The below comes from my colleague Philip Cohen. (Spanier was president of Penn State from 1995 until yesterday):
Excerpts from Graham Spanier’s article: “Higher Education Administration: One Sociologist’s View,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 295-300, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1389050.
I truly believe that it is something like athletic accomplishment. To be really good you must want to do it, be willing to make the sacrifice, put in the hours of preparation, and stick with it against sometimes great odds. But apart from such commitment, only some will move to positions at the highest level, because some basic personal characteristics must be there to begin with and they are not easily learned. The most dedicated athlete may simply not make the cut. Similarly, some faculty just aren’t cut out for administration, despite a keen interest in it.
Continued involvement in the profession doesn’t have to focus on the collection of original data. It can entail involvement in association leadership positions, an occasional book review, an essay of the sort that an “elder statesman” might write, and teaching a course from time to time. Such involvement is also good insurance. Administrative positions have always been vulnerable, and are increasingly so. Academics must preserve the opportunity to return to a productive role as a faculty member, not just the right to return to a tenured position.
My plea is not that administrators should have thick skins. Rather, one needs perspective. One must be prepared to feel bad, be able to survive it, and then bounce back quickly-very quickly-and get everything back on track. If you can’t handle the occasional attack, don’t subject yourself to it. (On the other hand, if this happens a lot you are probably doing something wrong and shouldn’t be in the job in the first place.)
Don’t accept an administrative position unless you are prepared to make every decision in relation to what is best for the institution. You should have your own agenda, of course, but every decision must be weighed in relation to the good of the university. The easy decision is often one that is not best for the department, college, or university in the long run. If you can’t make that tough decision, don’t take the job.
Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution. Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle.