June 26th, 2009

Advice for New College Administrators


Like many deans, Monte Finkelstein did not plan to be a leader. He began as a history instructor, gradually took on more leadership responsibilities, and came to his division deanship at Tallahassee Community College through his desire for challenges beyond the classroom and the retirement of the previous dean.

“I had been teaching for 21 or 22 years and had sworn never to get into administration. The history program chair wasn’t doing such a good job, so the dean said, ‘Monte, why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Fine, I’ll try it out for a while. It will give me something to else to do’ because I was kind of getting bored with the classroom,” Finkelstein says.

Soon after, the division dean unexpectedly announced his retirement, and Finkelstein made an uncharacteristic spur-of-the-moment decision to apply for the position. Looking back, his career to that point had prepared him somewhat for the challenges he faced; as program chair he worked with adjunct faculty members and often dealt with student issues. He also served as faculty senate chair, which enabled him to see the big picture beyond the history program.

Some things he was not prepared for, such as the change in the way that others viewed him. “When I opened my mouth as dean for the first time, it was like that E.F. Hutton commercial—everybody all of a sudden started looking at me as if anything I said was the gospel. I think that was the biggest challenge for me. People were looking to me for leadership, and it continues. I sit on a bunch of study groups, and the tendency is for others to look at me and listen to me closely,” Finkelstein says.

Another difficult issue has been managing the changing relationships with long-time colleagues. One of the advantages of moving from faculty member to dean is that Finkelstein knows everybody and the specific challenges that faculty members face on campus. On the other hand, some of the people he’s now leading were long-time friends and colleagues, even a former roommate.

Finkelstein offers the following advice for faculty members making the transition to administration.

  • Understand why you want to do it. Finkelstein took an administrative position because he wanted a new challenge. “I’ve heard others say that they got into administration because of the money. It’s not worth it because it can be a real headache. It can exhaust you,” Finkelstein says.
  • Understand your new role. There are different levels of deans, and the roles vary among institutions. It’s important to understand what the position entails and how it will change your daily activities. The transition from faculty member to administrator entails a shift in perspective, autonomy, and recognition.
  • Give yourself time to learn the job, and monitor your progress and satisfaction. When Finkelstein took the job in 2004, he decided to allow three years to learn the job and another two years to determine if he was doing an effective job and felt comfortable with it. He constantly asks, “Am I making progress?” “Do I feel better?” “Am I growing into my skin, or do I hate coming to work every morning?” “When the day comes where I say, I’m not satisfied anymore, I’ll walk away and probably go back to the classroom,” Finkelstein says.

Excerpted from The Transition from Faculty to Administrator, Academic Leader, December 2006.