Episode 2 – with Tammi Cooper
May 9, 2019
Terri Givens: Hi, it’s Terri Givens, the CEO for Higher Education Leadership, and on today’s podcast we are talking to Tammi Cooper. But first I want to welcome you to the Higher Education Leadership podcast, we are part of the Center for Higher Education Leadership, which is an organization that has a mission to empower leaders, particularly in higher education because we all know we can use a little help now and then.
And today, like I said we are talking to Tammi Cooper, one of our contributors for our newsletter, Higher Ed Connects, and you can find that newsletter at www.higheredconnects.com. We just launched our first newsletter, our first official newsletter. We had our introductory newsletter that went out previously, but we are very excited about getting this going, and we are very excited to have Tammi as part of our team. She is currently an associate dean in the School of Business at Northcentral University, where she works on strategic planning and initiatives, professional accreditation and oversees curriculum and assessment, and if you haven’t noticed, on our website, we also have a current guide on assessment which is a great resource. Tammi, welcome to the podcast!
Tammi Cooper: Thank you Terri, I’m so excited to join you today, thanks for the invitation.
Givens: Yeah, this has been really great getting to know you over time, but I wanted to check in and find out a little bit more about what you had to say in your article on the transition to higher ed leadership. So first of all, could you tell me, what was your first administrative position and what were some of your considerations in taking it on?
Cooper: Sure, so my very first administrative position was to step into an assistant dean of learning students success role. And so that first role really I was given the opportunity to work in academic success center on freshman retention, freshman orientation, programming. It was a really exciting entry into an administrative role with students who were new to being students as well. I look back at the parallels of the student groups I was serving, and they were new to what they were doing and so was I, so it was an exciting time for me. Some of the considerations that I thought about in taking on that role, was what was I most passionate about? And that’s truly important to me, and it was important when I considered taking on this first role because most of us enter into higher ed, if not all of us, in a discipline, you know, we’re coming to, excited about the teaching and learning process, and engaging with students, and we’re excited about the discipline that we’re teaching in, and for me that was management. I thought about, do I want to stay teaching because I like my discipline management, or do I want to try this new role? And for me, I really saw it as a way for me to kind of put my discipline in action, if you will, so coming from management I was able to begin working administratively and putting some of those theories and ideas and concepts into action. And I also thought about, I really like impacting students, and this would give me the opportunity to impact students across discipline, expand who I worked with, and also develop new skills. Those were the main things that I considered while transitioning.
Givens: That’s interesting. I’m curious, you know one of the things I had to take into consideration when I went into administration, was the time it would take, and how that might impact my potential research opportunities, so I’m curious if you had some of those considerations as well?
Cooper: You know, when I started as a faculty member, I was at a teaching institution, so we didn’t have heavy research requirements, so for me, I focused more on do I want to leave teaching and end my discipline, so yeah a little bit different for me, but I had to make the decision do I want to leave teaching or not.
Givens: I think that’s a big consideration because I know that most of my administrative roles, when I’ve tried to teach it’s been hard because you just feel pulled in different directions, otherwise you just have to give up the teaching. And that’s a big decision to make when this has been something you’ve been working towards throughout your career.
But, in any case, I’m curious, one of the things that I talk often about is the people who mentored me along the way and I’m just curious if you had any mentors who helped you, or any particular role models that you had to help you as you made the transition.
Cooper: I did, and I agree with you, I think that’s really important, and I don’t think that I knew how important it was until I was making this transition. I had a mentor at my institution at the time who really provided opportunities for me to participate in university wide initiatives while I was still a faculty member. This was really invaluable because it gave me a chance to kind of test drive what administration might be like before actually taking on a full time role. So I think from an initial standpoint, having that person in my life that was willing to give me a chance to try things out on a project basis for administration, really helped me to also make my decision that yes, I really enjoyed this and that’s what I wanted to do.
And then I met a more experienced administrator at another university at a leadership conference. We remained friends even still today, and that was over eight years ago. I really returned to her countless times for technical advice on things as I was starting out, like accreditation, she was in my same region, and in assessment, to help me through technical questions, but also just to be a friendly ear that I could talk through tough situations with, to seek her council on how to navigate difficult situations, and really often she provided me with different ways of viewing my situation that really helped me make more effective choices. She had been in my role, and she really embodies things that I really value, she has a deep commitment to what she does, strength, humor and confidence, and sometimes you just need to share something and have someone laugh with you, and just let you know that you’re okay, that it’s okay to have a difficult task, have a difficult day, have a difficult situation, but also someone you can lean on if you have specific technical questions. So for me, I had a mentor who really helped me start my administrative career, and then one who has stood by my side throughout. More valuable than I can articulate.
Givens: Yes, I agree completely. I have several mentors who I stay in contact with to this day who were there for me when I was at the University of Texas early in my career. And I have to say that those are some of the people who really are, like you said, I lean on them when I have difficult issues to deal with, or just need to talk. So I think the importance of mentors can’t be overstated, and actually that’s something that we are going to be doing on our website, is providing opportunities for our subscribers to have access to people who have been in higher ed administration for a long time, and that are good advisors. I think we are going to end up setting it up like an office hours type of situation. I know one of my frustrations even when I had mentors, often they were too busy, I wasn’t sure when I could contact them, and so on. So this way it’s clear to know when somebody is available and when you could reach out to them. I think this is going to be a really good resource from our website But, in any case, I think the role of mentors can’t be overstated like I said, but I think that we also need to make sure that we’re providing more opportunities, particularly for women and people from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds because we need to get more of these people into these leadership type positions.
Cooper: Absolutely, and I think the mentor model that you’re describing, I know for me, I would have loved to have had a way to contact someone, or an established time that I could tap into someone’s expertise. There’s just no playbook for many of the things that we encounter in new administrative roles, and often times they’re unique institution at the time, so what a great tool and resource to be able to connect with a mentor who has experience in areas that you may be struggling with. So I can’t say enough how valuable I think that resource will be.
Givens: I think it’s really critical for people who are dealing with this, especially early in their administrative career.
Okay, so this is a very typical question, but we have to ask it, what were some of the biggest challenges both personally and professionally? I know that I could talk for hours probably about some of my biggest challenges, but pick a couple that you think that would be illustrative of how you’ve managed to be successful in your academic career.
Cooper: Sure, so I think personally for me when I first made the transition, I really carried a lot of my insecurities home, and I dwelled on them at home, in the evenings when I got home and on the weekends, and I began to take up my personal time trying to fill things that I thought I was inadequate in, in my administrative role. And so I had this initial struggle, and I look back now and I kind of think of it now as this get up to speed mentality, and I still struggle, even now, with when to cut work off, but back then as a new administrator, I really felt the strong need to get up to speed as quickly as possible so I struggled a bit personally with just time, but also as a person. I wasn’t used to feeling insecure about my work, so that was a new hurdle with me, was to really recognize that I had some insecure feelings about what I was doing. That was really a big challenge for me, and I would almost describe it as a bit of an imposter syndrome that I went through, because it lasted for awhile, and it took a long time of working on relationships, which is why communication and relationship building is something that I think is key in administrative roles because as I began to do that and do it more frequently and with different people and begin to face things head on, I think those hurdles became fewer for me. But you know, with no playbook, and no way to start with experience, in many cases, it’s really a professional challenge, but it spills over into a personal challenge, or it did for me.
Givens: Yes, I can see that. I struggled with that as well. There’s the whole imposter syndrome side of it, but there’s also just the fact that this is a new job and you’re having to learn a lot of new things, and for me I had a similar situation where I felt like I had to spend a lot of time taking courses or going to conferences and things like that. In some ways it was helpful, but I think there’s a chance that you might kind of overdo it, and not really focus enough on just doing the job. But the taking it home, I totally can relate with. I did that way too much, especially early in my administrative career and luckily in more recent years, especially since I have two boys that I’ve been able to keep a separate space between work and home, so I really appreciate that component.
So, are there any other tips or thoughts you would add? I know it’s a really great article you wrote and I really appreciated the things you had to say in there about that transition. Anything else you would like to add before we wrap up?
Cooper: Sure, I think one thing that is something I recognized later, and I wish that I had thought about this early on, and that is I think we have to approach these administrative roles in the way that we’re most comfortable, and not try to mimic necessarily how others approach the role. So I would challenge those moving into those new administrative roles to really think about the strengths they bring. Think about your strengths and how you can leverage those to be effective in your administrative role and not necessarily connect with a mentor to try and mimic their approach, and for me I think that helped me overcome that kind of imposter feeling or feeling like I wasn’t ready or equipped. I began to just leverage the things I was better at, and work on those things that I felt were weaknesses for me. I really would encourage anyone moving into an administrative role that kind of feels like they’re not comfortable in their skin yet to think about that and leverage those strengths to their advantage.
Givens: That’s really great advice because I know that to a certain extent, for me, it was figuring out what were my strengths and how to best utilize those and the kind of positions I was in. I think that’s something that takes time, but it’s really an important thing to keep in mind. And also, I would just add to that, that relying on others for their advice, for example, staff and faculty and others, and really communicating and listening in on their advice and things they have to say, because we often just focus on mentors, but there’s also people within your staff and on the faculty and so on who can help you figure out which things to focus on and set priorities. Also one thing that I often talk about in the transition, is figuring out the culture of the institution, and also the group you’re working in is, because a lot of times I think that understanding the underlying culture of the organization you’re working in, whether it’s a small unit within a university or a larger university itself, is an important component of being successful as an administrator.
Givens: So on that note, I think that we will wrap up here. This has been a really great conversation and I have really enjoyed talking with you and getting your input. I hope that folks will go out and check out our newsletter and especially our recent articles. Until next time, thanks for joining us!
Cooper: Thank you.