Annus Horribilis

About nine years ago I began to feel a desire to lead a more responsible, dutiful life. This occurred, not coincidentally, at around the same time I began to entertain the idea of getting married. Why not make a commitment and live for something beyond my own intellectual amusement, I asked myself. How many books can I read? How many art films can I watch? How many lonely train rides through Europe? No, that life was over. Now, I decided, I would commit to marriage, raise my hand, put my name forward for nomination, give up the bicycle races, as W. H. Auden once put it, for the boring meeting and the flat ephemeral pamphlet.

So in addition to getting married and becoming a father, I eventually took on some new jobs at the college. I agreed to administer two academic programs. I also set out to create a core assessment project, implement an electronic portfolio, write an accreditation report and simultaneously serve on a curriculum committee during a catalog revision year and an ad hoc marketing committee seeking to refocus the college’s image. If all this were not enough, I also accepted the position of president of the parent board at my son’s daycare center. It was this last job, I believe, that sunk me.

Things went well for a few weeks. Then the center’s director quit just before Christmas, and the assistant director, a somewhat charmless woman, proved incapable of handling the interim. We also began to see that the previous director had not been much of a record keeper, which led to the state putting us on provisional licensing. Then there came an afternoon when I had to leave work to fire one of the employees, a young woman who was in an abusive relationship and sometimes failed to come to work on time. Oh, and then the center was flooded, after which I fielded angry calls from parents upset that they had to use a day of vacation time to watch their kid while the staff and I mopped up. Then there was also the whole "lost child incident," which resulted in another firing and registered letters arriving at my home from the terminated employee’s law firm.

Meanwhile at work I was given some new responsibilities: create individual freshmen class schedules out of an existing master schedule subject to change, and also see that 75 percent of these freshmen were put into 15 cohorts sharing three courses whose curriculum was linked in an as yet unforeseen way by faculty who had not consented to this. The scheduling complexities were nightmarish; the negotiation of personalities, each with his or her own historical grievances and quirks, began to give me an ulcer.

But, okay I told myself, I can deal with this. Or at least I thought so until one morning driving to work I found myself gnashing my teeth and cursing one of the sweetest, most decent and lovely people I know. Something she had done had vexed me, and here I was ripping out my gentle colleague's entrails in my imagination. That’s when I knew I was not made for this kind of work.

Every tragedy, so the theory goes, must have its recognition scene. Oedipus must become aware that he’s got issues with his mother; Othello must discover that Desdemona’s been a brick. And I, once again, had to realize how wildly wrong I can be: I do not have what it takes to be an administrator. Quite frankly, I was a mess, anxious all the time and I hated coming to work. So I made an appointment to see the provost and told him how miserable I was. I begged him to please, please, please let me go back into a class room. He took one look at me and agreed.

It's commonplace for faculty to see administrators as people who don't get it and are forever covering their backsides and refusing to take a clear stand. I know I have been guilty of this stereotype. Since my brief sojourn in administrative-land, however, I have a lot more respect for good administrators. I cannot do what they do, so my motto now is that the good ones are worth every cent you pay them.


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