Jayne Drake, NACADA Vice President
We come at this business of being Advising Administrators from any number of backgrounds and levels of preparation. Some of us worked our way up the ranks from professional advisors to assistant or associate directors; some of us were faculty members with advising responsibilities who eventually moved into directorships or deanships; others of us were already academic administrators—Assistant, Associate, or Vice Deans—who were compelled to “fix” the center in our care. No matter what our titles, areas of responsibility, level of experience, or how we got there, chances are we were pretty well naïve about the challenges ahead of us. Sure, we all worked with students, and we understood that we are in the business of ensuring their success—both within and beyond the academy. We probably read the books on student development theory, leadership skills, organizational structures, motivation theory, and even the one on not sweating the small stuff. Yet chances are that no amount of books (self-help and otherwise) and no amount of years under our belts in working with students could have prepared us for the realities of life in the director’s or dean’s chair.
We walked in the door eyes shining with the promise of grand transformations, new initiatives undertaken, student services revamped, data collection and recordkeeping processes refined, professional development opportunities expanded, and a staff that lives in harmony and good will. What happened? It didn’t take long for our best laid intentions of transforming academic advising to be supplanted by realities, exigencies, and constraints.
The advising administrator’s life is one of long hours, lunches wolfed down at the desk, countless questions from advisors, phones jangling, students with issues, performance development plans, reports to write, staff to train, budget shortfalls— deans and provosts want it when? —all in a day’s work. I offer the following observations directly to new administrators who have stepped into the fray with heavy metal body armor adjusted, swords drawn, and olive branches waving.
Observation 1: You assumed that by sheer force of will and grinding hours you could single-handedly transform academic advising. This assumption is your first mistake.
Observation 2: Not everyone thinks your plans are as brilliant as you think they are. If you want to effect change, you have to mount your most compelling arguments, gather the most thorough data to underpin your plans, develop carefully crafted proposals, present your plans to your staff and relevant administrators, and then.... wait. (In some matters, especially those requiring a major institutional culture shift, change may not happen in your lifetime.)
Observation 3: You must, nevertheless, embrace change. Even if, for some remote reason, you signed on to your position to maintain the status quo, the fact is that—hide from it as you might—change finds you. Allow yourself to be swept along and transformed by it.
Observation 4: The ground beneath the feet of advising administrators is always moving, shifting, and rattling the walls. You have to be steady enough to maintain equilibrium through the vagaries of your work day. No matter what plans you may have as you walk in the door, they are out the window within ten minutes of sitting at your desk.
Observation 5: Faculty governance is a wonderful thing. The very moment you, the staff, and students manage to get the curriculum straight—the majors, minors, and program requirements—faculty tweak them, and, in extreme cases, throw them out altogether. Refer to Observation 4.
Observation 6: A fire extinguisher is your best fashion forward accessory. Wear it daily, ideally attached to your belt for easy accessibility. You will need it to snuff out fires of all descriptions and in all corners of your center. In fact, you may also want to keep a supply of extinguishers handy in the bottom drawer of your desk since annoying moments of spontaneous combustion can occur at any moment and disrupt the general hum.
Observation 7: Always wear your belt loose because a state legislator or college president or provost may demand that you tighten it. Your operating budget will frequently be vulnerable to such demands, so you will need to make sure you are prepared to adjust.
Observation 8: Avoid wearing rose-colored glasses. Most likely they will not match your outfit, and they most assuredly will distort the reality around you, the most pernicious of which is office intrigue. Do not allow yourself to be sucked into it or to be lulled into believing that you have the most compatible staff this side of Oz.
Observation 9: Always play by the institutional work rules. Get to know them and apply them equitably across the board. Parents learn early on to treat all of their children the same without favoritism or preferential treatment. Anything less than this and you run the risk of your staff sinking into division, discord, and disarray. Opportunities for harmony evaporate because you’re too busy using your fire extinguisher to put out fires related to personnel issues. Refer to Observation 6.
Observation 10: “No” is not a four-letter word, and, although others may dispute this fact, especially students, you simply must learn to say it with conviction and sincerity. You may want to practice saying it at the bathroom mirror until you are comfortable with how it sounds and looks coming out of your mouth.
Observation 11: Work on building upper body strength. You will need it to push mountains of paper, including such weighty matters as yearly reports, job descriptions, assessment plans, policies and procedures, forms for everything, not to mention the emails that press upon you every day. Therefore, including special exercises to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome is also advisable.
Observation 12: Love your IT people and learn to exploit their vulnerabilities, examples of which frequently include dark chocolate and pizza, and even homemade brownies with walnuts when things become particularly dire.
Observation 13: When academic advising works well, the rest of the college works well. Let it be the toughest job you have ever loved.
Observation 14: If you do not now have a sense of humor, buy/bye now.
Jayne K. Drake
Vice Dean for Academic Affairs
Director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program
College of Liberal Arts
Cite this article using APA style as: Drake, J. (2008, December). If we only knew then: Observations on life as an advising administrator. Academic Advising Today, 31
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