Christopher LaBarbera -- Community College Administration

Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences, Massachusetts Bay Community College

At what stage of your academic career did you start thinking about leaving philosophy?

I was in a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college and frankly, I absolutely loved it. They needed someone who would do biomedical ethics, someone who was well-versed in the philosophy core curriculum, and all of that I was comfortable with. They also let me branch out into my own interests. The department had a feeling of, “who you are, we support that.” I was part of a department of humanities and had a variety of colleagues across English, literature, communications, women’s studies. It was wonderful, but it was also a smaller place with respect to philosophy. I had only one colleague, albeit someone I worked well with, who had a PhD in philosophy.

After my third or fourth year, I said to myself, let me just look into the market. I wasn’t part of a philosophy department or at a research institution, so I could see professional growth in my job might be slow and that I might have more opportunities elsewhere. Four years into my teaching, I applied for both academic administration and philosophy positions. I was a finalist for two positions and was offered an assistant deanship. I remember sitting with the dean at the college I was teaching at and telling her I had that offer on the table. She was pragmatic about it. She said, you’re extremely well-respected, you’re well regarded across the curriculum, but I can’t offer anything to retain you—I think that was budgetary—and I’m glad to see you’re interested in that work. She alluded to administration being a different kind of work, one with less freedom, but I was excited to see what the administrative side of higher education was like. So after four years as a full-time, tenure-track faculty member, I took a job as an assistant dean.

Tell me something about your first administrative job. What was interesting about it? Talk me through the trajectory of someone who is leaving philosophy and getting started in administration.

I was hired as an assistant dean at Southern New Hampshire University, working with the dean who had been there for several years. I was also working for the College of Online and Continuing Education, so I was very close to eLearning in this job. This position gave me experience with faculty evaluation, with fielding student concerns, and with aspects of management embedded in any college’s business practice, like course scheduling and enrollment management. It was a steep learning curve for me. The college was growing quickly, so there was a lot of change. It was, in many ways, the opposite of what I’d experienced as faculty, but my experience as faculty helped me manage many of the academic concerns.

Did you have any administrative experience before you were hired as a full-time administrator?

My department chair had asked me if I was interested in becoming the department coordinator—this was a position assisting the chair. I had also done course observations as part of the departmental review. The fielding of student concerns as an administrator was new to me. One of the big changes with going into an administrative position is working with classroom management issues and providing solutions.

When I took the assistant deanship, the college was most concerned with assessment and with consistency. So getting a sense of the institutional culture and character was also something that I learned. And that segued to where I am now.

When I saw an advertisement for a dean of humanities I thought, my doctorate is in philosophy, I have the positional experience as assistant dean, and this would be a really exciting next step. I thought about who I am as a scholar, and as a teacher. When you have more of a sense of your own academic identity and your own skill set, you can get a sense of where you are needed. And I was frankly shocked when they hired me because I probably didn’t have as much administrative experience as some applicants, but I think I had a strong base of academic knowledge, was transparent, and was passionate about my work—all of that mattered in the end. One of the big differences in my current job is that I do work in my disciplinary area. I’m connected to faculty doing work in the liberal arts, and that matters to me. Change is still there, as with any faculty governance process, but at my current institution, it’s a thoughtful, democratic process geared at long-term goals.

Can you describe some of the projects you work on, or what your day is like?

The job of a dean is extremely varied. Can I tell you what I did today? One thing I should mention is that I work for a community college. We’re open access, so any student with a high school diploma or GED can take classes. We have students from all walks of life and with diverse academic backgrounds. First thing this morning I had to deal with a student who was confronting a faculty member. It ended up being a behavioral issue that was health-related. We got the student the medical help the student needed. Then I worked with the provost and the other dean for two hours on strategic academic planning for the institution, reviewing the Division’s enrollment and evaluating programmatic success in my area. We’re writing an academic master plan in response to our NEASC accreditation study, which we just completed. At noon, I returned to my office to speak to a student who had requested a meeting to talk about tutoring services. At 1 o’clock, I had a meeting with a new HR generalist who had been hired—that went until 2. At 2 o’clock, I went to a meeting on academic standards, which is one of our governance committees. At 3 pm, we had a full staff faculty meeting until 5. Then I had a course observation for a Beginning French class from 6-7. So I’ve been working today from about 9am until 7pm.

Is that typical?

Right now at my institution it is. During the middle of the week, many of my days are like this. Deans have to be agile, and ready for any task. I work with students, with faculty, I work on strategic matters related to the college as a whole, and occasionally I attend external events. Community colleges have limited resources and expect more out of fewer employees. So being an administrator at this level requires embracing the institution’s character, both adapting to it and defining it.

What’s it like to interact with faculty when you’re not faculty? What’s the relationship like?

Overall I have a very good rapport with the faculty. I value their expertise and count on them to bring issues to my attention. I spend a good deal of time listening. As a result, they respect my opinions. We don’t always agree, and that’s OK. If I didn’t have the experience as an academic, it may have been harder. I might not have had the confidence to field the concerns that are related to instruction or assessment. It’s funny, but sometimes, I think of myself as a sort of filter or funnel; I listen to an issue and then I have to think about how to implement needs within the college’s systems, or how to consult to resolve an issue. Not every item will be an action item, and I also think about what faculty and students want as it relates to what is practical for the college. Sometimes a good idea will come to fruition, and sometimes it’s just not the right timing. Open and clear communication is key when you are working with faculty and academic staff.

Can you map out academic administration: what the branches are, which ones philosophers should really look at, where are they most likely to find satisfaction?

Academic institutions have many distinct offices: there is the core academic component (faculty and academic staff), student development, financials, human resources, student advising, tutoring/support services, facilities operations, and at a residential campus, residential life. There are also often offices for accreditation and institutional research, grants development, alumni relations, advancement/donor relations, eLearning, community education and teaching or research development. There can be multiple entry points for an academic seeking administrative roles, and often it depends on one’s personal strengths and interest.

Philosophers spend a lot of time in cognition, ruminating about possible positions, and doing analysis. We spend our time developing nuanced arguments. We think actively and critically. Philosophers are good at posing questions and at thinking of multiple sides of issues. These traits could make one well suited to being an academic dean or provost (and, eventually, to being a vice president or president). There are other skills required: for example, the ability to understand and deal with pragmatic factors like facilities and funding, the political savvy needed when working with faculty, donors, politicians (in particular, for a public institution) and trustees—these are additional skills that I think philosophers can develop. I would say that those skills are key for someone in the position of supervising academic programs.

I don’t know that all philosophers would be happy doing all aspects of academic administration. There’s a trend now toward data-driven analysis and universal assessment design nowadays. Online education is also very popular. Philosophers would have to embrace some changes in the campus culture, or ebbs and flows in terms of what accreditors are looking for. I do think many philosophers might be naturally good at strategic planning.

How about student advising? Does a dean of students mostly deal with students who are in trouble?

Student advising is a part of any dean’s role, and becoming a dean of students is, I think, a very good pathway for someone interested in student advising. It’s a position in which a philosopher could do really good service. The dean of students deals with numerous circumstances, both good and bad. You do have to deal with code of conduct, plagiarism, and students who might need counseling. If you’re on a residential campus, you may have to deal with residential concerns, like alcoholism and partying. But it’s not just that. The dean also does programming, like support during midterms and organizing various events; the dean might oversee clubs, athletics, or other support services. If someone has an affinity for student life, this position would be a good fit.

For someone thinking that administration appeals to them, what’s a good entry point? How do you get started?

You get started by looking carefully at your CV. A CV for an academic administration job is not the CV that you use to get your philosophy job. It can feature academic responsibilities, but you’ll want to talk more about the kind of coordinating work you did, and if you started initiatives, what those were. Academics often think of the CV as a comprehensive history—I’ve worked with faculty whose 70-page CVs document their numerous conference presentations, academic affiliations, and published articles in various languages. For most administration jobs, they’re going to want to see a 2-to-4 page resume: short and sweet, focused on explaining what do you do, what your background is, what kinds of administrative experience you have, what skills you have. Highlighting administrative work like student advising, creating new classes, or creating a major or minor program can show ingenuity and innovation. Take a hard look at your CV and then look for positions that are appealing. I think assistant/associate deanships can be a good start.

Is an assistant deanship an entry-level position for a philosopher?

Assistant or associate dean, director or associate director, would be wonderful entry-level positions for someone with a PhD in philosophy. I want to add that I think it would be very tough to become a dean without having taught at a college for at least 4-5 years. Teaching experience is something that many schools will look for. You need to speak to faculty who are teaching, and you need to commiserate with what they are encountering, and help. Moreover, some schools will give a dean faculty rank: they hire you as dean and appoint you to a department.

You mention teaching experience. Are there also scholarship requirements for being a dean?

Yes, but it depends on the reputation of the institution. I had some published research; I published a book (States of Nature: Animality and the Polis, 2002) and a few articles, including one in bioethics. But since I worked at a teaching college, and then at a community college, research is less emphasized. It’s prized, but not part of the faculty requirement at my current institution. For academic administration, as you get to top-tier research institutions, they may want a published scholar, or someone who does “pop” scholarship, something that has a basis in philosophy but is not highly specialized. Scholarship on educational leadership or the business of education is also desirable.

It sounded earlier like you were suggesting that there were a number of jobs available in the field, that it’s more open to newcomers than faculty positions are.

It is.

And that you could choose a geographic area and hope to find a job there?

You’re right. If you look at Higher Ed jobs, on the major job posting boards for academic administration, many of them organize their positions by geographical area. It’s a real factor. There is more flexibility. You can kind of say… where do I want to be? One of the things I hear from many academics is that they feel pushed by the job market to move out of their geographic comfort zone. For philosophers who have anxiety about where they are going to end up, where their partners are going to end up, about their connection to family—if those are concerns—administration is a viable option that can lend itself to geographic mobility. The positions on the coasts and in New England will have hundreds of applicants for philosophy faculty positions. For administration, that may not be the case.

Another difference, maybe because of the nature of the work, is that it is objectively more time-consuming. And there’s more of a sense that one is punching in to the institution at a certain time and punching out at a certain time. This is one of the first things I noticed. As opposed to when I was full-time faculty, because there was some scholarship interest on my part, it was really continuous with more free time for independent thought. I was always trying to do research, to be a better teacher, to write new things… it had a kind of continuity to it. Administration can be more like the traditional 9-5.

Can you move up within an institution, or is it more typical to move to another college or university to move up?

Both happen, and both are possible. It depends on the character of the institution, the level of the institution, the layers of administration in the single institution (or lack thereof): there are many factors that go into it. In my current institution I was hired as dean of humanities and there was a restructuring, and now I’m dean of social sciences as well. Colleges hire administrators more freely sometimes, and they’re used to there being some movement. People move up the ranks, or away, and colleges are used to that—it’s a part of administration.

What do you think of teaching at a community college? Can you fill in PhDs who might not have had much contact with community colleges?

What you’ll find is that in community colleges, students are there for multiple, diverse reasons. They might be there because it’s the lowest cost option and they want to eventually transfer, or they might be there because the community college didn’t have an SAT or GPA requirement and they need a second chance, academically. Some people are there because they are interested in particular classes for personal fulfillment; some are full-time at another institution and are taking few classes at the community college. But students’ level and interest in philosophy is equivalent if not greater than what I experienced at a liberal arts college. At the liberal arts college where I was a professor, philosophy coursework was a general education requirement. At a community college, students have to go out of their way to take philosophy. They don’t have to take it and the ones that do are drawn to philosophy. They’re looking to learn more about the discipline. You’ll even get students who transfer into a major program in philosophy, or who eventually take it as a double major. That’s rewarding. The teaching load is high for full-time faculty, but supposing you prefer teaching to research, if you’re inspired by being in front of a classroom, are good at teaching, and care about your students, teaching at a community college will be wildly rewarding. In addition, some community colleges will hire candidates with an MA, though they prefer the PhD.

Another aspect is that community colleges are state funded. The starting salary may be lower, but as you gain seniority teaching at a community college, your salary can go up exponentially. At my institution, the salaries are lower than if they were working at state universities, but after 8-10 years faculty members are at a good wage, a reasonable quality-of-life kind of wage. If you have previous experience, sometimes you can get hired with some consideration of that experience. Many community colleges are unionized, so there is a sense of job security teaching at a community college. If you get a job in an area that you like, and you are able to teach what you like, you may be more or less guaranteed a long-term job. The tenure review at community colleges can be more automatic than the extensive, substantive review at some private colleges. There are not the same requirements for scholarship that you’d see at some institutions.

Do you have advice or perspective for philosophers who are thinking about leaving academic philosophy, whether by choice or not?

For me, I think I probably would have gotten tenure. But if someone were denied tenure for any reason, academic administration would be a good choice to consider. You’ll have academic skills, you’ll have teaching experience, and you’ll be able to use those skills in a different way. Sometimes the factors in tenure review, for example scholarship or teaching evaluations, aren’t as emphasized in administrative work. Still, you have to be able to work well with others; you need to have all of the holistic business skills (presentation, written communication, oral communication) to be in academic administration. For faculty who have professional stability but are looking for opportunity for whatever reason—maybe increased salary, geographic flexibility, maybe just a passion for administration and being a bigger part of a college—if that’s the case, academic administration could be a good job for you.

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Christopher's Background

Ph.D. in Philosophy
Stony Brook University (2008)

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Colby-Sawyer College (2008 - 2012)