Mob Life: On (Not) Working with a Bad Administrator

How do we handle the bad apple?
By M. Stewart Lewis

Learning the characteristics that make a good university administrator and leader takes only a few years of postgraduate work. Upon arrival to a new academic post, the observant quickly learn which administrators have answers when there is chaos and a firm, fair hand when difficult decisions must be made. Those of us engaged in the work of the college or university know very well what makes a good administrator at any level—we’ve been mentored by them, given interesting professional opportunities, and had our causes, when they are reasonable, championed for the sake of the department, college, or university. Good administrators and mentors take an interest in those they work with, even when the interest seems unnecessary, not for personal gain, but for the good of a larger mission. Good administrators will say, “You’re welcome,” but they will never expect a “thank you.” We thank administrators with higher salaries, significant course releases, and twelve-month contracts. Most deserve these rewards because they spend long hours advocating for faculty and programs, improving the material conditions of our work, and finding resources where there are none, all while allowing faculty and lower-level administrators to do their jobs with as much autonomy as possible.

One rarely hears of the accomplishments of good administrators because they are busy supporting the work they oversee and staying in the background. The bad administrators we hear from all the time; no work gets done that does not advance their personal gain.

Good administrators delegate tasks, give credit to others where it’s due, and promote the good work of dedicated faculty members. They lead teams, task forces, and committees and, in the end, see these tasks as a team effort, even when the bulk of the responsibility falls on their own shoulders. Good administrators also spread important ongoing professionalization opportunities around to junior faculty.

Just as there are bad, irresponsible teachers in the university, there are bad administrators. How many is hard to say; a vast minority, I’m sure. But let us pinpoint a particular kind. Those of us who are seasoned and have worked with one need to remind ourselves how not to behave when placed in a position of power. Those who have not, particularly junior faculty enduring the pretenure pressure cooker, may learn to channel their professional energies in rewarding and profitable directions even while caught in a potentially negative and damaging situation.

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I am not talking about the kind of bad administrator who will, with time, self-destruct. Most of us are aware of that kind of administrator, and the “monolithic attitudes and behaviors that will undermine any possibility of a healthy community” are well documented in Donald Hall’s fantastic May 2011 essay in College English, “How to Destroy an English Department.” Most know to wait out this bad administrator’s reign just as one does a bad houseguest. He may take a number of programs and good people with him when he falls, but the reality of his eventual demise is clear.

No, the kind of administrator I am talking about is far more enduring, shrewd, and, most of all, subtle with destruction. She or he does the job very well and keeps the right people pleased. The problem lies in the fact that keeping people pleased involves profiting from the hard work of those below. Doing one’s job (getting the job done) and knowing one’s job (understanding and working within a particular academic culture) are not always one and the same, and so this administrator is a crafty ideologue who understands how power systems function and how to make them operate favorably. He or she knows exactly who can be pushed around. There are plenty of reasons to envy this bad administrator who seems able to mold the world to her or his vision.

Of course, nobody in academia or any other business should assign themselves any work that does not have an eventual payoff. Faculty need to work for tenure and promotion and should desire increased power and rank as they build careers, ethically and responsibly. Monetary payoff is a welcome reward, but rewards can also come with recognition for excellent research or teaching or for proving oneself a trustworthy leader and respected colleague. By definition, administrators—from lower-level academic program coordinators to department chairs to deans to vice presidents for academic affairs—need the work conducted at lower levels to succeed. Administrators are the ones leading the teams and reporting the successes, challenges, and failures to the next echelon and, in some cases, the public. What separates the good from the bad is how the work and energies of others are used, respected, and rewarded for the good of institutional mission.

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The best department chair I ever worked for was clearly committed to “bringing up” promising junior faculty members. She supported high-quality teaching, research, and service for the greater good of the department, college, and university. She treated faculty, students, and support staff with the greatest respect, and because of her commitment, people wanted to work for her. Good to her word, she never promised anything she could not deliver, and she knew how to say “no” when necessary. Most important, she saw her role as an administrator as a catalyst for making visions and missions tangible realities, and she was committed to serving the history and mission of the university, not some “greater” vision. If a faculty member brought a technology grant to the table, for example, she would write letters of support and help bring an effective team together to complete the proposal. She would not decide to appoint herself project director and take individual credit; rather, she would give the team and the department due credit, autonomy, and support while fulfilling the mandates of the project.

This good administrator knew the very position she held was her due credit. At the helm of the department, she received recognition for leading the department and for all its various achievements. She knew she could afford to spread the wealth around, so she supported faculty members in their individual projects. I knew perfectly well credit would be taken in higher offices; that is how the system works. But she allowed me to take credit at the departmental level, where a junior faculty member’s energies should be focused.

The worst administrator under whom I ever worked was the polar opposite of the above. Where projects and responsibilities were shared under my my department chair, this bad administrator coopted grants, task forces, and entire programs. She asserted herself as head of committees and programs. She micromanaged programs that fell outside her responsibilities. She looked for ways to pay herself more and always profited from others’ work. In the name of “getting the job done,” she took the ideas of others and made them her own.

Faculty members and lower-level administrators could not hope to compete with this administrator’s resources—time out of the classroom and other academic “riches”—so they became hamstrung in their efforts to complete projects before hard-earned responsibilities were usurped. Worst of all, like many of the fictional everyday psychopaths our larger culture has so much interest in, her purposes were always at least tripartite. Any seemingly simple task was part of the route to her own glory, and people were seen as being “in the way” rather than opportunities for the types of rich collaboration that are a historical mainstay of university work.

The payoff of her position was not enough. She inserted herself into hiring committees that were beyond the scope of her position and appointed herself head of projects that were brought to the table by well-meaning faculty members looking to improve programs and working conditions. Nothing could get done or be said, developed, or questioned without this person at the helm.

*     *     *

There is, unfortunately, no embarrassing, drunken moment of disaster for this kind of bad administrator, nor is there really any sensible way to stop such an administrator from blatantly profiting from the work of others. One has to hand it to him—he is simply too smart for all that. After all, he is just “getting the job done” and pleasing the right people. You’re an insignificant pebble in the path on the way to some greater goal one thousand miles down the road.

There is nothing one can do, except for exactly that—nothing. Remember that if the bad administrator is profiting from your work, she needs your work. She needs you and your insight, training, and expertise. As much as is politically possible, decline “opportunities” to work with this person. Even junior faculty members have the right to accept and decline projects as they work for tenure and promotion and craft a professional persona. The truly bad administrator has a serious blind spot: soon, more than a few gifted faculty members will be placing their energies elsewhere. And the best part of this doing nothing? Neither the bad administrator nor his cronies can do anything to you. Good administrators and fair and committed senior faculty members know exactly what is happening, and you are supported in politely declining the bad administrator’s offers so you can focus on your publication record, service elsewhere, and course development. You do not need any help or advice, thank you.

Indeed, the bad administrator has done you a great favor. While she is running around sweating about how she can possibly keep up appearances, you are building a solid career that will serve you in your current university position and the next. Get there—to your destination—by working with ethically minded colleagues and administrators. Demonstrate at every step that you are dedicated to whatever team projects you pursue. Show that you will also one day be that kind of leader, a good administrator who works within and understands the complexities of specific academic cultures. Show that you will always do more than simply “get the job done” at all costs.

The work of colleges and universities is built on deeply collaborative and communicative traditions. Much has now been said about the new business and corporate models of higher education; if, because of a loss of democratic power at the faculty ranks, bad administrators cannot be removed, we must realize that we also have power to choose how to direct our energies.

Corporate-psychopath lore abounds in our culture, but we must not for a second believe that this is the “new normal.” As a lower-level administrative coordinator and junior faculty member, I would much rather see what a vision can become through collaboration and communication than force my vision on others, even when this means that I do not complete the job in the way I planned. At any level, as a worker in the corporate university, it is crucial that we behave as part of the larger structure of the institution, not the structure. We must model this ethos at every step; our actions do make a difference. We must practice what I have come to call organic professionalism, where our collaborative efforts serve the larger whole. I refuse to simply “get the job done,” and I expect the same from the best administrators.

M. Stewart Lewis is assistant professor of English and coordinator of first-year writing at Savannah State University. His research interests include the organic metaphor of writing since the nineteenth-century, writing across the curriculum, and professionalism in the university. He is currently working on a book entitled Organic Professionalism.


Excellent article and good advice.

Great article. What do you do when the person that you tried to step away from gaslights you on your annual evaluation? Bad administrators not only take credit for other people's work, they may also selectively employ faculty handbook guidelines and evaluation criteria. Stepping away, however tactfully you do it, may become the one and only criteria used for performance evaluation. All other service may be dismissed.

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