Guest Column

Before You Move Into Higher Education


So you’re about to retire after years in the superintendency and are looking forward to endless golf, fishing, shopping, traveling and sitting on the beach.

Then you realize that while you’re too old to put up with any more school district headaches in the middle of the night, you’re too young to quit contributing altogether.

“Alas!” you say to yourself. “I’ll go to work in higher education. What better place to share my vast knowledge, expertise and war stories.”

That was exactly my thinking in 2002 when I retired after 19 years as a public school leader, including three years in the superintendency. At first, I traveled, shopped and played for a year before realizing that I had more to give, more to do, more to influence.

Painful Discoveries
My second career began in 2003 when I was hired as an assistant professor in an educational leadership program at a state university. In spite of the major adjustments I’ve had to make in this career transition, I have no regrets.

Before you seriously consider making this move, reflect on these 10 things about work life in higher education that, in some cases, I learned the hard way:

No 1. You will no longer be the king or queen of everything. You will have to make a great ego adjustment if you reveled in having everyone stop and listen to what you said as a superintendent, even if he or she disagreed. As a junior faculty member, you will be starting all over. Most tenured faculty members will not be impressed by your past accomplishments.You have to earn your place in the club.

No. 2. Your office will be smaller than your college dorm room. Gone are the days of cherry furniture, upholstered chairs, wall space for your favorite paintings and a front window. If there is an office that has a leak or is located in an undesirable location, that will become your workspace.

No. 3. Nothing happens quickly. As a superintendent, I couldn’t understand why the local university couldn’t develop a program over a five-month period to train reading specialists for the school district. Now I know. There are more hoops, requirements, approvals and jockeying of positions than any Title I project ever required.

No. 4. No one will remind you of upcoming appointments or help you prepare for a meeting. If you can’t keep up with a day planner, a personal digital assistant or the Microsoft Outlook calendar, you will be late or fail to show up. But unlike a school district, no one really monitors whether you actually show up.

No. 5. You will make more money — per hour. While the salary is significantly lower, the hourly wage is higher because you usually work just 40 hours. You will have no more 24/7 expectations, no more living with your cell phone by your bed, and no more calling the office regularly to learn what crises have occurred while you were out.

No. 6. You will have to do research. Remember your doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis? Now researching and writing are part of your job — and you have to get the approval of the university’s institutional review board before conducting research. That is like applying for a federal grant and having it sent back over and over and over until it is exactly right.

No. 7. Your leadership skills will be discovered. It won’t take long for your colleagues to find them. That means you will chair committees, lead projects and get released from courses (so you don’t teach much). If you don’t want to be tapped for these extra duties, keep your leadership experiences well hidden.

No. 8. You will find out that schools of education are like Rodney Dangerfield — “they don’t get no respect.” Because educators are some of the least wealthy graduates of a university, they usually don’t endow chairs, donate money for a library wing or sponsor scholarships. Some colleagues in other departments across campus assume that since they teach, what is the big deal in teaching others how to teach? They wonder what our “discipline” really is.

Peddling Influence
No. 9. No day on campus will ever be as bad as even a mediocre day during your time in the superintendency. Nothing bothers you. You know how to let water roll off your back, your skin is thick, and you memorized the Serenity Prayer years ago. Unlike boards of education, higher education doesn’t demand that you give your soul to the job. You can enjoy what you do. You work hard, interact with colleagues and students, and then go home.

No. 10. You really will touch the future. Remember how you felt when you first entered the classroom as a new teacher? After years of being a school administrator, you perhaps lost that passion, that fire in your belly. Fortunately, it all comes back. By helping the students in your classes grow into high-quality, caring future school leaders, you are adding your handprint to the future. They will make the difference that perhaps you couldn’t make.

Robin Fankhauser is an associate professor of educational leadership at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Ind. E-mail: