Journal of Nursing Education

Personal Reflections on Leadership 

Travel Tips for a Journey into Academic Administration

Carl Christensen, PhD, RN

Abstract

A first-time administrator in a nursing academic setting can succeed in service to students and colleagues. To find the greatest personal contentment in this new role, the author suggests clarifying a personal purpose statement and becoming more self-aware. The author provides tips for finding exhilarating academic administration experiences in terms of association, action, and achievement.

Dr. Christensen is Dean, Buntain School of Nursing, Northwest College, Kirkland, Washington. He is also a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow, 2001–2004.

Address correspondence to Carl Christensen, PhD, RN, Dean, Buntain School of Nursing, Northwest College, PO Box 579, Kirkland, WA 98083-0579; e-mail: carl.christensen@northwestu.edu.

Abstract

A first-time administrator in a nursing academic setting can succeed in service to students and colleagues. To find the greatest personal contentment in this new role, the author suggests clarifying a personal purpose statement and becoming more self-aware. The author provides tips for finding exhilarating academic administration experiences in terms of association, action, and achievement.

Dr. Christensen is Dean, Buntain School of Nursing, Northwest College, Kirkland, Washington. He is also a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow, 2001–2004.

Address correspondence to Carl Christensen, PhD, RN, Dean, Buntain School of Nursing, Northwest College, PO Box 579, Kirkland, WA 98083-0579; e-mail: carl.christensen@northwestu.edu.

Leadership in a nursing education program is much like a trip to the ocean during violent weather. For me, nothing can quite match the sense of tranquility after fighting hours of evening traffic in rainy weather to arrive at a beachside hotel and warm myself by an open fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate, while listening to the sounds of crashing waves, howling wind, and pounding rain. Nor does anything compare to the thrill of a brisk and chilly morning walk on the ocean beach, contesting with strong winds and the shock of pelting rain on my face. Such contrasts of cozy respite and contending with the stormy elements remind me of my role as a first-time dean of a new school of nursing. Despite the fast pace and incessant pressures, challenges, surprises, and even setbacks, I would not trade my novice nursing education leadership experience for any other career choice I can imagine.

A “stormy-day” visitor to the ocean shore may want to know what rain gear to wear, where to find a hotel that offers a fireplace in each room, which restaurant serves the best clam chowder, and what to think of the “tsunami evacuation route” signs along the coastal highway. Similarly, nurses entering the world of academic administration may desire a few travel tips that can direct them to the contentment and exhilaration the role holds. This article details my journey into that world.

The Journey

How did you achieve your first position as dean, department chair, associate dean, director of nursing research, committee chair, or other academic leadership position? Like me, it may be something you stumbled into, rather than a goal you had recorded in your “10-year plan.” For me, the route to academic administration was guided by naïve tendencies. Perhaps I am too gullible, but I can venture blissfully into new worlds thinking all will be well. Although I did not anticipate all of the challenges I encountered, I would have forfeited some of life's most amazing rewards had I hesitated long enough to examine all of the potential pitfalls.

Let me explain my entrance into full-time academia. I was attending a board of directors meeting as the representative of a corporation's nursing services. A board member pulled me aside at a coffee break to say she wanted to talk to me about a job she thought was “right” for me. As a retired dean, she was consulting with a local college for the purpose of starting a baccalaureate program in nursing. This conversation resulted in a formal interview a few weeks later, and subsequently a move from 23 years of various patient care and administrative positions in geriatric health care to the unfamiliar role of “College Dean” at a private, church-affiliated, liberal arts college. My preparation for success in academia was limited to my years as a student and some experiences as an adjunct instructor. Nevertheless, in the fall of 2000, I found myself leading a baccalaureate degree nursing program, with its first 15 students and an initial complement of four full-time and three adjunct faculty members.

The new position had much to offer. Never had I worked in a setting that allowed such latitude for creativity, flexibility, and professional collaboration, as well as opportunities to influence the thinking of young adults. In my naiveté, I did not know what I was getting into in terms of academic policies, procedures, wage constraints, external standards of review, the complexity of curriculum development, pedagogical methodology, multifarious legal agreements, and the nuances of shifting from a service population in the “90-something” age bracket to a population in the “20-something” age bracket.

During nearly 5 years of this journey into academic administration as Dean of Northwest College's Buntain School of Nursing, many experienced and patient mentors have come to my aid. From their sage advice and from my “hard-knocks” experiences, I offer the following travel tips to anyone embarking on a trip that can be both exciting and satisfying.

Travel Tips

Contentment Comes from Within

Just as a seaside hotel provides warm, dry refuge from a storm, so does inner purpose and self-awareness provide a safe haven during inclement administrative times. Academic administrators' own sense of mission and personal assessment can afford the resolve to persevere, whether they are greeted by adversity, apathy, or acclaim. When others voice a differing evaluation, administrators can know the inner contentment of having done their best to reach worthy ends. In fact, administrators may have the internal assurance that current negative assessments may be premature and unwarranted, since the ultimate goal still lies years ahead and will only be seen in the outcomes of the program's graduates.

Personal Purpose. Administrators should be able to state a personal purpose, condensed to 10 words or less. That purpose statement should be printed and carried in one's wallet, as vital to traveling as a driver's license. Purpose yields direction and determination when academic administrators are threatened by the inevitable storms of disagreement, student unrest, budget cutbacks, cost escalations, faculty shortages, clinical site limitations, increased paperwork, and competing time demands. Purpose offers a compass in times of conflict and crisis and reminds us why we are working longer hours and earning less. Purpose suggests criteria by which to measure whether our efforts have paid off.

What is a worthy purpose: salary, prestige, career? While these are necessary and pleasurable, they are not worthy of the often painful sacrifices made by academic administrators. Purpose is better expressed in terms of students, patients, and communities. Work in nursing education administration helps provide students with the opportunities and settings they need to grow, learn, practice, and think critically. Academic administration also provides the structures and finances for students to encounter role models of professional values. In addition, nursing education administrators have the privilege of ensuring students have opportunities to explore various avenues (e.g., nursing skills, technology, research, advocacy, and policy) by which they can influence their world for good.

Serving patients and communities is the indirect purpose of academic administrative labor. The breadth, depth, and efficacy of service rendered to patients and communities by nursing graduates are determined in large part by the quality of education provided. Thus, when I feel as though forces in the academic environment are jostling me about, I return to my purpose: the development of students and the good they will do for their patients and the communities they serve. Likewise, when skies are fair and resources are ample, I know that circumstances are opportune to accelerate the enhancement and expansion of programs that will benefit students, and ultimately their patients and communities. This could be considered opportunistic, purpose-driven leadership. For example, knowing that budgets may always be reduced, we hurry to make purchases of additional videotapes, CDs, or other reference resources while the dollars are available. Likewise, we have made spur-of-the-moment decisions to accept donations of hospital equipment that would enrich our skills laboratory.

Self-Knowledge. Academic administrators must have self-knowledge that is always increasing in objectivity and veracity. An understanding of self can set a course for personal improvement. Other legitimate outgrowths of self-assessment may be the refinement of a modus operandi, the development of coping mechanisms, and the selection of complementary administrative team members. The following are a few common self-evaluation items that should continually be on the minds of academic administrators:

  • What are my strengths? The scope of inquiry should not be limited to traditional administrative and academic duties related to budget, human resources, communication, policy, pedagogy, research, grants, and fundraising. It should include hobbies, artistic skills, athletic abilities, political acumen, travel experience, and so forth, as prospects for a portfolio of administrative strengths. For example, in the U.S. Public Health Service, my supervisor drew on her previous experience as a caterer. She accurately boasted that when she hosted a meeting of Public Health Service managers, attendance reached 100% and morale was high because of the fine foods she served the attendees. It is also critical to validate this personal assessment of strengths. Others may see unidentified strengths and provide different perspectives on acknowledged strengths.
  • How should I capitalize on my strengths? An obvious, but not necessarily correct, answer is to take charge of all responsibilities within the areas of strength. However, administrators must consider the possibility that their areas of strength may provide opportunities to mentor others. Delegating some of these responsibilities may contribute to the training of a protégé. If administrators excel in an aspect of academic leadership, it may provide an opportunity to share that expertise with students in a classroom setting, with those who report directly to them, with colleagues at professional association meetings, or with a broader audience through publication.
  • What are my weaknesses? In contrast to the assessment of strengths, the extent of the search in this area should be limited. If four or five relevant weaknesses are identified, they can be faced as opportunities for improvement. For a handful of shortcomings, corrective action plans can be devised and targets for attainment set. However, listing every imaginable weakness is a recipe for discouragement, depression, and disaster. A mile-long list of character flaws and skill deficits does not lend itself to the formulation of realistic action plans and will erode any confidence in one's potential to be an administrative leader in nursing education. On the other hand, for those who would say, “I have no weaknesses,” invent some! Human beings learn by repairing what is cracked, leaking, or broken. Deprived of weaknesses, where would the incentive be to strive for improved performance?
  • What motivates me? It may be influencing nursing practice, collecting data, writing, or lecturing on a favorite topic. Whatever it is, it should be made a priority in one's routine.
  • What rejuvenates me? Options may include drinking a latte, exercising, watching science fiction movies, reading historical novels, walking around campus, or engaging in prayer. Whatever the case, it is important to squeeze it into one's busy schedule.
  • What stimulates and sparks new ideas for me? It may be consultation with peers, surfing the Internet, attending conferences, reading journals, or listening to audio books. Administrators need to pursue as many of these, and others, as they can. In academia, it is critical for administrators to be innovative and receptive to the creative ideas presented by others.

A position in academic administration can lead to solitude, even isolation. Administrators will have the experience of standing alone on an issue, putting the finishing touches on a report long after everyone has gone home, or being the first to propose a new initiative on campus. The lonely moments of leadership are taxing. In addition, others may not know how to meet your needs for motivation, rejuvenation, and stimulation. For these reasons, such openings for renewal need to be created and protected. They should be cherished, as they will augment one's vitality and extend one's longevity in the position...and in life.

  • How long do I intend to stay in my administrative position? A short tenure, such as filling an interim position, may require administrators to time their actions to fulfill top administration's predetermined goals within a fixed timeframe (see the article by Mundt on pp. 496–501). A position of indefinite duration may allow administrators to set their own trajectories. This will require staying long enough to earn the trust necessary for them and their respective teams to develop and implement a shared vision. Staying past the time when the team energetically sets and attains collectively determined aspirations is a surefire formula for ossification, with all the undesirable rights and privileges thereof.
  • What values do I hold? If administrators cannot state their values or if they always take a relativistic view of life, then each major decision faced will be fraught with agonizing internal ethical debates and/or exhausting deliberations over priorities. Well-reasoned values assist in making choices that yield long-range satisfaction and benefits. One's values may memorialize one's high regard for distinct administrative approaches, health care concepts, or educational principles. As an example, cross-cultural nursing is valued highly by our faculty and within the didactic and practicum components of our curriculum. Thus, when faced with questions of the adequacy of time and other resources, the faculty protect the prerequisite requirement of a cultural anthropology course and a month-long immersion experience for senior nursing students in India, Taiwan, or Zimbabwe.

In addition to clarifying their values to make decisions expediently, academic administrators who honor character values engender trust and respect. Academic administrators reap rich dividends in terms of team-work and cooperation if two particular character values are revered: humility and gratitude. It is difficult to imagine success as an academic administrator without them. Humility opens the mind to one's limitations and need to learn. Its antonym, pride, shuts the door to new knowledge and places a barrier between administrators and those who could serve as guides and collaborators. Nurturing gratitude yields awesome results for administrators and the recipients of their gratitude. When one is genuinely grateful for the contributions of others, one is more receptive to the benefits others bring as companions along the journey. When gratitude is expressed, recipients are inclined to help again at the next opportunity. Dozens of thank-you notes, along with hundreds of dollars worth of token appreciation gifts (e.g., donuts, chocolates, candles, flowers, gift certificates, coffee) have facilitated working relationships for me. More important, I relish the personal joy derived from recognizing quiet acts of kindness and generosity within the nursing program.

In summary, when administrators have a clear purpose and are knowledgeable of themselves, they will find congruity between who they are and what they do in their administrative role. This congruous state is key to achieving contentment in this vocation.

Exhilaration Stems from Association, Action, and Achievement

Whereas purpose and self-knowledge are comparable to a geopositioning system in our dynamic environment, exhilaration, on the other hand, is discovered through association, action, and achievement. Work-related excitement results from creating teams, holding a self-correcting course against all types of odds, and ultimately reaching profound goals.

Association. Academic nursing administration is not a solitary activity. Cooperative association with a wide variety of players is essential. New administrators should seek advice and technical assistance through dialogue with faculty, other campus administrators, mentors, advisory board members, professional colleagues from other nursing schools, accreditation visitors, state and federal officials, representatives of philanthropic foundations, attorneys, librarians, vendors, and others. The exchange of ideas is stimulating and synergistic. Brainstorming with colleagues can generate or release innovative ideas. As part of a faculty, administration, or staff team, nursing administrators can experience heightened expectations as the team collaboratively agrees to pursue a specific mission with its attendant values, goals, objectives, and distinguishing program characteristics. From counterparts in other nursing programs, new administrators can learn of successful pilot projects and best practices. By talking with mentors who have been down the road before you, new administrators can save themselves from painful failures. These mentors can warn of pitfalls and highlight desirable vantage points.

Association with prospective students, current students, alumni, clinical preceptors, and graduates' employers opens nursing administrators to complimentary assessments. These individuals share their aspirations and indicate the degree to which the nursing program does or does not help them attain their goals. They also provide profitable, candid critiques of ways in which the program could be improved. With all manner of feedback, the companion virtues of humility and gratitude help administrators to be receptive and responsive to the good that may be culled from such input.

Serendipitous payoffs are common when networking with other professionals in off-campus meetings. Although going to professional or community meetings with a few discussion-starter questions can get the ball rolling, simply being interested in the experiences of other participants can bring to light breakthrough concepts or useful referrals to experts and resources.

Because of the serendipitous benefits of association with others on and off campus, administrators should be inclined to join groups, accept nominations to serve as officers, or become involved in ad hoc task forces. It may at first seem that there is no time for such activities. However, administrators are likely to find that, in the process of helping other professionals, they gain more than they receive.

Similarly, new administrators should try to increase the amount of time they spend with their family members and friends. This may sound impossible, but we all need the moral support and perspectives of these individuals, even more than before, as we assume greater professional responsibility. If time availability is a concern, one can find time by eliminating activities that add little value to life. For example, to make time for more meaningful associations, I had to streamline my administrative processes, delete many unsolicited e-mail messages without reading them, wash my car less frequently, and discard shirts that required ironing. I have no regrets about these time savers, and as a result, I have found more time for meaningful associations.

Effective administrators serve others. Thus, the value of associating with colleagues should not be gauged solely by what administrators gain from communication and connections. To accomplish the organizational mission, administrators must ensure that faculty and staff members have adequate means of associating with peers and experts.

Open communication also must be encouraged within the nursing program to help ensure both professional enrichment and coordinated effort leading to organizational goals. This message was made clear to me when an adjunct faculty member reported feeling disconnected from other instructors and unaware of the flow of events in the school. She suggested I write a weekly e-mail newsletter to all faculty members, especially for the benefit of adjunct faculty members who may be on campus only once a week. Implementing this suggestion has resulted in both part-time and full-time faculty being unanimous in their appreciation of this means of communication and the resultant sense of connection with their peers. Sometimes the newsletter prompts faculty conversations. Other times, faculty members have replied via e-mail that they are willing to volunteer to work on an initiative mentioned in the newsletter. This means of staying connected has evolved from what I considered a time-consuming experiment to that of meritorious communication tradition.

My impression is that people become nurse educators because of a sense of mission. They are enthusiastic about their desire to equip the next generation of health care professionals. It is energizing to facilitate the gathering of such individuals. They inspire each other. Their zeal is rekindled when they meet and remind each other of their reasons for choosing this nursing specialty. Administrators have much to gain through association, and an exhilarating synergy can occur when like-minded professionals meet for the purpose of learning collectively how to more effectively educate nursing students.

Action. Action is more stirring than oratory. Charging headlong into the wind for the sake of attaining a goal is more exhilarating than hearing a speech about that same goal. Nursing education administrators must be people of action who demonstrate the focus and stamina to accomplish a difficult mission. Administrators known for action have the prerequisite credibility and experience vital to recruiting others to join the cause and participate in collective, goal-directed action.

A wide range of actions may be required of academic administrators, including designing curricula, recruiting faculty, selecting students, evaluating educational effectiveness, raising funds, managing budgets, promoting research, publishing, achieving and maintaining accreditation, establishing policies, supporting faculty development, and providing service to the community. One way such action items engender exhilaration is through the necessity of contending with obstacles to success. Another source of stimulation is the amazing opportunity for creativity within this role.

If administrators want their leadership role to be a thrilling experience, they should not wish away the obstacles and opposition. When an administrative position in nursing education is accepted, administrators make themselves vulnerable to pessimistic pundits. It is essential to see the humor in the obstacles and disparaging remarks. One can confound one's critics by celebrating hindrances as opportunities for training and success.

For example, I recall being dumbfounded at the first public event for our school of nursing when one nursing student's mother bluntly stated her trepidation related to her daughter being enrolled in a program with a completely inexperienced dean. Although I had to wait 2 years, I felt a special sense of elation when that same mother publicly commended the nursing faculty and me when her daughter completed the program. I also feel euphoric when I receive positive reports about that same graduate's performance as an RN at a local hospital.

For individuals who enjoy work that requires creativity, nursing education administration holds much promise. Few jobs can boast the multiplicity of action options nursing administrators can design and implement for the benefit of students. In my School, we have had the opportunities to:

  • Move into larger classrooms and office areas.
  • Create a larger skills laboratory.
  • Introduce new technology in the classroom, which allows all students to simultaneously answer a teacher's question electronically.
  • Refine course assignments in ways that more effectively promote critical thinking.
  • Recruit additional faculty who bring new strengths and expertise to the faculty mix.
  • Request financial assistance for master's-prepared faculty members to assist with doctoral studies.
  • Approve travel funds for professors making their first presentations at national conferences.
  • Negotiate educational affiliation agreements with an ever-increasing number of clinical learning sites.

Administrators are constantly pushed to do things differently by their peers and by environmental factors. Nursing education administrators can rely on the nursing process and their critical thinking skills when deciding among action alternatives and devising new interventions. Every time administrators try something new, a certain degree of risk is accepted; some of the risks have major implications for the lives of students, patients, communities, faculty, and staff. The risk-taking role is not for the timid but for nurses who want to experience more excitement through innovative action and empowerment to lead change.

Achievement. Watching graduates receive diplomas at commencement, receiving notification of accreditation, learning about employer satisfaction with graduates' job performance, expanding our cohort size to 36 students, increasing the number of full-time and adjunct faculty members to 15, and seeing growth in endowment funds for nursing scholarships are among the achievements that have been exhilarating for me as an academic nursing administrator. Because of the many nursing program evaluation criteria, administrators can almost always find some milestone achievement to celebrate.

New academic administrators should identify the various external, measurable, program evaluation criteria. Likewise, to ensure compliance with college or university expectations, administrators should actively seek out campus standards relating to matters such as academic policies, nursing faculty involvement in campus-wide processes, budget management, human resources practices, and obtaining funding from outside sources. Finally, administrators must be alert to existing outcome measures established by the nursing program they lead and the opportunity to update that set of outcome measures. New administrators will do well to seek the advice of mentors in locating all of the relevant standards and the means by which these standards may be achieved. Similarly, administrators should consult with faculty, staff, and mentors regarding appropriate ways to celebrate and convey the significance of goal achievement.

Conclusion

A trip to the ocean during stormy weather offers opportunities for rest indoors and exhilarating physical activity outdoors. This is analogous to the journey into academic administration, which helps one discover internal stability and the enjoyment of goal-directed accomplishment in an ever-changing environment. If interested individuals have not begun the journey into academic administration, they should consider this opportunity and the benefits it offers—for them, the students, the patients, and the community. If some readers have begun the journey, their level of job contentment may relate to the clarity and congruity of their purpose statement and the depth of their self-knowledge. Hopefully they will agree that exhilaration can be found in association, action, and achievement. The benefits of traveling further and assuming greater levels of administrative responsibility should be considered. Finally, as new administrators acquire tips on their travels, they should share them with others who are learning to lead in nursing education. In doing so, they will help their administrative colleagues and the students they serve.

10.3928/01484834-20041101-03

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