Successful Relationships in Personnel Administration: Looking at University Administrators and Department Chairs

AbregoBy Carl Abrego, Chief Administrator for the University of Michigan Residential College

For my MPA capstone, I wanted to focus on a project that would have a direct impact on my current profession as a Chief Administrator for the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  From my perspective, public universities operate in similar ways to government and public entities.  There is a fiscal responsibility they all have not only to themselves, but to the state government that provides various resources and funding.  Transparency and freedom-of-information are two aspects that many private businesses do not always have to abide by.  The role of the chief administrator is to make sure fiscal responsibility is being upheld within the department while balancing the resources and people needed to make sure the department runs effectively and efficiently.

The aspect that interested me the most about administration within a university setting is the relationship between the chief administrator and the chair or director of the various departments and centers within the University of Michigan.  Chairs are the faculty leaders of the department, providing the vision of the department, but chief administrators are the administrative managers of the department, overseeing the human resource, financial and other resources the department uses to succeed in the mission and vision.  This arrangement might be unique to the University of Michigan, but it was what directly impacted me as a chief administrator.  The chair comes from a faculty background and is only the chair for a limited amount of time.  The chief administrator is hired into the position and is with the department as long as he/she chooses or is able to do the job.  I almost compare it to the city manager (chief administrator) and the mayor (chair) roles, which helped me to better relate what I learned in class to my current position.  Within UM, I also have a theory on departments are like cities, colleges are like states and the university itself is like the federal government, but that’s a different conversation.

With two people functioning as strategic partners within a UM department, working together is extremely important.  Trust is an extremely important factor in maintaining a good working relationship.  The chief administrator and the chair have to be able to trust one another, and not feel the other is saying or doing things contradictory to what they talk about in private.  Neither partner likes to feel blind-sided or not be informed on what is going on within the department.  For a successful relationship between the chief administrator and chair to exist, each side must feel that they can be honest with one another and provide their opinions and feelings on issues arising within the department.  They don’t always have to agree with one another, but they must feel they can be honest with one another.  And when they go public with their decisions and procedures, a united front is important so that faculty and staff understand expectations, and they do not receive mixed signals from one or the other.  This type of leadership and support is extremely important to faculty and staff.

Another valuable piece that was discovered through the capstone project is that for chief administrators to be successful, they need to think of the perspective of their strategic partner.  The chair approaches decisions and issues from a faculty perspective, looking at the bigger picture of why academic freedom is important, and how we can support our faculty not only with the education of our students, but with their own academic research.  This is different from the administrative management perspective, making sure people are working continuously to accomplish a goal.  Knowing that the chair thinks of issues differently helps the chief administrator to see other perspectives and, in turn, other options to solve problems.  Being understanding of how others approach challenges helps to put things into perspective and grow.  There are always multiple avenues to take to achieve success.

Carl Abrego is the Chief Administrator for the University of Michigan Residential College, a living and learning program, part the undergraduate education division within the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  Overall, he has worked for the University of Michigan for over 14 years in various administrative aspects.  He has bachelor’s degrees in English (UM, ‘95) and Psychology (EMU, ‘01) with a Master in Public Administration (EMU, ‘15) with a concentration in Human Resources.

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