Adopting the Administrative Portfolio
A New Use for a Popular Assessment Tool
By Peter Seldin and Mary Lou Higgerson

From the January 2002 AAHE Bulletin


Academic administrators are being held accountable, as never before, for how well they do their jobs. The demand for accountability has become a groundswell across the nation, and it has forced institutions to assess the productivity and examine the cost effectiveness of each department and each program, as well as the individual performance of each academic administrator.

In the past, factual information on administrative performance has been skimpy at best. Typical administrators have been unable to present solid evidence of what they do, much less why they do it.

Yet in the absence of factual information about administrative performance, how can it be evaluated? How can it be rewarded? How can it be improved? And how can institutions give the administrative function its proper role and value in the educational process?

There is a new way for colleges and universities to respond to the pressures to improve systems of administrative accountability: the administrative portfolio. An adaptation of the teaching portfolio, it is an approach that is increasingly recognized and respected.

In fact, the administrative portfolio is an especially good way to get at both the complexity and individuality of administrative performance.

What is the portfolio? It is a factual description of an administrator’s activities, strengths, and accomplishments. It includes documents and materials that collectively suggest the scope and quality of an administrator’s performance. It allows administrators to display their accomplishments for examination by others. And, in the process, it contributes both to more sound personnel decisions and to the professional development of individual administrators.

In recent months we have discussed the administrative portfolio concept at different colleges and universities. We also presented papers on it at several national conferences. In the course of this activity, the administrators or professors in our audiences raised certain questions with greater frequency than others. This article is devoted to answering those questions.

What’s the logic behind portfolios?
Earlier evaluation methods, such as evidence of impact on college/university committees, were like flashlights. That is, they illuminated only those administrative skills and abilities that fell within their beams. As such, they shed light on only a small part of an administrator’s performance. But with the portfolio, a searchlight replaces the flashlight. Its far broader beam discloses the broad range of administrative philosophy, attitudes, abilities, skills, and goals.

How is a typical portfolio organized?
It usually starts with a one-page introductory statement that provides the portfolio purpose and sets the institutional context and administrative unit. An independent liberal arts college and a department of psychology, for example. This is typically followed by a two- to three-page description of specific administrative responsibilities (programs, policies, faculty, staff, students, budget), as well as a reflective statement of administrative philosophy, objectives, and strategies. The next section of the portfolio usually contains two to three pages of performance evaluation data from multiple sources (superiors, staff, subordinates, faculty peers, students, alumni). The portfolio continues with sections on administrative innovations (What worked? What didn’t? Why?), efforts to improve and develop performance, evidence of impact on areas of responsibility (annual reports, participation levels), most significant accomplishments, and short- and long-term administrative goals. Typically, the portfolio is housed in a three-ring binder.

How does the administrative portfolio differ from the usual end-of-the-year report to an immediate superior?
First, the portfolio empowers administrators to include documents and materials that, in their judgment, best reflect their performance. It is not limited just to items requested by their immediate superior. Second, the purpose of the portfolio determines what material is included and how it is arranged. Third, the portfolio is based on collaboration and mentoring. It is not prepared by administrators in isolation. Fourth, in the very preparation of the portfolio, administrators are often stimulated to be reflective about why they do what they do. For many, this reflection produces — almost as a by-product — an improvement in performance.

How long is the typical portfolio?
The typical portfolio has a narrative of approximately eight to 12 double-spaced pages, followed by a series of appendices that provide documentation for the claims made in the narrative. (Some institutions put a ceiling on the number of pages they permit to prevent data overkill.) An important point: The portfolio is not a “fluff” document. Every claim of accomplishment made in the narrative must be supported by hard evidence in the appendices.

How much time does it take to prepare a portfolio?
It depends on whether the administrator currently prepares an annual report. If he or she does, much of the material will already be on hand and portfolio preparation will probably take between 12 and 15 hours, spread over a number of days. But if the administrator does not usually prepare an annual report, the needed documents and materials are likely to be scattered and less organized. In that case, it probably will take between 15 and 20 hours, spread over a number of days, to prepare the portfolio. Whether the administrator has an annual report or not, a large part of the preparation time is spent in thinking, planning, gathering, and sifting through the documentation.

Don’t all portfolios look alike?
Not at all. The portfolio is a highly individualized product. Both the content and organization vary widely from one portfolio to another. They are grounded in the specifics and contexts of a particular administrative position in a particular college or university at a particular point in time. Different administrative positions cater to different types of documentation. For example, the position of graduate school dean in a research university is worlds apart from that of sociology department chair at a small liberal arts college. And the position of vice president of academic affairs at a community college is far removed from that of director of an academic division, even at the same institution.

Can an impressive portfolio gloss over weak administrative performance?
Absolutely not. Why? Because the portfolio is an evidence-based document. Supporting material must be included for every claim made. The weak administrator cannot document strong performance. The evidence is just not there. For example, an administrator who claims to have boosted student retention rates by 5 percent must provide hard data in the appendix to support that statement. Fancy computer graphics and an elegant portfolio cover cannot disguise weak performance for an administrator any more than they can for a student.

Why would very busy administrators want to take the time and trouble to prepare a portfolio?
They might do so to gather and present hard evidence and specific data about administrative effectiveness for those who judge performance. Or to provide the needed structure for self-reflection about which areas of their performance require improvement. There are other reasons why administrators might prepare a portfolio.

  • To prepare materials about their administrative effectiveness when applying for a new position.
  • To seek administrative awards, grants, or merit pay.
  • To document for themselves how their administrative style has evolved over time.
  • To acquaint their new supervisor with the evolution of the position and the breadth of their activities and accomplishments.

How do portfolios prompt reflective practice and improvement?
In the preparation of the portfolio, the administrator is forced to ponder personal administrative activities, organize priorities, rethink administrative strategies, and plan for the future. Portfolios display the thoughts behind the action, not just the results. The process of thoughtful reflection augmented by the gathering and integrating of documents and materials provides data to assist the faltering, to motivate the tired, and to encourage the indecisive.

Why is collaboration important in preparing a portfolio? 
Although portfolios can be prepared by the administrator working alone, this isolated approach has limited prospects for improving performance or contributing to personnel decisions. Why? Because portfolios prepared by the administrator working alone do not include the collegial or supervisory support needed in a program of improvement. And, importantly, there is none of the control or corroboration of evidence that is essential to sustain personnel decisions. In addition, collaboration ensures a fresh, critical perspective that encourages cohesion between the portfolio narrative and supporting appendix evidence.

Why are portfolio mentors and models so important to administrators who are preparing their own portfolios?
Since most administrators come to the portfolio process with no prior experience with the concept, the assistance of a mentor is especially important. The mentor provides resources, makes suggestions, and offers steady support during the portfolio’s development. In the same way, portfolio models enable administrators to see how others — in different administrative positions — have combined documents and materials into a cohesive whole. (Our book, The Administrative Portfolio, contains 13 actual portfolios that have been developed and used by administrators in different positions and in different institutions across the country.)

What is the value of self-reflection in an administrative portfolio?
It’s one of the most valuable parts of the portfolio. Serious, thoughtful, self-reflection can help administrators uncover new discoveries about themselves. The following topics may assist in the process of self-reflection:

  • How do you work with faculty members (or chairs or deans) who are struggling in their jobs?
  • How do you work with students who are academically struggling?
  • What parts of your administrative position do you handle most (or least) effectively? Why?
  • What new administrative strategies have you tried in the last year? How successful were they?
  • What did you learn from the success (or failure) of those new approaches?
  • What have you learned about yourself as an administrator that needs changing this year?

How would you suggest encouraging resistant administrators to prepare portfolios?
Some administrators automatically resist portfolio development. They say they are not comfortable as self-promoters, or have neither the time nor the desire to keep a record of their accomplishments. And, they say, the portfolio technique is unproven. But these arguments can be disposed of by pointing out that this is an age of accountability and that administrators need positive documentation to support accomplishments and need to convey these accomplishments and contributions clearly and persuasively to others for inspection. As to the view that the portfolio approach is unproven, the counter argument is that hundreds of administrators at scores of colleges and universities have already successfully used the portfolio approach. The administrative portfolio concept today is in its infancy, exactly where the now widely used teaching portfolio approach was about 10 years.

What guidelines would you recommend for getting started with portfolios?
A climate of acceptance must be built at the institution. The following guidelines should be helpful:

  • Obtain top-level administrative support (the president or academic vice president) for the portfolio concept and an institutional commitment to provide the necessary resources to launch the program successfully.
  • Involve the institution’s most respected administrators from the beginning.
  • Don’t force anyone to participate. Instead, rely on administrative volunteers.
  • Include some volunteers who are new to administration and others who are new to the institution.
  • Start small.
  • Use the carrot, not the stick, approach.
  • Keep everyone fully informed about what is going on every step of the way.
  • Field-test the portfolio process at the institution.
  • Allow sufficient time — a year or even two years — for acceptance and implementation.

Are the time and energy required to prepare a portfolio really worth the benefits?
In our view, and in the view of virtually every administrator we’ve mentored, the answer is a resounding yes. It usually takes no more than a few days to prepare the portfolio, and the benefits are considerable. What are those benefits? Many administrators find that the process of portfolio development itself is a stimulus to self-improvement. That is reason enough to consider putting one together. But the portfolio does more than that. It provides an opportunity for administrators to describe their professional strengths and accomplishments for the record, a clear advantage for personnel decisions. And many colleges and universities are finding portfolios a useful means to underscore administrative effectiveness as an institutional priority. In light of the national movement to accountability, we think that readers will agree that these are important benefits.

Peter Seldin and Mary Lou Higgerson are the authors of The Administrative Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Personnel Decisions (2002), Anker Publishing, Bolton, Massachusetts; 256 pages; $39.95. This article is based on their research for that book.

The book is available from local and online booksellers and from the publisher at www.ankerpub.com.

Peter Seldin is distinguished professor of management at Pace University, Pleasantville, New York. Contact him at pseldin@pace.edu.

Mary Lou Higgerson is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio. Contact her at mlhigger@bw.edu.


Administrative Portfolio Workshop
Peter Seldin will present a preconference workshop on administrative portfolios as part of AAHE’s 2002 AAHE National Conference on Higher Education, March 16-19 in Chicago. The workshop will be held Saturday, March 16, from 9 a.m. to noon. All workshop attendees will receive the book The Administrative Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Administrative Performance and Personnel Decisions. For more information on the conference, see www.aahe.org/nche/2002.



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