Thursday, January 27, 2011


"A Professor in a Suit"

I’ve seen some very intelligent professors crash and burn as deans. This article reminded me of a phrase I’ve heard to describe them: as deans, they were just professors in suits.

Academic deans are in awkward institutional positions. (I say “academic” to distinguish them from, say, a dean of students or a dean of HR.) They’re usually responsible for a given set of academic departments, and are expected to have some sort of scholarly background in a discipline within their purview. A liberal arts dean is assumed to be the advocate for the liberal arts departments, for example.

In most cases, deans aren’t elected, and they don’t report to the faculty. They report to the chief academic officer, who usually has a title like ‘vice president’ or ‘provost.’ (At smaller colleges, sometimes it’s ‘associate deans’ reporting to the ‘dean of the faculty.’) Although deans are nominally affiliated with a given set of academic programs, they are actually accountable to central administration.

That fundamental tension can make the role hard to sustain.

Deans who forget either side of the dilemma tend to fail. She who presents herself entirely as The Administration’s Emissary will quickly alienate the faculty and thereby become ineffective. But she who thinks of herself as the faculty’s defense attorney is also setting herself up to fail. At the end of the day, while deans can and should have a good sense of faculty culture and needs, they need to put the needs of the college first. Often, that will involve saying ‘no.’

The tensions are worse during budgetary crises. When budgets are (relatively) flush, it can be possible to have one’s cake and eat it too. But when cuts follow cuts and more cuts, the basic contradiction in the dean’s role becomes painfully clear.

The most successful deans I’ve seen -- and it took me years to really figure this out -- understand that there’s something like a credibility bank. Showing the CAO that she understands institutional needs and perspectives can buy her the credibility to go to bat for her departments from time to time. (The corollary to that is that becoming known as the uncritical advocate actually reduces one’s effectiveness as an advocate. When people roll their eyes at your turn to speak, it matters little what you say.) When the chronic whiner whines, it means nothing; when the “good soldier” complains, it carries weight.

Implementing cuts means saying ‘no’ far more often than anybody likes. It can easily exhaust the dean’s (or the administration’s) credibility account, even if it needs to be done. This is an emotionally draining position to be in. People tend to shoot messengers, and to ascribe motives. In settings in which faculty have tenure and deans don’t, it’s no wonder that smart people aren’t exactly lining up for these jobs.

The IHE piece pointed out again that there’s a pretty severe succession crisis looming for upper-level academic management. That’s true, and I’ve seen it myself, but the roots of that crisis are at lower levels. Chief academic officers typically come from the ranks of the deans. As deans’ roles become less appealing and more tenuous, I’d expect to see fewer people try for them. In fact, that’s already happening.

I can hear some folks thinking “hooray! fewer administrators! more money for me!” There may be some truth to that in the R1 world, but at the cc level, administrations tend to be pretty thin already. Some tasks simply have to be done to keep the institution running. Those tasks can be done by people with teaching experience and a sense of academic culture, or they can be done by people from the business world. There’s a pretty good argument that the former would be preferable, but attracting successful and respected tenured faculty to jump into a no-win, untenured role in which they will be routinely vilified, for a surprisingly small salary bump, is a hard sell.

Yes, good mentoring would help. ( In the absence of that, I took to pseudonymous blogging to crowdsource my mentoring.) But even good mentoring can’t get around a basic structural problem. In the meantime, as long as deaning consists largely of saying ‘no’ and absorbing personal abuse, I expect the paucity of good candidates to get even worse.

I wonder though if this projected dearth of deans might be somewhat similar to the projected dearth of professors from a few decades ago - namely in that it never materialized. I don't think this will be a crisis as long as there are SOOOOO many part-time faculty barely earning a living. A predictable, full-time salary will, I'm sure, outweigh the downsides of the admin. job.
I don't think this will be a crisis as long as there are SOOOOO many part-time faculty barely earning a living

The institution I worked for would never consider a part-time person for a deanship. You had to be a tenured full prof just to apply for an associate dean position. It's a waste as 50% of the faculty at my school were part time and many had made their careers there - one was the queen of the academic senate.

When it came time for me to move up into an admin role, I left for another industry. I needed to develop my skills more than I could as an academic lecturer - not sure I'd ever go back as the decision bumped my pay by 40% and now, I work fewer hours.
@Anon 6:31: sure, but that can change at any time. Something which is completely under the college's control to alter is the sort of thing that does actually change when the positions stop getting filled.
There are thousands of students enrolled in "ed leadership" grad programs. These will be the administrators for the next generation, for better or worse.
Anon 9:43

That might be true at the CC level but I've only see that work for strong internal candidates at the CC who qualified for their position with a Master's and then wanted to move up.

Ed.Ds work in the K-12 admin arena but I don't see them as taking over any time soon in the higher ed realm. There's a mystique to the Ph.D which garners respect that the Ed.D never will.
But even good mentoring can’t get around a basic structural problem.

Although I agree, and recognize the problem at my own institution, I know that others also recognize the problem at my institution. Therefore, I suggest that you re-frame this by recognizing that it might be YOUR CC's structural problem. That is, the solution is to change those parts of the structure you can change now or in the near future.

One of those might be to ask what the payback time might be for solving your retirement / young hire problem. Another might be to give people some bits of actual responsibility and see who has what it takes.

... as long as deaning consists largely of saying ‘no’ and absorbing personal abuse, I expect the paucity of good candidates to get even worse.

I'd suggest hiring Craig Ferguson's talking skeleton as the "Asst to the Dean for saying 'No'".
OK DD, when do you add value to the institution? I mean you personally, in your dean position, and not just as the generic mediator between admin and faculty.
its a great article i really found it very informative and help full
thaks to share and i hope that you will keep it upate
Only someone who has never mediated could refer to a mediator as "generic." Few of my actions have expressed so much of my personality and reputation as when I have mediated. :)
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