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Administration as Activism

Administration as Activism

The suit. The paper-pusher. The gatekeeper. Few people go into administrative work to become one of these, nonetheless many of us end up living up to these management stereotypes. Sometimes this is the result of a deliberate effort to maintain a sense of control and prestige. More often than not it appears to be the belief that it is better to play it safe rather than take a chance at change and failure. Most times this is simply the way administration has been modeled for us, and we are following suit, doing what seems to have worked in the past. Therefore, at first glance, it may seem odd, even antithetical, to view administration as activism. However, upon closer examination of how effective leaders approach their work, the relationship between effective management — particularly in higher education — and acting in pursuit of a goal larger than oneself
becomes clear.
Most effective leaders have a passion and sense of direction that is contagious. They tell a story congruent with who they are, a story that is compelling not only because it is authentic but also because it has been informed by other members of the organization and promises something new that would benefit everyone. African Americans have a long tradition of “lifting as we climb,” which influences us in both our personal and professional lives. There are many historical examples of university administrators who were motivated in their work by the desire to bring about positive social change. Take for example Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and more recently, administrators such as Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, the current president of Spelman College in Atlanta.
When tracing the career paths of many of my colleagues in administration, I can understand why considering themselves activists in their current roles might be a stretch. The traditional climb up the professional ladder can be one of competitiveness and self-promotion. The tenure and promotion process at most institutions rewards individuals who excel at the solitary pursuit of publications and research. Although some, usually minimal, credit is given for good teaching, it too is usually done in isolation from colleagues. Yet, although these activities are at the center of the academic exercise, they don’t usually by themselves result in organizational or social change.  
 In contrast, I chose to be a career administrator for the specific purpose of furthering my small “a” activist agenda. On the good days, I see it as a way to craft an educational experience that compels future leaders to act in pursuit of the common good. It is also an opportunity to model on campus, or within a division, the type of community I would like to exist on a larger scale, one with authentic inclusion and equity at its core. All of us on campus — faculty, staff, student or administrator — have a unique opportunity to make a difference in our world. We are the creators and disseminators of new knowledge.
On the bad days, I try to keep in mind some good advice that rings true time and time again: don’t take it personally and acknowledge small victories. Most of all, I keep in mind the words of noted educator Paulo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful not to be neutral.” So take off the suit, put the paper in the recycle bin, and open the gates wide. Who knows what positive change might wonder in. 

— Dr. Kimberly Barrett is associate vice chancellor for student
development and diversity at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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