University News

Admins share love of Brown, civic duty

Few faculty members start careers intending to join administration, but embrace chance to lead

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why be an administrator in higher education? Those at the helm of the school work long hours — often six days a week — and may sacrifice teaching positions and research opportunities to fulfill administrative responsibilities.

Yet several Brown administrators, past and present, cited their commitment to the University and passion for working with students and faculty members as more than sufficient motivations to take jobs in administration.

Accidentally an administrator

Some administrators start their career at Brown and never leave. Dean of the College Maud Mandel “grew up at Brown,” she said. Her first job out of graduate school was as a visiting assistant professor of history. Starting as an assistant professor, she — like many of her colleagues — never imagined that she would end up in senior administration.

Upon entering academia, “all you’re worrying about is where you’re going to find a tenure job,” she said. In rising through the ranks of the tenure track, she acquired both the skills to be an effective administrator and a devotion to the University.

Mandel’s love of Brown is shared by her colleagues across the faculty and administration. Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, also started at Brown immediately upon graduating from Harvard. That was 1970. Forty-six years later, she has served as a professor, dean of the College, interim provost and interim president.

In 1987, Blumstein started “getting restless and was looking for something new,” she said. As a researcher, she found that she was often too tightly contained in her highly specialized field of study — linguistics — and wanted to experience a “broader perspective” by working with faculty, students and the curriculum. When the dean of the College position opened up, she applied.

Similarly, Rajiv Vohra, professor of economics, came to Brown straight out of graduate school in 1983. In 2004, after having served as department chair of economics for four years, Vohra was approached by then-Provost Robert Zimmer about assuming the position of dean of the faculty, he said.

“It was kind of accidental. I was quite happy doing my work as a faculty member,” Vohra said. But when former President Ruth Simmons announced a plan to increase the number of faculty members by 20 percent, Vohra became more enthusiastic about the opportunities he would be presented with on the job. He took the position and served until 2011.

While many officers find their footing in faculty before shifting to administration, Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy, got an unusual start as a junior employee in Brown’s Office of Student Life immediately after his college graduation. Like Mandel, Blumstein and Vohra, Carey has spent his entire career in higher education at Brown.

Carey also did not expect to end up as a lifer in administration, but the transition seemed natural given the activities he pursed as an undergraduate at Brown.

“From the beginning … I had an interest in the way things worked,” he said. As an undergraduate, Carey served on the Residential Council and was involved with issues surrounding student life.

After completing his law degree at Suffolk University, his short stint as a prosecutor proved to Carey that he was better-suited for higher education. Over the years, Carey has served in positions spanning six departments within the administration.

He added that his continuing interest in the Brown and Providence communities guides his work. “I really have a deep love for the campus,” Carey said.

Why stay?

Administrative work is not exactly glamorous. “Universities need faculty to run them. Not all faculty enjoy administrative work, so those who do, do a lot of it,” Mandel said.

While Mandel served as a full-time faculty member, she gradually amassed additional administrative responsibilities, finding the administrative work “rewarding.” As she gained more experience working in an administrative capacity, people started to think of her as an appropriate choice for higher administrative roles.

The assumption was not unwelcome.

“I’ve always found academic administration fascinating,” she said. “To be able to help extraordinary people do extraordinary things is an honor.”

President Christina Paxson P’19 assumed upon entering academia that she would spend her career teaching and doing research, she said, though she was never “wedded” to just that path. Like many of her colleagues, she entered administrative roles gradually, finding that she enjoyed spearheading new initiatives in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

There, Paxson was charged with putting together a new research center.

“That was really fun because it was like a startup,” she said. Conversely, her subsequent work as the chair of the economics department taught her how to “broker consensus” and manage a large staff with lots of “strong personalities.”

When she became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, her primary aim was to “bring together people who complement each other but are doing widely different things,” Paxson said. Drawing together 15 different departments in one school created a “miniature university” and prepared her to become a “University president and especially the president of Brown,” she added.

Administration, faculty or both?

Though Paxson values the “complementary” aspects of professorship, “what I get a lot of pleasure in is making sure the resources for teaching and research are available.”

Being an administrator expands the opportunity to engage with and support people, Mandel added.

Research “is very focused; sometimes it’s hard to get a sense that you’re really changing anything,” Blumstein said.

As dean of the College, however, Blumstein collaborated regularly with a wide range of campus community members, maintaining her research program as she served.

Blumstein said she is pleased that some of her initiatives, such as the Women in Science and Engineering mentoring program and the Mellon Minority Fellowship, have persisted through the decades.

Though some administrators attempt to balance their responsibilities with teaching, most tend to focus on their roles while in office. This sometimes leads to an “us versus them” mentality between faculty members and administrators.

“Unfortunately, that sentiment is not uncommon,” Vohra said. But having more faculty serve in the administration helps alleviate some tension and reduce the idea of University administration as a “corporate structure,” he added.

Given the number of Brown faculty members who have remained on campus for decades on end, it is “surprising that not more faculty serve in administrative roles,” Vohra added.

Instead, institutions often “silo people in their professional journeys as purely faculty or solely administration” rather than seeing the potential benefits of intersection, said Eric Estes, incoming vice president of campus life and student services. His current role at Oberlin as vice president and dean of students allows him to work in “multiple spheres” that engage with students, curriculum and issues of diversity and inclusion, he added.

Estes is drawn to administrative roles that help facilitate students’ college education in and outside of the classroom, he said, adding that “there’s a complex experience that includes both” academic and personal learning. He enjoys being able to focus on how administrators can empower students to make those connections more meaningful.

Blumstein agrees that it is unfair to categorize University personnel into “faculty” versus “administrator.”

“As soon as you leave, you become one of ‘them,’” she said. “People just don’t give enough slack.”

But, Blumstein added, the administration is always trying to bridge the gap between faculty members and administrators — “more so” than faculty members do.

“What’s important is to note that all of our administrators have been in the trenches. They know how hard it is to be faculty,” Blumstein said.

Opportunities beyond University Hall

After seven years at the helm of the College, Blumstein “came home” to her faculty position — but the experience was worth it, she said. “I had a wonderful time — in lots of ways, I felt I made a little bit of a difference at Brown.”

For the time being, Estes wants to remain in roles that further his connections with students and allow him to help enhance their college experiences, he said. His initial intentions of conducting research and teaching have blossomed into a more interdisciplinary approach to higher education.

Because Carey is not a tenured faculty member like many of his colleagues, returning to a professorship after his work in the Office of Planning and Policy is not an option, but “I imagine staying in higher ed,” he said.

Paxson “could imagine going back” to a faculty position and “teaching and conducting research for a while” after her tenure as president. Her plans are “very wide open” and depend on her future family life.

Working in the faculty is “valuable,” Paxson said, because over the course of many decades, “you can reinvent yourself” as a teacher, researcher, leader and innovator.

Whether faculty members remain to further pursue their research or become administrators, she said that most “don’t want to leave Brown.”

Indeed, for Carey, Vohra and Blumstein, at their 25th, 33rd and 46th anniversaries of coming to the University, leaving is not a consideration.

“It’s been a great place to be,” Vohra said.