168 Letter from Nancy McGehee


Thoughts on Being an Academic Administrator

I’ve created a video recording of the following and posted it on YouTube in case that’s more your cup of tea:

As I wrap up a seven-year stretch as Department Head for the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, it occurred to me that I should share, in a straightforward and no-nonsense way, a few things I’ve learned. No fuss, no frills, no catchy phrases, just the plain and simple truth from my perspective. Some items are practical, some are more philosophical. All are in no particular order; which means please no assumptions that the first item is most important and the last is least.  Here goes:

Always remember that for all of us academics, 99% of the world would change places with us in a heartbeat. We have the greatest job on earth, whether it’s as a faculty member, administrator, researcher, or even – gasp – graduate student!

From the start, I set out to be more like Payton Manning and less like Brett Favre (American Football reference); Payton Manning stepped away from the NFL before his athleticism started to fail but after he had reached his goals. Brett Favre retired and returned several times, long after his abilities had faltered. I had goals I wanted to reach, people I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to stay so long that either folks began to resent me or vice versa.

Have a good boss. If you are recruited for a position, or are thinking about administration, you must be able to communicate with your higher ups.

Speaking of your boss: have a coat of armor handy because one of your main jobs will be to get resources for your people. Fight for budget, fight for salaries, fight for grad student support.

Network, network, network! You never know when a quick call to that person you met at a happy hour or during a university-wide meeting will go so much easier just because you can put a face with a name.

Create a vision statement and a community values document with your team. Then put it on your desktop, tape it to the wall in your office, make it your ring tone, whatever it takes to remind you of it every single day.

Have a to do list. Assign a deadline date to each item. It’s basic but crucial.

My friend and colleague Professor Candice Clemmons once told me: “treat everyone the same, and that’s uniquely.” You need to learn about folks and what motivates them, what sparks their passion.  If a faculty member loves teaching undergrads, reward them with resources that help them focus their energies that way. Got a research faculty member who churns out the top tier manuscripts? Support them as much as you can with grad students and other resources.  Make them all feel like they are your “favorite” (just like my Mom used to do). If you aren’t sure what sparks their passion, ask!

Be an ally, have allies. Be a mentor, have mentors – you need a stable full, a personal board of directors, not just one mentor. Amplify each other, especially with your women colleagues.

Put the time in and show up prepared. Really, that’s basically it. You would be surprised how much this sets you apart from folks!

Persistence pays: If you get a “no” the first time, come back and ask again. If you explain your stance and get ignored, say it again.  And again. And again.

Got conflict? Face it right away, rip off the band-aid, address the issue, then move on. Don’t take it personally, because most of the time it’s not, and when it is, it doesn’t change anything to get worked up about it. And once it’s resolved, show the person or persons you’ve moved on.

Regular face time with faculty is crucial! I’m best with a one-on-one format; see what works for you, but keep it consistent, especially with junior faculty.

Care about your people. Celebrate victories! Also share in the hard and sad times.

The position can be lonely. There is a great deal that you have to keep confidential and sometimes that is a heavy burden. Find ways to manage this, whether it’s a journal, a therapist, a close friend who doesn’t work with you and can keep secrets, someone.

Be specific and sincere with your praise. Be clear about your constructive criticism. Follow up in writing so there is a record of both!

Recognize the irony that many faculty who get up every day and teach small and large groups of students are actually introverts! Provide various ways for faculty to communicate, either via email, in one-on-one meetings, and both verbally and on paper in faculty meetings. I am a huge fan of flip charts.

Start every meeting asking for positive input. I ask each faculty member to share their good news at the beginning of each meeting. It can be personal or professional. It takes a few minutes, some do not always participate actively, but we learn a lot and it starts us off on the right foot, recognizing the good things that are happening around us and seeing the humanity in each of us.

Most folks, and by most I mean the overwhelming majority, are good people. Imperfect but good at the core.  A very, very few are not.  Lead assuming that everyone is good people, recognize how fortunate you are to have so many good people around you, but recognize the reality if there are the rare few who are not.

If even the smallest corner of your mind thinks “what if?” start now by paying attention to your own department head, director, or dean. What do they do that you like? Dislike? Offer to take on leadership roles like undergraduate or graduate curriculum chair, serve on college and university committees that expose you to leadership styles as well as afford the opportunity to lead yourself.

Being an administrator is difficult, challenging, rewarding, amazing, and frustrating. I’m so glad I did it, so glad I experienced all of those “feels.” I encourage you to think about the possibility for yourself!


Nancy McGehee

Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, United States


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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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