Friday, March 02, 2007


Ask the Administrator: How to Become a Dean

A polymath correspondent writes:

I'm writing today with a situation and a question. I'll start with my goal:
I eventually hope to obtain a deanship. I enjoy administrative work,
and like the challenges associated with moving students through the
system. I also love contemplating the larger issues in higher education. In terms of
education credentials, I recently finished my PhD (in the humanities).
I also have an MA (humanities), and a BS in a hard science. I have
taught part-time, while dissertating, at five institutions, and in front
of graduate, undergraduate, and adult education students. Currently I
advise students, through a dean's office, at a large Catholic university
in a major urban area. This brings me to you: Should I seek a
tenure-track job and hope to gain a deanship from that angle, or should
I continue in advising, slowly working my way up the administrative
side? I ask because it seems to me, in my limited observations (6-7
years), that deans are hired from the tenure-track ranks.

When I got my first real admin gig – an Associate Dean position – another Dean (who quickly became a good friend) dropped by my office with a benediction: “Congratulations, and may God have mercy on your soul.” It stuck with me. So good luck on your quest, and may God have mercy on your soul.

That said, it's important to make a distinction between different branches of college administration.

The side most faculty and professors are familiar with is the “academic” side. To become an academic dean, the traditional path is to go from full-time faculty, to department chair, to associate dean or dean. (Smaller schools often lack associate deans.) There are variations on that – some cc's have 'division chairs,' which are somewhere between a chair and a dean, who report directly to the VPAA or DAA. But the general rule is that you don't move up the ranks on the academic side without at least some full-time faculty experience.

(The exceptions are in very occupational areas, or when somebody is hugely famous and/or wealthy.)

The theory behind the pre-req, I think, is that the world looks different to faculty than it does to almost everybody else, and academic administrators need to be bilingual. On bad days, I sometimes wonder if my job title should be 'translator.' (As an aside, “contemplating the larger issues in higher education” is a very, very small part of the job. I do much more of that in the 20-30 minutes a day I spend writing blog entries than I do on the job.)

My predecessor in my current position didn't have a doctorate or full-time faculty experience. The faculty ate her for lunch. When I showed up with a doctorate, full-time faculty experience, and my own war stories from the classroom, it gave me a modicum of credibility (and the instincts to know which initiatives to simply kill in their cribs, since they'd fundamentally violate the culture of higher ed). I still get my share of static, some of it quite toxic, but at least they can't pull rank quite so easily.

However, the “academic” side is only one part of the picture.

Other major players include the non-credit side (community programs, continuing ed, occupational certificates, corporate training, etc.); the “business and finance” side (purchasing, buildings and grounds, security, accounting); the “student services/development” side (admissions, records and registration; counseling; athletics; financial aid); and the “development” side (fundraising). That's just at cc's; I'm sure that larger universities have additional areas to deal with issues unique to research grants (technology transfer, for example), and the inevitable diseconomies of scale.

Although faculty might be surprised to hear it, the folks who work in the non-academic areas often carve out very satisfying careers, fulfilling missions they believe in and enjoying working in a college setting. Most don't have faculty experience, but they don't need it.

It sounds to me like you're sort of straddling the divide between “academics” and “student development.” If you're aiming specifically at an academic dean position, you really need to find a tenure-track faculty position first. Assuming that happens, the plan of attack would be to get your feet on the ground by focusing on teaching and research for a while. As you gain credibility in those areas, step up and volunteer for the kind of service projects that most faculty shun like the plague. You'll quickly find yourself shortlisted for moving up, since most academics want nothing to do with administration, and won't be persuaded otherwise. (There are certainly fair and legitimate reasons for that, but sometimes I suspect it's a weird psychological corollary of what I've called the “good girl” syndrome.) Your interdisciplinary background can be a handicap in getting that first faculty role, but it can be a real asset in administration, since you'll already be less provincial than many of your peers.

If you could see yourself in a student development role, you can skip the faculty search altogether and try to find a niche there instead. Academic advisement is pretty much a dead end, but if you could get some experience directing projects – or, ideally, directing some sort of center – you could make yourself a lot more portable. This isn't just careerism; it takes more than just faculty to make a college run successfully. If you have the skills and the taste for one of those other roles, you can make a real contribution and still make a real living. No shame in that at all. In fact, at my cc, the VP for Student Development is probably the single smartest, savviest person on campus, and I don't think she has taught a day in her life. But her contributions absolutely make a difference in fulfilling the college's mission.

Good luck.

Wise and worldly readers – especially those with unorthodox career paths – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I think Dean Dad's very on the mark here.

My impression, though, is that Deans get a lot less of the satisfaction of helping students through the system than either faculty members or advising and support side people do. If that's your satisfaction, then you may really want to aim elsewhere. Deans seem to get satisfaction from managine resources, and communicating well so people understand decisions that affect them.

If you really want to be a dean, and not on the other side of administration (and DD is right that people on that side do important, fulfilling work), then trying for a TT job seems the best option.
I would echo what Bardiac says about Dean-ing and individual students. I would add that managing a school's writing center, or some sort of equivalent, might be a great match for you.
Adding to bardiac and maggiemay's suggestions, a college friend works in the office (of a big university) that helps international students navigate through their experience. I think she's now director of that office, so there's room for upward movement there, too.
Adminstration, though, is a growth industry compared to faculty. Universities and colleges seem to always be adding another layer of administration to their ranks.

And there are an ever increasing number of graduate programs devoted to churning out administrators of various kinds. Maybe not deans, but associate deans, or assistant deans, or associate assistants to the vice assistant dean for administrative assitance and oversight. Err ... whatever.

Sarcasm aside, each day when I enter the department office and speak to the department admin. assistant, who has an associates degree (I think), I realize she has far more job security and even mobility than I ever will. So I've got to assume that when you move up the ladder, the job security only gets better.
I would suggest two routes: one is applying for administrative jobs at very big schools -- and instead of being a dean, why not shoot for a job in the provost's office? The other would be applying for faculty jobs at very small schools and either getting three or four years in and making the switch, or getting tenure.

The advantage to getting tenure is -- what if your ambitions do not stop at dean? Or what if they do stop at dean but in order to really be able to compette for good administrative jobs you have to be tenurable? We always bring top academic administrators in with tenure at Zenith, and it is considered crucial to giving htem the kind of independence within the administration that allows them to stand up for their own ideas.

I'm on the administrative side as an Instructional Technologist and I'm looking to move up as well. There seem to be many positions as directors of student learning centers, faculty development centers, study abroad programs, etc. Some of these roles play a large part in determining the direction of many areas of the institution. All that to say that I think there are plenty of opportunities without the tenure-track job.
Polymath Correspondent here.

Thank you Dean Dad for fielding my question, and to everyone else that has chimed in.

It hadn't sunk in with me that I might be able to attain a support-side deanship with ~zero~ teaching experience (esp. for student services). Hmm... Then again, I just learned yesterday that an advising dean/provost at my institution was drawn from the academic side as well - in contrast to Dean Dad's initial assertion. Although that may be/is anomalous to my institution, it nevertheless pushes me into the tenure-track hunt. With that, the replies of Bardiac and Tenured Radical are duly noted.

I admit that I still sometimes underestimate the "pure management" component of even an academic dean's responsibilities. So that caution from both Dean Dad and Bardiac is also noted. The unattractiveness of this component (at least as of today) also throws me into a tenure-track search. Then again, if "pure management" skills were highly desired and solely expected of deans (as opposed to people skills, which others tell me I have), deans wouldn't be hired from the humanities and social sciences part of the academic side at all. But they are, so perhaps I shouldn't let the pure management component scare me.

Maggiemay and klk's comments about managing some kind of center may be right on. I'll have to think about that. The added bonus there is that good options exist at my current school. But I wonder if I'm too ambitious, and would eventually chafe at the bit?

Second line's comments about support-side job security correlates with my observations. That is attractive - a kind of "one-company" stable mentality that feels nice in an old-school, 1950s kind of way.

In sum, I have A LOT to think about. Thanks again to everyone!
Thanks for this post. I typed "become a dean" into Google and this was exactly what I wanted to know. Tenure track it is!
Only 6 years after the original post... I was an adjunct who couldn't get a full time gig. Fortunately I got an offer to try out institutional research. I gradually phased out teaching and increased my IR responsibilities. IR includes assessment, accreditation, compliance and reporting, best practices, strategic planning, and several other areas. While it helps, you don't even have to be a big stats person to succeed. Just work hard, learn where to find stuff and who to ask for help, and a keep a constant interest and willingness to learn new skills.

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