There are many different kinds of leaders among faculty on university campuses. Some lead by their examples of extraordinary scholarship. Some lead by being role models of excellent teachers. Others lead by becoming examples of real service to the institution. Still others perform administrative duties in addition to their scholarly duties.
Most faculty chose their careers to pursue scholarly interests in particular fields, to push the frontiers of human understanding in a discipline, or to invent new combinations of knowledge to solve real world problems. Administrative duties are generally not thought as useful to such scholarly goals.
Over the centuries universities have created subunits of scholars in the same field, most often called departments, but sometimes programs. When such units exist they often require some administrative work (e.g., assignment of teaching duties, faculty-student interactions, performance reviews of faculty, hiring of new faculty). Department chairs, program leaders, assistant and associate deans were positions that grew to serve the faculty, assure efficient use of university resources, and achieve equity goals in work conditions across departments.
Academic administration, like all administration, requires motivating colleagues, dealing with tradeoff decisions, catalyzing innovation, assessing performance, and assuring shared commitment to common goals. It’s not easy work. Leading faculty is often best done by those who have the complete respect and confidence of their colleagues on issues of excellence in teaching, research, and service to the common good.
Most universities have evolved to having full professors perform such administrative duties. That group has already experienced the two lifetime promotions that are possible — a promotion from assistant professor to associate professor and then a promotion from associate professor to full professor. They have generally assembled the largest set of scholarly publications, and hence, can risk a period of time with lower scholarly productivity as they pursue administrative activities. They are less likely to have the burdens of developing new courses for their teaching duties. They tend to have the life experiences and years with of dealing with faculty issues that together give them wisdom of how to deal with student and faculty concerns.
In contrast, assistant and associate professors, regardless of their talent for administration have the primary duty of strengthening their research and teaching prowess. They need time to demonstrate that their scholarly achievements and teaching performance meet the rigorous standards of the next promotion. Having assistant and associate professors perform large amounts of administrative work harms their careers in most cases. The full professors in a unit have a duty to assure that their lower-ranked colleagues have full support to earn promotion to the next level.
Throughout a faculty career, there is a time for building one’s research record and a time for institutional contributions, there is a time for honing one’s teaching skills and a time for administration. It makes sense that the time for major administrative duties comes after faculty members have demonstrated their prowess in research and teaching. For those multiple reasons, full professors should shoulder more of the administrative burdens of faculty governance. When they do so well, all ranks of the faculty benefit.