Academic managers unite to provide continuity, support

Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- "Before the AMG, we basically had to rely on ourselves and our circle of colleagues and friends. This was a way of connecting us to one another and also to the administration, and it has been successful."

The leadership of the Academic Managers Group includes (from left): Barbara Sutton, Woodrow Wilson School; Judy Hanson, history; Judith Ferszt, American studies; Marilyn Ham (standing), music, who chairs the steering committee; and Cass Garner, humanities council.


Ask a member of Princeton's -- Academic Managers Group about the organization, and you'll get more than a quick explanation.

You'll get a 30-page spiral-bound notebook detailing the group's goals, activities and members for the year.

This group of Princeton administrative staff members is well organized -- and they have to be. Academic managers typically perform all of the non-academic functions necessary to run a department, center or program. These include handling budgetary and financial matters, overseeing human resources activities such as faculty searches and appointments, managing physical resources and serving as a liaison between faculty, staff, students and visitors.

Princeton's academic managers have discovered they're a pretty unique group on campus. "There aren't many people who have to deal with every department on campus," said Judy Hanson, history department manager. "One of the things that we end up having to do is deal with almost everybody at some point in time -- it might be facilities, planning, development, grant management, public safety. This is an incredible range of things."

Eleven years ago, that uniqueness brought these employees together in a formal organization called the Academic Managers Group. "The AMG was developed as a way of connecting all the managers to one another," said Scott Kenney, mathematics department manager and one of the original members of the group. "Before the AMG, we basically had to rely on ourselves and our circle of colleagues and friends. This was a way of connecting us to one another and also to the administration, and it has been successful."

There currently are about 65 academic managers at the University. All are invited to be part of the Academic Managers Group, and about 35 are active members.

The full group meets four times a year. Much of the group's work is accomplished through a 10-member steering committee elected by the members and through five standing and two ad hoc subcommittees. The steering committee also includes one ex officio member each from the offices of the provost, dean of the faculty, human resources and treasurer.

The Academic Managers Group has four broad goals: to enhance communication between academic units and central University offices; to represent the perspectives of academic units in administrative policymaking and in the daily operations of the University; to provide opportunities for professional development, education and training; and to nurture an environment for mutual support and communication among academic managers.

"The AMG is a really successful organization," said Beth Harrison, English department manager and a member of the group's steering committee. "We can look at some of the things that have happened at the University and can trace them back, in a large part, to our group. For example, the DeSC (Desktop Systems Council) initiative -- putting like machines in offices with common software -- that came out of the work of the AMG computing subcommittee."

Once they have identified an issue, subcommittees have designed and administered surveys, collected material, written reports and developed recommendations that are distributed among the group and to the appropriate administrators for possible action.

Group members say they've also enjoyed representing their constituency on various University initiatives, reviews and search committees. For the last two years, they have been working with other administrators at the University on a comprehensive guidebook for use by academic managers.

"One of the things that has become very clear as the group has developed a steady state is that the academic managers are really the administrative continuity of the academic departments," Hanson said. "I think that the solidarity of the group has reinforced that, so that key administrators have become much more comfortable in terms of going to the department managers and including them, along with the chairs and directors, in conversations regarding academic business."

"Our goal is to improve the administration on campus -- to help things work more efficiently," added Judith Ferszt, program manager in American studies. "That benefits the entire University."

Increased professionalism

One way the group hopes to do that is by championing increased professionalism within its own ranks. The group works to provide professional development opportunities for its members, including an annual conference on topics ranging from critical thinking to conflict resolution. This year's event will focus on stress management.

Members say that one of the most important benefits of being a member of the group is the support of others across campus who are dealing with similar issues and tasks. Group e-mail messages keep members apprised of everything from University policy changes to apartments available for visiting faculty members.

This kind of support has proven invaluable in problem-solving, according to group members. "If you put out a problem you're having around a table of managers, it's so interesting how you get lots of solutions," Harrison said. "You can go back to your department with confidence and do something you might not have thought of before because three other people said, 'Here's how I handled it, and it worked really well.'"

As a result, she said, strong mentoring relationships have developed between group members. "I'm always amazed how there's always someone to call or to run things by or to form an ad hoc committee to address an issue," Harrison said. "It's a group where people really step up to the plate."

Regrouping this year

Marilyn Ham, music department manager and chair of this year's steering committee, said the Academic Managers Group currently is in the processing of "regrouping." Lately, group members have been preoccupied with handling such issues as increasing decentralization of administrative functions and the challenge of new technology.

"We found that over the last couple of years, in response to all of these issues, that we kind of got away from our subcommittee work because we didn't have time to do it," she said. "We had to survive. We had to learn these systems. We had to figure out how we were going to take on new work that was being passed on to our offices."

"We don't know of any other job where every computer system comes into play," Harrison said. "We have to do the grant management software, the course offerings, time collection, HR records, purchasing, dean of the faculty. We came up with 12 different University systems that now have to be handled in-house."

"It causes one to have to rethink the way work is allocated within the department," added Hanson. "The ability to retain good staff becomes much more meaningful because it takes a lot longer to bring a new person up to a fully functional level. It makes it harder to bring in temps and help them be productive because there's all this special learning that goes into what used to be simple day-to-day duties. Those are issues that for us have a particular kind of resonance because of the great range of departments with which the academic managers have to deal."

At a retreat this year, the group focused on re-emphasizing the work of the subcommittees. "We decided it was time to be more proactive in how we dealt with those issues," Ham said. "One way would be to reconstitute our subcommittees and get back to work with administrative offices on campus in an attempt to affect things before they were passed on to us."

One challenge that looms large on the horizon for academic managers is the pending 10 percent increase in the student body. The academic managers are hoping to help shape the University's response to these and other issues down the road.

"We add a lot of value to the University," Ham said. "We've been instrumental in a lot of good things. We want to be included in the discussion because people perceive that there is value in going to department managers."

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