As a graduate student, you’re generally shielded from layers of administration that don’t affect your daily life, which unfortunately means that after we defend dissertations and take up faculty positions, many of us are virtually ignorant of what administrators do and of how to interact with university leadership outside our own departments. Once you are in a faculty position, the decisions of university leaders such as chancellors, provosts, and deans will have much more tangible effects upon your career and life.
As a graduate student, probably only one level of the university commonly affects your life, and that is the level of the department, the basic academic unit of our postsecondary education system. As a graduate student, you navigate among your fellow graduate students and the faculty who teach graduate courses, supervise research, and supervise the teaching you do. That navigation is typically limited to the confines of your home department (interdisciplinary trends aside). In terms of administrative layers, that’s about all the typical graduate student ever has to worry about. Unless, that is, you’ve gotten yourself into some large-scale trouble, which I’m going to assume you haven’t.
But once you become a faculty member the world gets bigger. You suddenly are forced to become aware of the layers of administration above you. One way that you become aware of administration is through the cynical, snarky jokes that some of your colleagues will make about specific administrators, or about that really nasty boogeyman, the nameless, faceless "administration" in general. The jokes and the cynicism are so omnipresent that they almost seem like a condition for employment in higher education at times, but the jokes mask the fact that many junior faculty members have never received instruction on what it is that specific administrative roles accomplish. Until you actually know what a dean or provost does, you haven’t earned the right to be cynical (due time, due time).
There are essentially four levels of university leadership within typical organization structures that faculty members need to be aware of, the department (led by a chair or head), the college (led by a dean), the provost, and the university chancellor or president. At liberal arts colleges, which are by definition relatively small institutions, the dean and provost roles may well be combined. Within American universities, related departments are generally organized into colleges, and institutions comprising multiple colleges are universities. A department head or chair will lead an individual department. Whether the individual is called a "head" or a "chair" varies slightly between university governance systems. Another variation is whether or not the departmental leader is elected by the faculty of the department and then affirmed by higher administration, or simply selected by administrators at the college or university level. I’m going to assume that this departmental leader is one whose role even most junior faculty are familiar with, so I won’t dwell here.
Outside of your own department, things become a little more complex and foreign. Let’s start, literally, at the top.
Again depending on the nature of your university’s organizational structure and/or state law, your university is led by either a chancellor or a president. This university leader is responsible for everything that happens on your campus, to include not only academics, but also the budget for the institution, and absolutely everything that falls under the