Monday, May 15, 2006


Good Dean, Bad Dean

A reader dropped me a note to ask what makes a bad dean, and what makes a good one.

It would be easy to trot out the old Anna Karenina “every good dean is the same, but every bad dean is bad in his own way,” but that wouldn’t really be true on either side.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve only ever worked as a dean at teaching-oriented places (a for-profit and a cc). So the world of a dean at a research university is probably quite different, and I really can’t speak to that. Anybody who can is invited to comment.

The role itself is highly context-dependent. Someone who makes a great dean under one vp may tank under another one, just because the two vp’s have different conceptions of the role. (In my six years of deaning, I’ve reported to five different bosses, and I only changed schools once.) Some vp’s (or deans of academic affairs) like to use the Trump boardroom model, in which deans engage in gladiatorial combat for resources. I find this model barbaric, and I freely admit that I would suck at it. But, for whatever reason, it’s not unheard of. The deans who thrive in this setting tend to be bloodthirsty cretins.

Some vp’s use deans as errand boys/girls, and/or as flak catchers. In this model, the vp makes the actual decisions, and the deans are human shields. I’m not awful in this role, but I hate it with a passion. Responsibility without control leads to stress, and once the faculty figure out how the game is played, they simply start bypassing the shields altogether. I’ve seen two ways to survive in this system; either simply don’t care, or put an incredible amount of time into schmoozing your faculty, to build relationships on a personal level to counteract your basic organizational irrelevance. I don’t care for it.

Some vp’s use deans as mini-vp’s of their own areas. This is certainly my preferred model, although it runs up against some natural limits. The most obvious natural limit is that many core issues (funding, facilities, union issues) cross jurisdictions, and can therefore only be handled at the higher level. Still, this model at least gives the faculty some reason not to spend all its time doing end runs around the dean’s office, and it carries the advantage of allowing experimentation.

In terms of personal traits, I’ll respond with what a dean in a reasonably functional culture would need. Some basics – solid academic credentials (to gain the respect of faculty), intelligence (without this, you’re roadkill), good communication skills (the core of the job, really), patience with trivia, a pretty unflappable temperament (temper tantrums are death to credibility, and constant worry won’t help either), the ability to multitask, the ability to not take other people’s anger personally (since you’ll see a lot of it), the ability to stand your ground when attacked, and at least some sense of the big picture. Plenty of brilliant faculty make or would make lousy deans, since they don’t have the unflappability, the patience with administrivia, or the stamina to put in all those hours physically at the office (or out at events) without getting conspicuously (and damagingly) cranky. This is especially true in June, July, and August, when faculty are away and you still have to come in every damn day.

Depending on context, you might also need skills in facilities management, grantwriting, labor relations, customer service, political infighting, amateur psychoanalysis, kissing up, threatening, praising, interviewing, and public speaking, among other things.

(I’d give myself pretty good marks on most of these, with room for improvement on schmoozing, infighting, and kissing up. Nobody’s perfect.)

One of the reasons that baseball is superior to most human endeavors is that the skills needed to succeed in the minor leagues are the same skills (more or less) needed to succeed in the majors. But the skills of a good department chair are often quite different from those of a dean, and those of a dean may be very different from those of a vp. Micromanagers or control freaks can thrive as department chairs, but they become less effective as they climb the ladder. The higher you go, the more the big picture matters.

How do you spot a lousy dean? It’s tough, since sometimes what looks like a lousy dean is, in fact, a capable manager dealt a crappy hand. Still, there are telltale signs. Is your dean prone to public displays of temper? Does s/he change direction on a dime? Does s/he play favorites? (NEVER NEVER NEVER do this.) Does s/he cut a lot of backroom deals? Have you caught her in a lie? (If so, did she ‘fess up?)

Readers’o’mine – what deanly traits have you seen work or not work?

You come in every day throughout the summer? Wow. That's not actually all that common in a dean, in my experience.

As for other traits that work, I'd say a very good memory is part of the issue: for faces, since you'll have potentially hundreds of faculty members who expect you to remember them as well as for issues and concerns that keep popping up.

A good dean should also have the students' viewpoints well in mind: I've seen some deans that excel at managing faculty but don't seem to take into account the students as anything more than cogs in the wheel. (Conversely, and more rarely, in my experience, are deans who excel at student issues but really don't see faculty except as providers to the students.)
"Plenty of brilliant faculty make or would make lousy deans, since they don’t have the unflappability, the patience with administrivia, or the stamina to put in all those hours physically at the office (or out at events) without getting conspicuously (and damagingly) cranky."

Some time ago, Dean Dad, you compared the rhythm of a semester to a sprint, whilst the dean (and most of the office staff) are running a marathon.

It's not a bad metaphor. Sometimes, however, the image of a fireman making steam on a heavy freight train climbing Seventeen Mile Grade is more apt. Once May arrives and the grades are in, the summit is crested, the pops lift, and it's time to think about that cold bath at the Y.

So why might a faculty member get cranky with the administrivia? I know not what sort of administrivia your colleagues must deal with, but at an Upwardly Mobile Regional Public (that has midwived a Speaker of the House and an emerging court intellectual for the opposition) it keeps changing. And from the perspective of the fireman, a lot of it (requests for information, changed emphases, changed policies for allocating resources as enrollments rise, more enrollments without more resources) has the same effect that ten cars cut in just ahead of the caboose with the brakes tied down would have on the fireman's ability to make steam, and his attitude as the train bogged down on the grade.

(And that it's worse in France is scant consolation.)
From my entirely selfish perspective, a good dean makes my job in the classroom easier, a bad dean makes it harder.
Playing favorites; making promises and then breaking them; ignoring faculty recommendations after soliciting them; saying that X matters when really the school runs on Y; unnecessary secretiveness.

That's a short list, but I have to go pick PK up at school.
I think communication's one of the biggest keys to being a good dean; a good dean can tell me "no" and explain why. I bad dean makes the "no" seem personal or stupid or whatever, rather than revealing that it's a matter of budget issues or other real world things we can't change.

A good dean acknowledges problems, and doesn't pretend they don't exist. If the school has a history of sexism or racism in whatever ways, and is working to change that, super. But don't pretend that everything's instantly fine, and don't further advance people who got ahead in large part because they were white males in that system.

Even if you're not part of the history, recognize that it's real for other people, and that you have to recognize it and deal with the aftermath (if you need to).

Be fair, and don't play favorites. Don't ever be stupid enough to publicly say "while I was hanging out with the guys at the Z men's club, we decided X about Y at the school." A dean that says that may THINK he's not a sexist, but the women hearing that think differently. (Yes, I've heard that one from a dean.)

A good dean enables better teaching, advising, research, etc; a bad dean creates more busy work and paper work.

A good dean runs useful meetings. A not as good dean runs meetings that aren't useful to the people involved.

A good dean buffers faculty and students from the whims of others when she can; a not so good dean leaves people hanging in the wind.
Bardiac -- Ouch! It takes a special kind of stupid to do that, which is to say, I believe you.

I don't know why so many people have such a hard time not playing favorites. Then again, I'm the kind of voter who mostly ignores personality. Sigh.
A good dean makes university happen, transparently.

A good dean has a secret orchard of money trees.

A good dean eliminates the need for adjuncts.

A good dean empowers faculty to empower students.

A good dean is a selfless manager of time, everyone else's.


A bad dean lacks a vertebral column of sufficient ossification, and resolve.

A bad dean appeases instead of taking a position. (We like to call our dean's annual "Open Student Forum" the Munich Conference.)

A bad dean blames his faculty for his own failures, to students, to senior administration, to reporters.

A bad dean doesn't listen, or speak. He tells.

A bad dean is afraid to address the social realities of campus life for faculty and students, e.g. ignoring the effect of pan-campus [blank}-ism on student performance.

A bad dean thinks he's a C-suite suit for a F500 company.
Hoo Doggies. Not so sure about the Good Dean part, only because I've had the bad dean, in spades! Your analysis of the traits of the Bad Dean is right on the money, and I've seen it firsthand. The current Dean of Sadistic College has in effect drained away whatever little trust there might have been before (with stodgy but basically decent chap Old Dean), and the effect it has had on campus life is palpable. Perhaps a Good Dean is one who tries to avoid, however one may, the pitfalls of the Bad Dean, whom one can smell a mile away. In my book, any Dean is a Good Dean who doesn't lie, cheat, steal, backstab, or otherwise try and kick you when you're down or not lookin'. So, my standards are pretty low, in fact. Or does that make them high? One thing is for sure: once you've had the Bad Dean, it is very, very hard to trust *any* Dean ever again, although one takes it one day at a time :-)
A good dean picks good chairs and then sits back
«ignoring faculty recommendations after soliciting them» BitchPhD hits it right on the nail. It seems so common a behaviour... Except that is when they don't even bother asking faculties (or the different services that may be concerned) for their opinion…
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