Ask us anything: do EEB profs make the best administrators?

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?

Jeremy’s answer:

I sure hope so! 🙂

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.

Brian’s answer:

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.

8 thoughts on “Ask us anything: do EEB profs make the best administrators?

  1. Just what are the attributes of a ‘strong researcher’? Very interested to have y’alls take on this. Oddly, I have not really asked myself this before. This has got me thinking… just another DE inspired way to get distracted from what I should be doing!

    • By attributes, do you mean evidence of research strength (e.g., publications, grants received, awards received, etc.)? Or do you mean things like habits of thought, technical skills, personality traits, etc.?

      In my answer, I was mostly thinking of the former. My thinking was that being a strong researcher in the sense of having published lots of good papers, gotten lots of grants, etc., gives you lots of relevant experience for a research admin job. Your job as a research administrator (associate dean of research or whatever) is to create an institutional environment in which other people can publish papers, get grants, etc.

  2. An interesting (to me) observation, which I first heard from Vaughn Cooper over beer, is that EEB professors are disproportionately likely to chose to step into research administration/leadership compared to other disciplines. Not totally sure that’s true (nor was Vaughn) but there are some striking examples. If it’s true, interesting to ask why. You rule out our subject expertise in your post, but I think there might be something in the systems thinking angle. Could it be that EEB professors (tend to) have people skills that go with our generally collaborative nature? If I recall correctly, Vaughn attributed it to our interest in altruism.

    • My n=1 experience: Here at Calgary it does *seem* like EEB profs are disproportionately likely to take on departmental or faculty admin positions. I’m not clear on the extent to which that reflects people volunteering for admin duties, vs. people saying yes when asked. And yeah, like you and Vaughn I’m not totally sure it’s even true.

  3. Perhaps the question should be phrased differently – what are the ideal qualities and skills of an administrator, and does ecology/evolutionary biology/our professional societies nurture and develop those skills/qualities? I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about the kinds of skills and qualities we need in these positions rather than whether or not people moving into them are “good ecologists/researchers.” Do we need them to just be “good ecologists/researchers” to be, say, the dean? I doubt it. I think we mostly need them to understand what it takes to be a good ecologist/researcher/payroll person/teacher/advisor/student/etc. in order to create an environment that enables people to operate at their highest level in their niche in the university system. We all want to be understood, appreciated, and supported by our administration, and that takes some understanding of what we do; however it also takes a lot of other skill sets that I’m not sure we’re always working to develop.

    • Good question. I only have two boring obvious answers–you make good administrators by giving people chances to gain experience and work their way up (e.g., you start by chairing departmental committees). And you send them to training workshops. For instance, here at Calgary all new heads of department have to go on a training course about how to run a department.

      I have no idea if there’s a better way; would be interested to hear comments on this.

    • This raises the larger question (as with teaching and research) of how much administrative skills can be taught/trained/mentored and how much there is just an innate ability. I’m sure there is a bit of both for all 3.

  4. There is a quality that can make any person successful at whatever they do: the ability to accurately assess what the job requires and to implement it. If you’re a top researcher, you’ve already done that once so its reasonable to think you might do it again as an administrator.

    The big diff between being a researcher and an admin is controlling your own destiny. When you start as a researcher you’re setting up your own business from scratch. You have no legacy issues and you can choose your team. As an admin you take a job with initiatives in progress, people in place, procedures in place and expectations of operational style based on your predecessor. You might land in a great situation where your predecessor’s initiatives are just starting to bear fruit, or in a mess where h/her mistakes are emerging.

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