Academia isn’t usually thought of as a typical business, where employees “climb the ladder” to more prestigious positions, but many of Penn’s administrators have done just that, starting as professors and taking on more responsibilities as they ascend the ranks.
President Amy Gutmann attributes her path to serendipity.
“I didn’t really make the decision to go into administration,” she said. “It happened organically for me.”
When Gutmann was a professor at Princeton, she had the idea to initiate an interdisciplinary center for ethics. As founding director she was expected to write proposals and fundraise — tasks that she found suited her skills. The faculty recommended her for faculty dean, then the president of Princeton asked her to be provost, and finally she got a phone call from Penn — and the rest is history. She calls becoming president of Penn “a dream [she] never had come true.”
Though her path wasn’t planned, Gutmann said she finds administrative work “very challenging and very gratifying.”
“I just discovered how much more I could do by enabling other people to realize their dreams and move an institution forward,” she said.
Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen took a different route. She first gained skills important for administrative work not in the academic setting, but rather through her work with nonprofits, which began around the same time she started teaching.
“You build up skills like how to hire people and fire people, how to read budgets, how to do strategic planning,” she said.
Moving into a management role in academia then seemed natural.
“Universities are basically gigantic nonprofits,” Allen said.
In terms of plans for the future, Allen said her mind is open.
“I sometimes think about the fact that the current provost at Penn used to have my job,” she said. “It is a job in which you can develop skills and move up within Penn.” She added that she gets emails from “headhunters” all the time, looking for college presidents and provosts.
For now, though, she said she enjoys being vice provost, even though she misses teaching — previously she and her husband co-taught Philosophy 002, but she said it just became too much extra work. This is the first time in 30 years Allen isn’t teaching.
For some professors, the love of teaching — and student interaction — is the main barrier to moving up to an administrative position. Christopher Donovan, a film studies professor and dean of Gregory College House, isn’t looking for any kind of change.
He said he “loved every aspect of what he was doing” from the moment he started in the late ‘90s. He’d just received his doctorate at New York University after getting his undergraduate degree at Penn.
Donovan’s job allows him to do “a little bit of everything.” He gets to teach, he’s an academic advisor and he manages the goings-on of Gregory College House.
“In any other job I’d have to focus on one of those things,” he said. Donovan added that as you move up the ladder in an academic institution, “the regular student interaction gets removed from the equation in increasing amounts.”
There might be a point in his life where he will want something different, he acknowledged, but for now this “holistic approach” suits him fine.
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