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?

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