Views From the Top

Psychologists Who Have Scaled the Heights of Academic Administration

Nothing better prepares you for top administrative positions in academia than working in psychological science, say those who have scaled the heights. And, among the accolades that may come, they might even name a building after you – or a mountain in Antarctica.

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The mountain was named after APS Fellow and Charter Member Richard Atkinson, who retired last year as president of the University of California. His 20 prior years of teaching and research were “a great asset” to his administrative career.

“I certainly understood issues of evidence and how one interpreted data, what it meant to make a claim,” Atkinson said. “I also had a strong background in mathematics and computing. All of that added a set of skills that I think many administrators don’t have but that I believe are very important to running a large organization. And when you’ve been teaching and had graduate students, there’s a need to be pretty direct and honest with your colleagues. That directness and honesty also carry over into administration.”

“I think being a social psychologist is extraordinarily helpful,” agreed APS Fellow and Charter Member Nancy Cantor, who this summer became chancellor and president of Syracuse University. “As a behavioral scientist, what’s really important is understanding how complex human behavior is, recognizing the role of context and environment. One way to think of a university is as a community of people from different groups, with different backgrounds, different perspectives. Essentially, what an academic leader does is creatively bring those different perspectives together.”

It’s all about collaboration, she said. “Traditions of collaborative research and working with lots of people are very much parts of our kind of science, and they are very helpful. A scientific background in psychology also allows you to understand uncertainty and complexity, and understand that decisions are not set in stone.”

James L. McGaugh, APS’s first elected President, was vice chancellor of the University of California, Irvine for eight years before stepping down 23 years ago to run Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. He retired from the Center this September to satisfy “a desire to do more hands-on research and to have administrative less responsibility.”

“I’ve been doing administration for 40 years,” McGaugh said, “and I would simply like not to have to look after other people’s lives. I don’t want anybody coming to me saying, ‘May I please have more lab space?’”

Not that he has misgivings about his administrative detour. “I wouldn’t do it any differently,” he said, because “it turned out very well. By decision or accident, we built an incredibly strong, internationally visible department in a very short period of time.” A biology science building on the Irvine campus is now named McGaugh Hall, and it houses McGaugh’s Center.

He also credits his social psychology background, because in science, “you have to tackle difficult problems in a quasi-collective way. I did the same thing as executive vice chancellor as I did in my lab – you know what the problems are, you know what your choices are, you discuss it, you know what the outcome should be, and you go with it. In the same way that scientific problems are unknowable, administrative decisions are unknowable. I see a lot of similarities.”

So does Elizabeth Capaldi, another APS Past President, who in December 2003 became vice chancellor and chief of staff of the State University of New York system. “Training as a psychologist is very good background,” she said. “First, what we do as scientists is look at large bodies of data about people and draw conclusions that are data-based. A good administrator also does that. It’s very data oriented. I do my own spread sheets and charts. I have the training in statistics, training in data management, training in analyzing data to make sense of things when situations are kind of fuzzy and complicated.”

She laments what she sees as a tendency to hire non-academics as administrators. “It’s very important to have academics as administrators. Academic values are something you learn by doing much more than you can ever learn on the outside. We’re a different kind of culture. We have values that are very hard to understand from the outside.”

Careers By Happenstance

Tracking Cantor

Key dates in Nancy Cantor’s ascention to administration
2004 Became chancellor and president of Syracuse University
2001 Named chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne
1997 Became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Michigan
1978
-’96
Professor of psychology at Princeton University and the University of Michigan
1978 Received PhD in personality and social psychology from Stanford University

None of these scientists ever expected to become an administrator. Atkinson’s in particular was a career that almost wasn’t. As the son of immigrants who had little formal education, he hadn’t even thought about going to college. He told the story in an address last year when he was awarded The University of Chicago Alumni Medal. “In our household, a college education was not high on our list of priorities,” Atkinson said. “But in February of 1944, when I was a sophomore in high school, one of those unplanned events occurred that transforms a person’s life.”

He had gone to a friend’s home to play basketball one Saturday, only to learn that his friend had to go to The University of Chicago to take an entrance exam instead. The friend suggested he go along. “I had nothing better to do and agreed,” he said. Once there, “the person in charge had my friend sign in and then turned to me and asked for my name. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘I’m not on your list and I’m not here to take the exam.’ He said, ‘Well since you’re here, you might as well take the exam.’ So I did.”

A few weeks later he learned he was admitted. He enrolled in the summer session, still believing he would return to high school if it didn’t work out. “That summer my mind was aroused as never before. Once caught up in the intellectual life of The University of Chicago, I never looked back.”

Three decades later, in 1975, Atkinson was chair of the psychology department at Stanford University, had co-authored Atkinson and Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology, and was internationally recognized for his research in cognition and memory. It was then that the National Science Foundation tapped him to be its deputy director.

“I had never had any interest in administration as a university professor,” he wrote later in a paper presented at a colloquium at the University of California, Berkeley, “and frankly had a rather low regard for academic administrators – university presidents included. But the prospect of spending some time in Washington, DC was appealing.” He agreed to do it for a year and an additional summer, but when he arrived in Washington, “everything exploded. The whole place came asunder and my job ended up being very critical to putting it back together. Once I did that, I was persuaded to stay on.”

He stayed for five years, including three as the NSF’s first director with a behavioral science background. He inherited an NSF that was under attack by Congress for supposedly wasting funds on trivial pursuits, budgets were cut, peer review procedures were criticized, and the NSF’s own internal review of its activities was called “a pack of lies.”

In an attempt to silence its critics, the NSF urged Congress to ask the General Accounting Office to investigate. Congress obliged, but instead of exonerating the Foundation, the GAO found poor business practices, inappropriate expenditures and failure to do proper audits. “A particularly difficult criticism,” Atkinson later wrote, was that peer reviews sent to the National Science Board for final approval “were redacted by program officers so that they were highly selective, emphasizing positive assessments and deleting negative ones.”

Under Atkinson’s leadership, NSF candidly acknowledged its faults and set to work correcting them, revising policies, recruiting new leadership, improving business practices, and expanding the behavioral and social sciences program.

Research Roots

Atkinson had every intention of rejoining Stanford’s faculty after that, but in 1980 life again took an unplanned turn. He became chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and, 15 years later, president of California’s nine-campus university system, a challenge that kept him “totally removed” from research and teaching.

McGaugh too said that when he was invited to head a new department of psychobiology at Irvine in 1963, he had “no clue” that his career was taking a sharp turn. “I was a highly protected professor at the University of Oregon. I don’t recall even having served on a committee. All I did was research and teach, mainly graduate courses. What excited me was to have a whole department devoted to the biology of behavior. That had never been done before anywhere in the universe, to my knowledge. I was willing to do the administrative work that was necessary because the idea was so exciting. But I knew nothing – zero, zippo – about administration, so in a sense I didn’t know what I was getting into at all.”

Tracking Atkinson

Key dates in Richard Atkinson’s ascention to administration
1995 Became president and regent of the University of California
1980 Named chancellor of the University of California, San Diego
1977 Appointed director of the National Science Foundation after serving two years as deputy director
1956
-’75
Faculty and psychology department chair, Stanford University
1955 Received PhD in memory and cognitive psychology from Indiana University

Cantor said she had also been “not at all aware” that her career would take her to the upper reaches of administration, but unlike McGaugh, she did sit on committees. “I think my evolution as an academic leader comes entirely from having taken part as a faculty member in committee work and on issues that were important to each institution I was in,” she said, “and getting more involved in institutional levels of analysis and implementation on those kinds of issues.”

She rose from being an associate dean at the University of Michigan to department chair at Princeton, back to Michigan as provost and vice president for academic affairs, in which office she was heavily engaged in the legal defense of the University’s affirmative action program, to chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now to the helm of Syracuse University.

At SUNY, Capaldi said she manages to keep one foot in each world, although she hasn’t done full-time research and teaching since she first became a department chair at Purdue in 1983. From there she moved to the University of Florida where, after little more than a year, she was again taking on administrative tasks that culminated in her becoming provost in 1996. She left Florida in 2000 to become provost at SUNY Buffalo, and last year was named SUNY vice chancellor.

“After a life on campuses, you miss the students,” she said of her new office in Albany. “And there’s no library! But I have a faculty appointment at SUNY Albany, and my graduate student is still back in Buffalo, because that’s where my lab is. I would never give up my research lab; it would be like cutting off an arm. It gives you a perspective that’s important. You don’t want to get too theoretical in your administrative life and forget there are real students, real grants, real faculty involved. It’s not all imaginary, theoretical stuff.”

Could she return to research full-time if she wanted to? “It’s easy if you didn’t give it up. If I had no lab at all, it would be impossible to go back. And even now it would be difficult to go back to it full-time. I’m not up to speed.”

Capaldi believes administration is the right fit for her. “What you find rewarding is what you think you do well, and I think I’m a better administrator than I am a researcher. I also enjoy people. Research in my field, animal learning, is more solitary. I enjoy seeing that you make a difference and you get more immediate satisfaction, you can help people and see something concrete. Research has a much more long term positive benefit.”

McGaugh, however, was a more reluctant administrator. In 1974, when he was first asked to be vice chancellor, he accepted one day, then turned it down the next. “I didn’t want to leave research,” he recalled. “As department chair and dean, my office had been right next to my lab, but the executive vice chancellor’s office is on the fifth floor of the administration building a quarter of a mile away. And it looks like a corporate office!”

A few months later, when the vice-chancellorship was again offered, he changed his mind again. “In my view, a lot of things on our campus were in an administrative mess on the academic side of it and I thought, in my youthful exuberance, that I could fix it. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but for only five years,’ so that everyone would know this was not a career choice but a service choice.” He stayed eight years.

Despite the initial reluctance, he has no regrets. Both research and administration are satisfying, he said, “but in very different ways. If I had to vote for myself, the vote always comes down on research. But was it fun to go out and recruit and hire top talent? Of course it was fun. Was it fun to get hold of the budget and to make sure it was going for academic priorities? Of course it was fun. So it’s not a question of whether the other is tedious or unliked. I liked it all. But deep down inside, the most rewarding things are learning new things.” For McGaugh, that’s learning how memory works.

The decision to return to his research roots was prompted by opportunity knocking again at the administrative door: “Anybody in the position that I held gets seen as a potential president of other universities,” McGaugh said. “I was invited to consider quite a large number of presidencies. I thought about that for about a year. Since I took this job as a service job at my own university, I had some trouble seeing why I would do it at another university. That’s like doing somebody else’s laundry. I was trying to build a better home for myself and my colleagues. Why do it for someone else? So, I made a decision to go back to the laboratory. That’s what I liked to do, that’s my favorite.”

Administration As Psychology In Action

Atkinson said he has “mixed feelings” about his academic career’s detour into top management. “When I was with my close friends – who spent their careers in researching in teaching, and who have been productive and had exciting careers – I saw how rewarding that life was.” On the other hand, life does take you in different directions. I don’t regret what I did, but I would have been very happy if I had spent my life as an academic. But then I never would have had the opportunities that I had.” That includes his signature achievement as university president, reforming the Scholastic Aptitude Test to better reflect the importance of writing and mathematics. The new test goes into effect nationwide next year. (See the May 2004 Observer for additional coverage.)

Cantor said the distinction between administration and academic research is a false one. “What I see myself doing is psychology in action. I think of the campus in some ways as a laboratory. It’s faster moving, but it’s still hypothesis-testing. Given that my perspective is that we’re dealing with complex human beings and complex environments and those things interact in very uncertain ways, I ask what will have the most positive impact, what will change things, how to move forward.”

Sage Advice

Tracking McGaugh

Key dates in James L. McGaugh’s ascention to administration
1982 Became director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory
1975 Named Irvine’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, and executive vice chancellor three years later
1967 Dean, Irvine school of biological sciences
1964
-’75
Founding chair, University of California, Irvine department of neurobiology and behavior
1959 Received PhD in physiological psychology from University of California, Berkeley

What would those who have been there advise younger scientists considering a move into administration?

McGaugh: “I’d say be very careful, because in order for it to work, all of the stars have to line up perfectly. Otherwise, you are going to be bogged down in administrative work and sacrifice the best part of your research career. If you get diverted to something else, it’s very hard to get re-tracked. As much as I enjoyed what I did, I’d have to caution a young person, because the odds of succeeding are not high.”

Atkinson: “I think there’s value in having experience in a series of administrative jobs, and not making too big a jump at one time. I’m not a fan of people seeking to be administrators. I prefer to have people let it come naturally. And you should always have the option of returning to teaching and research. If there’s something that interests you in administration, fine, do it, but always with the assurance you can return to research and teaching if it doesn’t go the way you had hoped.”

Capaldi: “If you enjoy it, it’s very rewarding. I think the way to get into it is to make yourself useful. Then people start using you and one day you become in charge. Some think that administration is all paperwork and bureaucracy. Administration, in my mind, has nothing to do with paperwork and bureaucracy. It has to do with analyzing situations and figuring out how to improve them. Some people enjoy that and find it rewarding, and those are the ones who should do it.”

Cantor: “From my perspective, I don’t ever want them to think of it as diverting careers. It’s important to keep one’s diverse engagements alive. Obviously, if you’re president of a university, you’re spending more time on university decision-making than you do designing studies, but it’s important to keep one’s persona as a scholar and educator alive. My advice would be to keep one’s identities multiple and complex, not to think of oneself as only on an administrative path.”

And what about that mountain in Antarctica? It was named Mount Atkinson to honor the former NSF director for his interest in the Foundation’s Antarctic research. He’s never climbed his eponymous mountain, Atkinson said, “but I’ve flown over it. It’s very cold down there!”


Observer Vol.17, No.11 November, 2004

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