October 27th, 2017

How an Academic Leader Changes a Lightbulb

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delegation of duties

The very first house I bought was a condominium, and the purchase price included 10 hours of service by an electrician. The idea was that each owner would want to customize the unit with special lighting fixtures and built-in appliances, and covering the cost of the electrician was intended to be a selling point. I was just starting out as a college professor and far too strapped for cash to afford luxuries like special fixtures and appliances, so my 10 hours of included service lasted me for several years. Each time one of my unit’s floodlights would burn out, rather than climbing up on a ladder myself, I’d call the manager’s office and have the electrician come do it for me. After having done so four or five times, I heard the manager sigh and say, “You know, an electrician is certainly capable of changing lightbulbs; it just seems to me that you’re wasting a perfectly fine electrician by having him do so.”

I’ve thought of that statement many times over the years as I’ve seen well-paid and highly trained administrators assigned duties at colleges and universities that are not the best uses of their talents. With the expansion of requirements for accreditation, program review, assessment, strategic planning, and other activities common in higher education today, we see a growing number of vice provosts, associate deans, and assistant department chairs assigned tasks that don’t take full advantage of their capabilities and training. To paraphrase my condo manager, a professor with a PhD in medieval history is certainly capable of checking boxes on a dozen forms to indicate that faculty members are appropriately qualified to teach the courses they’re assigned. It just seems like a waste of a perfectly fine scholar to have that person do so.

The leader’s obligation

One of the key requirements of effective academic leadership is responsible delegation of duties. If we assign others only the tasks that we ourselves find unpleasant, we’re just evading our obligations, not developing or empowering the staff. If we occupy the time of faculty and administrators with activities that don’t require their level of training or expertise, we’re not acting as good stewards of our resources. Responsible delegation requires that we consider three factors in assigning work to others:

  1. Is it the right task?
  2. Is it the right person?
  3. Is it the right time?

The right task means that we’re not merely offloading one of our duties to someone else so that we can disclaim responsibility. And it also means that we’re not pawning off an assignment we really should complete ourselves simply because we don’t like doing it. Assigning the right task to someone means that the activity involved can properly be handled by someone who reports to us, even though we will remain fully accountable for the result.

The right person means someone who is not only capable of performing the task but also is in the right job for the task. Transferring information from an old form to a new form usually doesn’t require an advanced degree, even if the information concerns an advanced degree program. At the same time, it means not assigning a student worker tasks that would give the student access to information only the faculty and administration should have.

Finding the right time doesn’t mean identifying the right time for you to delegate a responsibility, but the right time for the person who is being asked to take on the task. In the short term, academic leaders should avoid assigning responsibilities to faculty members just before final exams need to be graded or when other significant work is pressing. In the longer term, academic leaders should consider whether the task being assigned could advance or hinder the person’s professional development. An untenured assistant professor who has to amass a research record in only a few years wouldn’t be an appropriate choice for a time-consuming administrative task, no matter how capable he or she may be of completing it. An associate professor who might make a good chair or dean someday may well be a better fit for the assignment, particularly if the task is one that teaches skills or provides networking opportunities that could further that person’s career.

Just because the handyman is handy …

In a way, I wasn’t really wrong to ask the electrician to change the lightbulbs for me. I was owed a certain number of hours of work, had no other need for his services, and disliked the idea of climbing up on a tall ladder. I suspect that, in our administrative roles, we justify much of our delegation in the same way: the person is under contract, I need this task done, and I don’t want to do it myself. The danger really comes when one day you really need an electrician but you’ve wasted all his time on minor tasks, or when there are decisions to be made that really do require a PhD and years of experience in higher education but you’ve tied up the faculty and staff with unproductive assignments. It’s not always the best choice to ask the handyman to do something just because he’s handy or to delegate work to the faculty or staff just because they report to us.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLA: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from “Wasting a Perfectly Fine Electrician” Academic Leader 29.5 (2013) 1,3. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.