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.