THE BLOG
08/22/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

An Encore Professor

Encore careers are becoming far more common -- as we live longer, with more interests and options, and with the need to work for both the pleasure and income it provides. After four decades as a university administrator, I am now following in the footsteps of my father and my son, both university professors. What is most remarkable about academe is that these dramatic job changes can occur within the same enterprise, and in my case within the same institution.

I had stepped down as a dean and received the standard sabbatical, which I relished. I had a long list of what I hoped to accomplish, with some unexpected opportunities emerging along the way, so that it felt far less restful than unrelenting. To my surprise I missed very little of the deanship, despite how much it had defined my life. While I had always embraced opportunities to interact with faculty, colleagues nationally, and with current and past students, I now realized an ex-dean still has an extensive network, without the routines of the job. I used this year to research, write, present, visit universities, mentor start-up educational technology companies, and collaborate on a number of fascinating initiatives. But the primary task that loomed over me was to develop courses and prepare for the classroom.

A typical academic career follows a linear pattern: from graduate school to junior faculty status, to enough scholarship and credibility to earn tenure, and then perhaps to an administrative position as chair, dean, or beyond. For some, this becomes a point of no return.

My career trajectory was the opposite. I started as a junior administrator and worked my way up and across three institutions in the Boston area, and along the way earned my doctorate, wrote extensively, and developed several courses I enjoyed teaching. I embraced discussion-based classes and even some unconventional settings (rustic retreats, prisons, visiting gigs at foreign universities). Teaching, though, was always secondary to my day job. I now have the opportunity to reverse that. Starting next week I will have a full-time teaching load, a windowless office, none of the status and perks of a deanship -- and I couldn't be happier.

I committed to what I would have advised a new professor never to do in a first year -- five of my six courses are unique preparations. And, in my case, all but one required identifying (and even writing) original materials and experimenting with various formats. I opted for variety over efficiency. But I have had a year (perhaps a lifetime) to prepare, a career of carefully honed obsessive organizational traits, and a somewhat clean slate so that this rookie year feels like a brand new experience. I wasn't willing to sacrifice any of the three major teaching interests I had. I will be teaching corporate social responsibility and ethics, issues and innovation in higher education, and, in the spring, a new course designed for visiting international students on American institutions and culture.

The dangers of deaning -- and of academic administration generally -- is that you enter a rarified world remote from education itself, addressing problems, focusing on projects, following routines and rituals, while leaving the essence of the enterprise to the faculty themselves. In fact, deans are most successful when their professors are sheltered to focus on their work. Despite my best efforts to stay engaged with faculty and students, day-to-day annoyances often crept in and distorted the reality of the more important work occurring in my college.

This is perhaps analogous to career ladders generally -- many of us become remote from what drew us to the work we do -- as well as a lesson for encore career changers -- we need to seize opportunities to shed the drudgery and embrace the new. (For me, donating my ties and suits to charity was a key symbolic moment.) Careers need to be more mazes than ladders -- where we can experiment and explore new options without assuming that there is a prescribed, progressive path to follow.

The choice to reinvent rather than retire is both exhilarating and daunting. Perhaps unique to academe, I can embark on this new career somewhat seamlessly within my own institution, within familiar surroundings. But it still feels like starting over, as perhaps teaching always is when you meet a new cohort of students for the first time. While you plan as best as possible, you realize that you are about to confront the unknown the moment you enter the classroom.

Jay A. Halfond is a former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College, now joining the full-time faculty.