Monday, December 21, 2009


Ask the Administrator: What Makes a Good Dean of Students?

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've applied for a dean of students position for which I know I'm unusually well-qualified and temperamentally suited. However, thanks to the economy and the desirability & location of this school, I also know there will be as many as several hundred other well-qualified applicants. The handful of us lucky enough to get an interview will be asked to campus for a full day.

If you or any of your readers have any suggestions for day-long interviewing for a dean position (as opposed to a faculty one), I'd be glad to hear them.

I have several friends and colleagues who have been deans, but all of them were pulled from within, appointed as Interim Dean of Whatever, then later made permanent (or not), so they never interviewed cold. In this case, I happen to know that an internal hire is less likely than usual, so there is a real shot for external candidates.

If you were building a perfect dean of students for a small four year college, who would that person be? If you were on the hiring committee, what could an applicant do to persuade you that they were the right fit?

I like this question a lot, though I have to stipulate upfront that the answer is very context-dependent.

Deans of students are different from academic deans. Academic deans usually come up through the faculty ranks, spending some time as a department chair or something analagous before moving into a deanship. (That's what I did.) Deans of students are likelier to come up through something like counseling, and to have Ed.D.'s (as opposed to Ph.D.'s).

A dean of students has to have a bit of a split personality. You need to be upbeat, outgoing, and comfortable with all kinds of students. Depending on the size and culture of your college, you may or may not be in charge of "student activities," which is the "cruise director" on campus. But you're also expected to handle disciplinary issues, appeals, very sensitive personal information, and all manner of conflict. (The dean on "Community" seems to be a dean of students, and for all his nebbishness, his scope of duties is pretty accurate.) On most campuses, deans of students will have to deal with issues ranging from athletics to extracurriculars to academic dishonesty dismissals.

The single best administrator I've ever seen was a dean of students. She had an easygoing manner that was somehow both welcoming and discreet. She had a gift for defusing conflict, but she could also convey a sense of comfort on stage. During the time that our tenures overlapped, I made a point of studying how she worked.

Faculty interviewees often have to show that they're incredibly good at a relatively narrow specialization. (That becomes more true as the institution gets larger.) Deans of students have to be generalists, and have to be okay with that. In terms of an ideal presentation, I'd look for a display of range. As always, be as specific as you can be without violating confidentiality. (Making a point of your awareness of the need for confidentiality can actually help.) Have you helped foreign students navigate the rules unique to them? Have you mediated difficult confrontations between students and faculty? How much experience do you have in constructing and following quasi-judicial processes? Have you made a point, in the past, of coming in on the weekends to watch games? Can you articulate a reasonable balance between respecting students' legitimate concerns and upholding the integrity of the academic process, including grading? (Some deans of students seem to think that the student is always right and the professor always wrong. This is the kiss of death.) Have you planned major events, like Spring Fest? Are you conversant in the ins-and-outs of FERPA, residency requirements, criminal background checks, and the various permutations of new student orientation? Have you developed (or helped develop) an enrollment plan for an Admissions office? How would you assess outcomes in, say, counseling or financial aid?

Fit is tricky, since so many of the variables are time- and place-bound. My approach to 'fit' as a candidate has been to try to get the most accurate possible sense of the kind of administrator I actually am, and then to go in there as the best accurate version of myself. If I fit, great. If I don't, I don't. (I went on one interview a few years ago in which I knew in the first ten minutes that it wasn't gonna happen. But going through the process helped me improve my presentation for the next one.) It may not maximize the chances of getting a particular job, but I think it maximizes the chances of succeeding in a job once you're there. This strategy requires some self-awareness, so most people can't really do it. But if you can, I recommend it highly.

On the bright side, a good dean of students can quickly become a respected figure on campus, and can make a positive difference in the lives of students, faculty, and staff. It's a great job if you have the background and temperament for it.

Finally, my generic interview tip for any professional position: don't wear something for the first time. If your shoes hurt or squeak, or the label from your shirt cuts into your neck, you'll be needlessly distracted and off your game. Besides, anything that looks too new will betray you. Dress in a way that gives you confidence, and that you won't have to worry about.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- what would you look for in a dean of students? Any useful presentation tips?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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