How We Spent Our Summer Vacation

It is common on college campuses to say that "the faculty are gone for the summer." Of course, many faculty members really haven't gone anywhere: Professors are still conducting research in their labs, teaching summer courses, and working on long-delayed research projects. But there are fewer people and a noticeable slowdown on campuses during the summer months.

How faculty members spend their summers is well known, but what about college staff and administrators?

Summer is an obviously hectic time for the folks in buildings and grounds who are busily painting dorm rooms, trimming trees, and resurfacing parking lots in preparation for the students' return. Less visible is what college administrators do in the summer.

Even with a quieter campus, the typical summer for administrators is as busy as the fall and spring semesters--and, at times, busier. Regularly scheduled meetings continue for us during the summer. And many administrators also use those months to assess progress on goals set forth in the institution's strategic plan and to determine what areas need special attention in the coming school year.

Many offices--human resources, the academic departments, the provost's office--spend the summer working hard to prepare for the influx of new hires that will soon be arriving on the campus. Administrators issue contracts, arrange for office space, purchase computers, and plan a new-faculty orientation.

Other offices plan the institution's fall convocation and the complicated new-student orientations that most institutions sponsor. In fact, the student-affairs division often works in overdrive during the summer, preparing residence halls, student events, and myriad other tasks that must be tackled before all of the students come back.

Most taxing is the work that must be done in preparation of that dreaded June 30 deadline: the end of the fiscal year for most institutions. Throughout May and June, administrators in every office scramble to reconcile their books. They might need to transfer funds from one account to another to cover a deficit. Or they might hurriedly purchase equipment and supplies because they have money left in their accounts. (Institutions often "sweep" unspent dollars back into the general fund at the end of a fiscal year.) It is a time of great anxiety and activity on the part of many administrators and staff assistants.

And, of course, budget planning for the next year proceeds throughout the summer. As one provost quipped to me just the other day, "You don't simply flip over a new page of the checkbook and begin again on Check 101. Exhaustive planning has to take place."

Then there are the countless summer retreats. The president may organize a retreat with the vice presidents and other key officials to review the past academic year and plan programs for the new year. Various vice presidents sponsor their own retreats with key officials in their divisions. The provost, for example, will probably hold a planning retreat with deans and other academic administrators. Each dean may organize a similar retreat with department chairs and program directors. Even department chairs will hold retreats for their faculty members, although those events tend to happen late in the summer when "the faculty have returned" to campus.

What are we talking about in all of those retreats? Things like: how to handle Homeland Security issues on campus, deal with sexual-harassment complaints, organize procedures for disaster preparedness, and adapt to a new computer system.

In public higher education, many system-wide coordinating boards use the summer to conduct workshops aimed at briefing different groups of administrators on new regulations and at coordinating efforts among the system's various institutions. Trustees at public and private institutions also make use of the summer hiatus--holding long formal meetings with their presidents, evaluating their performance during the previous year, and discussing plans for the institution going forward.

The summer is also when many administrators take advantage of professional-development opportunities. The major associations typically offer summer institutes and workshops for college presidents and other officials. The American Council on Education, for example, offers separate institutes for new presidents and new chief academic officers, as well as specialized sessions, such as a recent one focused on how chief financial officers and chief academic officers--perennial rivals--can work together more effectively. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities holds summer meetings of its Council of Presidents, Council on Student Affairs, and Council on Research Policy and Graduate Education. And the American Association of State Colleges and Universities holds a summer retreat for presidents, this year devoted to a single topic: "embracing the opportunities for positive transformation that come with rapid change."

So how have most administrators been spending the summer?

The same way we spend much of the academic year--in meetings. That might not appeal to many people, but for many of us in higher education, those meetings are an opportunity for professional renewal and education. Just as faculty members typically shift their attention and work during the summer months, so do college administrators. College business may have its seasonal rhythms, but it never comes to an end.

Note: A version of this column appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.