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.

I know I'm unusually well-qualified and temperamentally suited[.]

Thinking and saying shit like this is a massive red flag that the applicant is gonna suck total ass at being an administrator, *especially* something like Dean of Students.
Wow. I'm sorry I won't be as erudite as whoever posted the last comment....

At the very least, I'd like to give kudos to the college who is bringing candidates to campus for an entire day of interviews. This strikes me as an increasingly rare circumstance, as my last two interviews (successful ones - whew!) were for less than 90 minutes total.

As for pearls of wisdom, I think DD is right on - to thine own self be true. The personal chemistry between a candidate and the culture they are hoping to enter varies widely from campus-to-campus. If a candidate acts in a way that they perceive will get them the job, they'll be exposed quickly thereafter.

If you belong there you'll get the job. And if you don't get it, it is not a condemnation of you or your skills and may be as simple as "fit".

The other thing I might mention is take care in the questions YOU ask. There is always a chance to show you've done your homework and are really interested in this job (as opposed to merely using thios post to continue your move up the chain of command), but be wary of being too pointed in addressing troubling issues. A keen knowledge is one thing, coming off as a know-it-all or lecturing your colleagues is quite another.

I learned that one the hard way as a young admin. But I feel fortunate that the decision maker on that committee took the time to "coach me up" when the process ended, and did it without making me look foolish. I remain grateful to a person I still regard as a mentor.

Best of luck. Enjoy the process for all it's worth. Smile. And let us know how it goes.
As always, great answer Dean Dad. One thing is to find out who the decision-maker is for the hire and see if you can get an idea of what they are looking for. Reporting to a provost may be very different than reporting to a vice president for student affairs.

Another thing that makes a good dean of students is understanding the balance of education vs. discipline when it comes to student conduct. DD mentions that some deans see their office as one big complaint dept in which they need to always advocate for students. You need to really think about student development and the role of facilitating effective student behavior across many dimensions (academic, social, ethical, etc). As a general issue I think student affairs professionals forget about their role in student development (i.e. what are student learning outcomes facilitated by student affairs).

I would also suggest that a good dean of students understands four year outcomes for students in such a way that they avoid the unnecessary adverse relationship with faculty. Often student affairs professionals see themselves as "fighting for parity" with the faculty. That is usually a futile (and unecessary) effort.

Finally, don't promise students that they will have input on everything. That's a killer for students when they find out they really don't, and its a killer for the DOS when they face the unchangeable at higher administrative levels. Advocate for students, but don't overidentify with them.

Best wishes!
Tell me how you'll blend academics AND the fun stuff. Too many student affairs admins I know plus academics into a corner. And let us get involved! How will you handle the difficult situations (a student who, oh wants to live in the woods on campus--happened locally). Tell us how you'll be visible. One local dean of students is easily recognizable, know what he's trying to do, has confidence and energy that just radiates from the moment you meet him. (I wish I worked for him!)
I'm glad you mentioned "Community", DD. That guy was the first thing I though of!

I would assume that the Dean of Students at a small 4-year is comparable to the VP of student affairs at our large CC, so DD's remarks look spot on to me. However, be sure you know the exact scope of duties. Recruiting and orientation but not admissions? Mental health? Safety? Retention? Alumni affairs? Big parties on a small budget?

My version of CPP's comment is that if you create the persona of the "perfect" Dean of Students and manage to get the job as a result, your tenure might be short and unhappy as soon as the persona falls away and the lack of "fit" appears. I suspect that I have seen this happen.

Although I have no idea if the faculty or academic side of the college have any input on this hiring decision (they have very little here), I will second what DD said about "the student is always right and the professor always wrong." The people hiring you probably want someone who is "student centered", but that can go too far if the Dean's actions in a disciplinary role serve to undermine the educational mission and learning goals of the college.
I think it's important to realize that there's an entire field of student affairs administrators who have worked for and studied for exactly this job throughout the course of their careers. If a candidate were to come in from the academic side of academia and speak of how well prepared he or she is, s/he would be setting him/herself up to look rather foolish compared to the people already in this field. As a comparable example, imagine a very experienced person coming from industry and applying for a teaching job, stating that though they've never taught at a college level they just know they'll be great at it. Same thing.

So, take some time to research the student affairs and student development publications. Familiarize yourself with the research so that you can speak intelligently about student development theories and practice. But realize that you are making more of a career change than it may at first appear.
The dean of students at the kind of college described here has a very difficult job - at least I think so. Apart from everything else (and there is a lot of everything else), he or she also has to deal with horrible human problems involving students, in what is a very tight-knit little world in which everybody knows everybody else and the bonds formed between them are close, sometimes unhealthily so - and operate in this respect in a weird nebulous area in which counseling has to flip easily into discipline.

Speaking as faculty, this is the person I rely upon to deal with a lot of stuff that I don't even want to know about, and that, if it's not properly handled, has terrible repercussions for the college community. I'd want to be sure that the candidate was up to that.
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