Regular self-deprecating humor by academic administrators is a healthy rejection of hierarchical hubris, but it undermines the importance of the ministry of administration, essential for a well-functioning faculty.

      Theology students must make what we might call a "first-level" act of faith in education -- that their work as a student will redound to their benefit, and eventually that of the church and world. Faculty members must make a second-level act of faith that their work will help students and readers of their scholarship in their development. Administrators must make a third-level act of faith that their work will make it easier for the faculty to make their acts of faith that will in turn ultimately redound to the benefit of the students, and to the wider church and world.

      This last is a lonelier task, in that it requires setting aside what are usually fundamental loves for teaching and research, thus forgoing the usual recognitions that accompany those more visible endeavors.

      One finds oneself much less likely to complain about administrative mistakes made by others after a term or two as an administrator. This is natural. Humility comes more easily after making humbling errors. And those who have had little administrative experience are often (and ir-responsibly, one must say) the most dissatisfied with any administrative shortcoming.

      In his Rule, St. Benedict calls for those serving in the kitchen the previous week and in the coming week to stand before the brothers at the first gathering for prayer every Sunday morning. They ask for and receive a blessing. The deep wisdom behind this has always struck me. In one of the first actions on the first day of the week, the day celebrating Jesus’s resurrection, the community takes the least tasteful task for a community of men (each man once used to women doing all the work in the kitchen) and turns it into a time for a graceful encounter with the Lord. Perhaps we could think of a similar ritual within our academic departments when a new chair or dean begins work.
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