Career Entrapment: Planning, Professional Development Can Help. Administrators Avoid Missteps to Nowhere
by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Stacy Robinson almost didn't pursue the offers he received for jobs in higher education. As a late entrant into academia, Robinson, who had spent six years as a professional football player before earning his master's degree in business management, realized the few positions that would get him into the arena were often those which were, in essence, designed for women and minorities. Ultimately, they were dead ends.
He feared his higher aspirations would be doused by the reality of limited potential for movement through the ranks of higher-education administration. He contemplated, instead, going into private industry.
In the end Robinson decided to move from his New Jersey home to Minnesota several years ago to work in multicultural affairs at a university, confident that his managerial talent and his creativity in planning his career would help him to reach his goal of eventually earning a doctorate and becoming an academic dean.
"Most people in my position in multicultural affairs have that fear of being pigeonholed . . . in having that title of only being able to work with students of color," said the former wide receiver for the New York Giants, who recently took over as director of multicultural affairs at Minneapolis Community College. "This was my foot in the door....Once you're in the system you have to sell yourself. You have to prove yourself in the regular administrative [tasks] that are universal... your impact on students, your management skills."
Minorities and women are more apt to pursue such positions to gain entrance into academia, said Suzanne Forsyth, director of the Office of Human Resources for the American Council on Education (ACE). However, because the number of such positions has increased considerably over the years and competition for them is more limited than other openings, they may not be the best vehicle for succeeding in administration.
"I have always felt that minority professionals should steer clear, women too, of roles that are too much advocacy-oriented. They get into those areas and they can't break out [into] the mainstream," she said. Careers in affirmative action and student services are often tracked positions, she said. "If you are an affirmative-action officer, you may be an affirmative-action officer for 30 years."
Like Robinson, many newcomers to higher education enter through these positions because they are most accessible, but the potential and limitations of jobs depends on how much the institution values those services, said ACE's Marlene Ross, who directs the Fellows Program.
"Obviously when that's the only opportunity open for people, they will take it. Increasingly those jobs become marginalized and they are not considered to be at the core of the institution," Ross said. "It becomes more and more difficult to move back into the more integral part of the institution."
But if administrators in those positions carefully plan their career course and even stretch their responsibilities and activities into other areas, experts say, they should be able to break through the proverbial glass ceiling that many higher-education officials agree still exists.
"If you start out in the minority affairs area you are probably less likely to get [to higher levels] unless you do some other things to go along with it," said Beth Wilson, the assistant to the president and affirmative-action officer at the University of Oklahoma central office. "You have to get some variety. You have to find avenues to make yourself multi-dimensional, so that people see you in other arenas . . . so that they start looking at your potential to move in other directions."
Wilson, who has a law degree, holds two other faculty appointments at Oklahoma, including adjunct associate professor of human relations and adjunct assistant professor of health administration. …