Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question from Skip asks (paraphrased; click through for the original):
Do ecologists and evolutionary biologists make the best administrators, perhaps because they’re used to many moving parts and looking at the big picture?
In seriousness, I don’t think any aspect of field-specific research expertise or experience correlates with administrative ability. I think the attributes needed to be a good college or university administrator are different from the attributes of typical profs, whether they’re EEB profs or profs from some other field (Stephen Heard is good on this). For instance, by all accounts Jane Lubchenco was an effective head of NOAA, and before that she was an outstanding ecological researcher. But I don’t think the former was mainly because of the latter.
I do think it’s often helpful for research administrators to have been outstanding researchers, teaching administrators to have been excellent teachers, field station directors to have been heavy field station users, etc. But being an outstanding researcher is neither necessary nor sufficient for being an outstanding administrator, even for research administration. Dick Southwood was an ecologist and outstandingly successful administrator, even though he himself wasn’t an outstanding researcher. At least, not nearly as outstanding as many of the researchers he nurtured through his administrative decisions. As a second example, I myself am an ecologist, and I like to think I’m a good though not outstanding researcher (YMMV). But I’d be a lousy department chair at my uni, and an even worse dean.
Related: Brian’s old post on deans as hen breeders.
It would be nice if it were true. But in my experience teaching, research and administrative ability are all orthogonal. The correlation between good or bad on any one of those axes is close to zero with any other axis.
I do like your point about systems and complexity thinking. I think the reason I have enjoyed administration at some points in my career is the same reason I enjoy ecology – thinking about complex system. But in my experience success in administration is more about communication, relationships, transparency and psychology (getting in the heads of what motivates people). Systems thinking might help you figure out which person or department is getting in the way, but you still have to win them over to change.
But the non-correlation between the three axes hasn’t stopped people from saying “oh she was such a great researcher, lets promote her to dean”. She might be a good dean. But she might not. You have no prior information from the fact she was a good researcher. I doubt many people will want to share them (I don’t), but I can think of people who were excellent researchers who crashed and burned in administration. And like Jeremy, I can think of some very good administrators who were not especially strong researchers.