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.