At a recent seminar talk, I was amazed to note that one of the two coauthors (not the presenter) was the president of a large and well-known university, since I had always assumed that taking on such a position would necessarily mean the end of a research career.

  • Are there m/any examples of people that continue to do substantial amounts of research when in a senior administrative position, such as dean, provost, president, etc.?

  • Do research faculty often become deans, presidents, etc.? Why do faculty usually do this? (I understand that there might be a pay increase, but does it usually indicate that they no longer want to do research as intensely?)

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    It seems silly, but I think some people are attracted to the prestige of these jobs.
    – Jim Conant
    Oct 29, 2014 at 16:21
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    Where I sit, we have a faculty member as Director, and a manager that does the actual administrative work.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 29, 2014 at 18:13
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    Some people don't like research, or get tired of it. Some people don't like teaching, or get tired of it. Research can also be a burn-out job.
    – user1482
    Oct 30, 2014 at 1:37
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    I have a former undergrad colleague of mine that has gone on to do outreach and promotion of science after his PhD. He gets to meet with important people, such as government heads and ministers (or secretaries of State, I think they're called in the US). I always say that one idea he manages to get into a politician's head does more for science than all my papers combined.
    – Miguel
    Oct 30, 2014 at 8:33
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    Do research faculty often become deans, presidents, etc.? — As opposed to whom? I'd be surprised if less than 95% of deans, provosts, chancellors, presidents, etc. were previously tenured faculty.
    – JeffE
    Oct 31, 2014 at 14:16

6 Answers 6


In these positions, one gets to influence the direction of the whole university, rather than the direction of the research of 1 to n individuals. At such magnitude, one can effect more change.

Often people get disgruntled with the way things are run at the level they are currently working. The only way to fix things is to move to more managerial positions. Don't like the way the Masters program is run? Become Coordinator of the Masters Programme. Don't like the way the faculty is being run? Become Dean.

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    Then you get there and discover your hands are tied in various ways. :)
    – Jim Conant
    Oct 29, 2014 at 16:20
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    @JimConant: And not in a good way. Feb 8, 2015 at 18:30

In answer to the first half of your titular question, "Why do research faculty pursue administrative positions, such as dean, provost, president, etc. ?"

This was the subject of a study several decades ago:

Robert A Snyder, Ann Howard, Tove Helland Hammer, Mid-career change in academia: The decision to become an administrator, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 13, Issue 2, October 1978, Pages 229-241, ISSN 0001-8791, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0001-8791(78)90048-9.

To quote this study on the main reason professors chose to switch or not to switch to an administrative track:

A predominant finding in this study was that the attraction of an administrative career for a professor was most attributable to its promise of increased power and authority. In contrast, the professorial career had greater appeal because of its relative autonomy and freedom from organizational demands.

Please read the paper for methodology, limitations, etc.


I can imagine that one reason a researcher might want to take on an administrative role is it allows them to become more of an advocate for scholarly research. Instead of doing research themselves, they can empower other researchers by ensuring adequate funding, facilities, equipment, and resources are available to perform research.

Can they convince governments/donors to continue giving funds to the institution in the face of budget cuts? I think these sorts of considerations would be something a researcher would have an interest in the outcome of.

Whether or not academics make for good administrators is another issue, and would depend on one's individual background.


Any professor with a large research group has effectively made the transition to administration already. The realities of managing more than a few people working for you on research projects means that a large chunk of one's time is already consumed by writing reports, pursuing funding, managing personnel, etc. The actual amount of time hands-on with research vs. directing and enabling research to be carried out by others typically rapidly decreases as the size of the group rises. From this perspective, the transition to higher-level administrative positions like center or department head, and from there to wider-scope positions like dean or provost may not be as large as it appears.


Related (in a way): Why do academics write peer reviews? At some point in a researcher's career, it comes down to giving back to the community, and part of what the community requires is not only exciting new research, but also the day-to-day administrativia. Bluntly said: someone needs to wash the dishes.

And while there may be non-academic managerial people (chancellors etc.) to do the day-to-day administration, it should really be academics that set policy for an academic environment. So I'd argue that many academics that move into an administrative position do so out of a sense of duty to academia as a whole.

(Of course, there are also the power-hungry types, or those who like the way an administrative position gets them into the limelight and the press more often.)

Finally, at least in Germany, it is common for professors who take on administrative responsibilities to have their teaching load reduced, so the bite doesn't fully come out of research, but at least to a degree out of teaching. Usually, you will make sure to get relieved of giving the less interesting introductory lectures but keep the more advanced ones, so your pipeline of potential grad and Ph.D. students doesn't dry up.

  • Giving back to the community: Exactly, and I suppose that is also why those positions are sometimes "passed around". At some universities, every few years, another professor gets to be dean of their respective general field of research at their university; it's their turn at "giving back to the community" and the effort is somewhat evenly spread among the (more experienced) professors across longer amounts of time. Oct 30, 2014 at 12:41
  • It's also the case that you can get positions without "pursuing" them - at least in my institution, most such positions are mandated to be re-elected at fixed times from the relevant faculty; everyone knows everyone else, and even if noone is actively pursuing the position, one way or another it must end with one of them being elected to that job. So you get some horse-trading regarding other duties (e.g. teaching) and someone gets given the title.
    – Peteris
    Oct 30, 2014 at 14:23

Some do, some don't. Naturally, administration is different kind of work from that of the scholar. There are only so many hours in the day. But administrators have to come from somewhere, don't they?

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