Feature                                                    Pages 39-44


From Superintendent to


Higher education’s reality often differs from expectations for those making the career move


Dewitt Jones showed up at the office on Sundays until a colleague questioned him about the practice. Theresa Saunders struggled to stop speaking “with a tone of finality” in group meetings with other faculty members. Diane Reed missed having a secretary around to help prepare schedules and PowerPoint presentations.

Public school administrators regularly make the career move from K-12 to positions in higher education, often upon retiring from a superintendency. One national survey, undertaken by the authors of At a Crossroads: The Educational Leadership Professoriate in the 21st Century, found two-thirds of professors specializing in education leadership once worked as K-12 administrators, either at the school district or school level.

Diane Reed (right), an associate professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., moved into higher education after 14 years as superintendent of a nearby school system.

The K-12 leaders typically are drawn to higher education by the expectation of reduced on-the-job stress, the prospect of contributing to the betterment of the next generation of leadership, the promise of change in their personal lives — or a mixture of all three. “Superintendents often see universities as a natural next step in their career,” says Billie Blair, president of Change Strategists, a management consulting firm that has worked with school districts.

Yet expectations rarely match reality. Several former superintendents now working for universities, as well as Blair, caution their colleagues not to view higher education as a “nirvana” when considering next career steps. “They tend to glamorize it,” Blair says. “They think that a university professor’s job is desirous and relatively easy and build up this mind-set that it will be a perfect place for a retirement career.”

Rather, the move from the K-12 leadership ranks to higher education should be seen as a series of trade-offs — more time for a personal life but less authority and power in the workplace; more flexibility in one’s work schedule but a lot less help with administrative tasks; more time spent working directly and closely with students but virtually no capacity to transform an entire institution.

Jan Westerman-Beatty, who spent 10 years working in West Des Moines, Iowa, mostly as a principal and assistant superintendent, was more familiar with collegiate mores and work culture than many of her colleagues because her husband had spent his career working as a university professor and administrator. But even Beatty struggled to adapt to the flexibility and independence of the new role when she took a job six years ago as a clinician of educational administration at Iowa State University.

“I would say that I went in with my eyes partially open,” she says.

Layered Decisions
Most superintendents discover they have less capacity to effect tangible, immediate change in higher education roles, says Thomas Kersten, an emeritus associate professor at Roosevelt University in Illinois who worked in K-12 administration in that state for 28 years. That’s particularly true if they work in faculty roles at large state universities where the pace of change is slower in general. Kersten is the author of Moving Into the Superintendency, a 2012 book that offers advice for first-time administrators.

Dewitt Jones worked as a superintendent in various school districts in Iowa and Wisconsin for 18 years before taking an associate professorship of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa in 2008. He quickly found it took a lot longer to hire at the university level than in a K-12 district — about three to five months compared to six to eight weeks, on average. That’s because the process involves more layers at a university, including multiple reviews by the equity and compliance department, he says.

Hiring is just one of the processes that required a lengthy time frame at a university. Kersten points to the creation of a new major or academic program as other examples, noting that it took six months for him to get permission to offer off-campus doctoral classes in education administration at a local high school.

“Everything is decided by consensus,” says Michelle Young, executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration. “You are in charge of you, but of no one else. For some people that can be really frustrating.”


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While the move from the superintendency to the academy almost always leads to a reduction in power and pay, it’s typically accompanied by a reduction in stress.

“You make half as much, but you will live twice as long,” quips Bill Owings, a professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University, who previously worked as superintendent of the 5,500-student Accomack County Public Schools on the eastern shore of Virginia.

Owings was exaggerating, but only somewhat. He says it has taken several years in higher education to work his way back up to his superintendent’s salary of $90,000. (As a superintendent, he also received an extensive fringe benefit package, which wasn’t offered by the university.) Salaries can vary widely based on the size and location of the school district and the type of university and position. But the average salary for a superintendent is above $100,000, according to the most recent nationwide survey by the Educational Research Service. For professors, the average salary is closer to $80,000, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Those who’ve made the move say the reduced pressure more than compensates for the cut in pay. As a superintendent, Owings routinely coped with emergencies that went far beyond deciding whether to call a snow day. These included dealing with accusations that a teacher had been sleeping with a junior high school student.

Likewise, Jones, during his multiple superintend-encies, considered himself responsible for the daily well-being of thousands of school children. As a professor, he considers his main responsibility to be figuring out how to plan his days. He likes the change.

“As a superintendent, I was on four blood pressure medications and now I am on half of one,” he says.

That’s not to say that working in higher education should be perceived as an easy job, or one that’s free of pressures. While some former K-12 administrators get appointed to their university positions, others must work their way through an often-harrowing tenure process.

Diane Reed, who joined the faculty of St. John Fisher College in 2006 (she already worked as an adjunct there) after retiring from a superintendency in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., quickly learned that earning tenure would not be easy. It involved keeping “multiple binders as evidence of everything I’ve done, from lesson plans to student assessments” and adding a line to her resume “every time I sneezed.”

She adds: “Oftentimes, superintendents think, ‘I’m just going to teach at a university.’ They don’t understand the totality of what that can mean.”

Owings compares earning tenure to “getting your contract renewed as a superintendent. It was a shock how political it could be.”

Theresa Saunders, posing with the university’s mascot, transitioned from a superintendency to a teaching post at Eastern Michigan University.
Despite the loss of overt control she experienced when moving from the superintendency in East St. Louis, Ill., Theresa Saunders discovered faculty at Eastern Michigan University actually run the university from behind the scenes because they have so much freedom in the classroom.

“I’ve never known K-12 teachers who have the kind of latitude that university professors have,” says Saunders, who worked as a lecturer at Eastern Michigan University after leaving the superintendency. “Even though there are standards at the university level, faculty have a lot of leverage around what is taught and how it’s taught.”

A Private Alternative
While many superintendents grapple with the slower pace of change, Brian Benzel had the opposite experience. Benzel took a job in higher education administration when he retired from the superintendency in Spokane, Wash., six years ago. He became the vice president for finance and administration at Whitworth University, a private Christian college in Spokane, a position he still holds.

Universities might appear to faculty members to move at a turtle’s pace, but Benzel notes they can be less bureaucratic at times, particularly at private institutions. The board of trustees at Whitworth meets twice a year, for instance, compared to twice monthly board of education meetings. At a private university, the “leadership team can focus on implementing its priorities instead of constantly being in board preparation mode,” Benzel says.

In budget development, a privatfe university can act more quickly than a public K-12 system because the university’s revenue comes largely from tuition and fees and is not dependent on state legislative action. “The choices and decisions require less processing and are made more rapidly,” he says.

Moreover, unlike his days running a public school system, Benzel finds his work today is not subject to open meetings and public records laws. He says he and fellow administrators spend less time “trying to figure out how to manage what we’re doing with the press and television.” That also contributes to more expeditious decision making.

“There’s a significant hidden cost to public disclosure,” he said.

As Benzel’s experience illustrates, higher education positions, like superintendencies, are hardly uniform. They vary tremendously, depending on whether one works at a public or private institution and whether one is serving as a faculty member or administrator. Even positions within the professoriate involve different degrees of teaching, research and university service, depending on the institution and job title. And while some former superintendents say they found themselves working considerably fewer hours as professors, others devote the same amount of time.

Personal Tech Skills
The two worlds have other differences. Superintendents have to be in command of a broad range of issues — in instruction, management, finance, governance and public relations — while professors generally have to master professional skills in teaching and research.

A superintendent might start her or his day coping with news media attention surrounding a school bus accident and end it grappling with the school board over budget issues. But most of the required skills loop back to strong management, such as the ability to make quick decisions in a crisis, build up support from community leaders or motivate employees to adopt a new practice.

A professor might start her or his day preparing a PowerPoint presentation or meeting with student advisees and finish the day working on a grant application. Professors are called on less commonly to act as a manager or an executive but must perform more of their own writing, research, number crunching and technical prep work than a superintendent. The skills to be learned can be as mundane as knowing how to prepare your own coffee and operating the department scanner/fax machine and as complex as setting a research agenda for the department of educational administration.

“My big struggle with higher education was getting into scholarship work,” says Reed, who served as the superintendent of New York’s Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District for 14 years. “As a superintendent, you don’t have time to get into research.”

She found a mentor who helped focus her scholarship. Over time, she has published several articles in professional publications, co-authored a book on school district leadership and helped develop an instrument that assesses leadership capacity.

Reed’s other big challenge was mastering the technical skills — even basic ones such as including attachments on e-mails — that her staff had handled when she worked as a superintendent. The irony was that, as a superintendent, Reed had been recognized by New York state as a technology leader for spearheading an initiative to provide a laptop to each student. But at St. John Fisher College, she struggled initially to embed video into her presentations and use interactive whiteboards, among other things. She sought out help wherever she could and now has mastered the basic technical skills students expect, like finding and incorporating pertinent YouTube videos in her lessons.

As a superintendent, Reed’s resume was only a few pages long. Now, she says, it’s more than 20 pages — a testament to the diverse skills and accomplishments she has amassed in higher education.

Adjustment Issues
During his years at Roosevelt University watching former K-12 administrators move into university teaching roles, Kersten says adjustment challenges weren’t uncommon. What superintendent has hands-on experience creating digital portfolios or conducting online surveys? “You will become much more computer- and technology-literate,” he says.

William Owings, sitting for a TV interview, teaches public school finance at Old Dominion University after leaving a superintendent’s post in southeastern Virginia.
At Old Dominion, where he teaches public school finance and leadership theories for educational improvement, Owings says he enjoys the range of work. In addition to classroom duties, he writes articles and books and manages grants. He works in close collaboration with his wife, a retired school administrator, on many projects — something he was unable to do during his years as a superintendent.

Indeed, most superintendents who adjust to new roles at universities find the reduced pressure and increased independence more than compensate for any loss of authority or pay. What they say they miss most is the capacity to make rapid changes — what Jones describes as navigating a dinghy as opposed to an aircraft carrier.

Owings has no regrets about shifting to higher education. But after experiencing the slower pace of institutional change at a university, he has a greater appreciation for the ways in which superintendents can work “on a systemic level to make real changes for kids.”

He takes some consolation, however, in the fact that he’s training the next generation of superintendents to do just that.

Sarah Carr is a New Orleans-based freelance education writer and author of Hope Against Hope. E-mail: sarahelizcarr@gmail.com

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