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As the Spirit Moves Me

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This is the first time in more than a half century when I am not planning a return to school after Labor Day. I don't need to get a new lunch box, wardrobe, or haircut, or face the annual apprehension about the challenges that lie ahead. I am on sabbatical between a deanship and a faculty position. A sabbatical is an ancient biblical concept -- even in Leviticus those working in the fields were commanded to take a respite. It means to cease work, to take a rest. Though it is anything but.

Departing deans at major universities offer several justifications for this hiatus. First, we are often dangerously rusty in our teaching and scholarship. (When I taught last, the World Wide Web was a dazzling new concept.) Academic administrators need time to catch up to their colleagues. Second, we are deemed due this honor - deans allegedly work hard and earn the right to a break. (I don't get much sympathy from nonacademic friends, though, for this argument.) Third, this gets us off the premises so we don't meddle in our successor's plans. Fourth and perhaps most persuasive: we are likely to make productive use of this time. We have an overflowing bucket list of deferred projects and a proven work ethic that makes us a good risk.

Deans' jobs typically focus on what may not be running as well as they could, or on the mundane details of budgets, space, policies, and human resources -- so faculty and students can focus on education. We mediate internal conflicts and advocate for resources with university leadership and alumni. We work on the edges of what is most joyous about academe. I found myself envious of those who could indulge in the very academic programs I helped create, and sought every opportunity to participate in the intellectual life of my own college. Now it can be my turn to be fully engaged in our educational activities.

Others, especially outside academe, tend to envy a sabbatical opportunity, even as I try to project, perhaps disingenuously, what a burden this is. I do appreciate this precious gift of unstructured time. In fact, I plan to work as hard as when I was dean. Only then my life wasn't entirely my own. Now it can be.

If, on average, 90 percent of life is just showing up, for deans that percentage is even higher. I didn't realized what a managed career I had had. I dressed for the job, went on time to the office daily, attended meetings, followed a predictable annual academic calendar of responsibilities and events, and participated in innumerable evening and weekend functions. I internalized the tempo, the duties and deadlines, and the seasons. With online connectivity, I was never not working. I grew accustomed to the limelight, where I did what was expected -- conversed, addressed audiences, and extoled the virtues of our programs, faculty, and students. All with genuine passion, energy, and sincerity, but with a rhythm and predictability I took for granted.

I don't think I appreciated then what a powerful a metaphor it would be to take my tie off. Organizational life is confining, even strangling at times. I have since donated most of my ties and suits, and sworn never again to have a job that requires them. Not being on stage is a surprisingly easy adjustment. I have deepened campus networks and built others throughout academe and beyond. Though as dean I strived to be an academic entrepreneur, I find I can be even more inventive now. I can conspire and collaborate with others voluntarily, not defined or confined by prescribed roles. As dean, I had consciously avoided an addiction to the perks of power -- nice offices and expense accounts, rampant conspicuous consumption, and excessive sway over others -- so withdrawal is unlikely to be a problem.

I think of my days now as planned spontaneity. I lost mental count at about 26 projects in process. However, no one cares when, where, and how I do any of them. I can let the spirit move me (as, for example, with this blog), and focus on what seems important -- a project, an idea, a conversation. I am a research fellow at a leading business ethics center, and have appointments with a national professional organization and a major publishing company, focusing on online distance learning. I can write, research, consult, advise, travel, mentor -- and have so many balls in the air that I need to keep extensive lists, reminders, and time lines to make sure I don't drop any.

I try to balance the present (through my reputation as an innovative educator) with my future (to contribute to the study of ethical and social issues in management). Creatively leveraging what I already know, while exploring what I will need for my faculty career. I have reverse engineered my course preparation -- and know what I need to know to be ready for the classroom. I have always been a full-time administrator throughout my academic career, and never taught more than one course at a time. But I now have at least seven different courses in the hopper, and face a new limelight next year when I enter the classroom, with its visibility, anxieties, and uncertainties.

I would describe myself more as an insatiable student of many things than a smug scholar of one. I will need to work hard to make my next stage appear natural. It would have been easier to change deanships and institutions, but instead I am significantly reinventing myself all within the same environment. This is both a privileged opportunity and a daunting challenge. A sabbatical almost feels like work. Though not quite.

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College. While on sabbatical, he is a Research Fellow at Bentley University's Center for Business Ethics, the 2013-2014 Innovative Fellow for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, and the first Wiley Deltak Faculty Fellow.