What Paul Ryan’s demands can teach higher ed administrators

Although much of American politics today is frustrating and sad, I’ve been completely fascinated by the power transition occurring in the U.S. House of Representatives over the last few weeks. In particular, I have watched closely Paul Ryan’s role and change of position from I won’t run to I will if my demands are met. While I have fundamental political and policy disagreements with Representative Ryan, I have been quite impressed with how he has handled the situation roiling his caucus. In today’s post, I will share the four demands that Ryan had before agreeing to run for speaker and what Paul Ryan’s demands can teach higher ed administrators.

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Almost immediately after John Boehner announced his resignation as speaker, Paul Ryan was suggested as a potential consensus candidate to bring together the Republican House caucus. Just as immediately, Ryan said he would not be a candidate. Over time, as no viable candidate came forward, Ryan softened his stance and said he would run if he could actually unify the party and if his conditions were met.

I found that situation remarkably similar to how many administrative positions in higher education are filled, particularly academic administration openings. Many faculty initially decline, but are eventually talked into accepting the post. 

However, I think we could all learn something from the demands that Paul Ryan put into place before he agreed to run for speaker.

“First, we need to move from being an opposition part to a proposition party. Because we think the nation is on the wrong path, we have a duty to show the right one. Our next speaker needs to be a visionary one.”

If you’re going to be a new and significant administrator, you need permission and support to be visionary. It is important to be able to implement the institutional vision as put forth by the president, provost, and board, but within your scope of influence you need to be able to create a vision. Administrative work is too difficult and too taxing to just be implementing or advocating without being able to make a true visionary impact. You need to secure the support to create your own vision prior to agreeing to accept an administrative post.

“Second, we need to update our House rules so that everyone can be a more effective representative. This is, after all, the people’s house. But we need to do it as a team. And it needs to include fixes that ensure we don’t experience constant leadership challenges and crisis.”

Most of us don’t have to worry about rules as complicated or arcane as those of the House of Representatives. However, every office and university has its own set of rule, norms, and expectations. Prior to accepting a new administrative position, you should think about what rule or changes you need to have implemented to make you successful in the new role. You have more negotiating power before starting a job than on Day 1. Don’t waste the opportunity that presents.

“Third, we, as a conference, should unify now, and not after a divisive speaker election.”

For positions that require the support of significant constituencies, you would be well served to have the support of these groups prior to accepting a new administrative position. Otherwise, you will be constantly battling to try to gain unity that is not likely to come if it isn’t there from the start.

“The last one is personal. I cannot and will not give up my family time. I may not be able to be on the road as much as previous speakers, but I pledged to make up for it with more time communicating our message.”

Administrative positions often require long hours and significant responsibilities. Decide what you need to support a reasonable work-life balance and insist on this prior to accepting the position. You need to know where your red lines are from the outset so you can protect what is most important in your life. I greatly respect that Ryan is willing to say this publicly and clearly, especially as a man.

Know your demands

Prior to assuming a role, decide what you need up front to be successful and ask for those things before accepting a new administrative position. Paul Ryan’s demands can teach higher ed administrators, who often aren’t the best in negotiating these kinds of things, how to create an environment to achieve significant impact.  I strongly recommend you consider these when you are presented with your next administrative possibility.