Thursday, November 10, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Professional Development for a New Dean

A new correspondent writes with a seemingly simple question:

What professional development do you recommend for a newly appointed community college Dean of Instruction?

I like this question.

First, some context. Typically, academic deans at community colleges don’t have a primary focus on fundraising. That’s different at many research universities, where deans are judged largely on their skills at raising money. So I’ll specify that I’m referring here to community colleges.

Unlike many mature industries, higher ed generally doesn’t do much to train administrators. Worse, much of the culture holds administration in a sort of low-level contempt. (Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is a pretty unfiltered example.) That makes it difficult to have candid conversations on campus about the dilemmas you’ll face. It’s disappointing, but try not to take it personally.

For present purposes, I’ll divide opportunities into the external and the internal.

Starting with the external, my personal Bible has been C.K. Gunsalus’ invaluable The Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide. It’s specific, concrete, thoughtful, readable, and spot-on. It isn’t specific to community colleges, but most of the content works perfectly well in this setting.

Conferences can be hit-or-miss. I’ve had pretty good luck with the League for Innovation in the Community College, which is held annually in the Spring. The American Association of Community Colleges also has a Spring conference, though to be candid, that one tends to be a bit stuffier and less helpful. (That’s the one where presentations frequently start with “back in ‘92, when I assumed my first presidency...”) The AAC&U has been weirdly obtuse about community colleges over the years, which I consider a missed opportunity. Given community college funding levels, you’ll need to be selective about your travel, so I’d recommend starting with the League.

Oddly, the blogosphere remains fairly sparse. I started this blog partially out of frustration that it didn’t otherwise exist; since then, it’s still kind of an outlier. There’s plenty of discussion of administration in the academic blogosphere, but it’s usually from disgruntled faculty painting all deans as variations on Snidely Whiplash or Dr. Evil. Reality-based discussions have been few and far between. I’ve found it terribly helpful to crowdsource solutions to some of the dilemmas I face, and honestly, I’d welcome the company.

Internal resources are often discounted when we talk about professional development, but they shouldn’t be. You just have to be intentional in how you approach them.

As a newbie, you have a short-term license to ask obvious and/or stupid questions. Use it. For the next few months, you’ll get a free pass when you ask the questions to which everyone thinks they know the answers. That can be helpful, since you’ll probably find that some of the assumed answers are, in fact, wrong. People generally don’t like looking stupid, and academics are especially sensitive to that, so it’s not unusual for folks to go on indefinitely without asking for clarity, even when they really don’t know what’s happening. For the next few months, ask away. Not only will you pick up all kinds of things, but you’ll also bring some much-desired clarity to everyone else in the room.

If your college has a faculty union -- or, like many colleges, multiple unions for different employee classifications -- then you’ll need to spend some quality time with the contract(s). If you’re in a nonunion setting, I’d advise doing something similar with the employee handbook. I was surprised at how many of the initial questions I got started with “what’s the procedure for...?” When you hit ambiguities, contradictions, or passages that simply defy understanding, ask around. A little time spent upfront can save a whole lot of time in grievances or litigation later.

If your college doesn’t have a forum specific to faculty, in which faculty can discuss matters of concern to them, start one. Attend regularly, and listen far more than you talk. It won’t always be fun, but you’ll learn quite a bit about how the college looks from different angles, and you’ll send a message by your actions that you’re actually concerned and paying attention. That matters.

Depending on location, your state or region may have regular meetings of your counterparts from neighboring colleges. I’ve found that particularly helpful, since my state has some, uh, let’s go with ‘quirks.’ Emails, phone calls, and regular meetings with my counterparts from elsewhere in the state have helped me get historical perspective and some useful how-to’s. If you’re willing to ask questions and actually listen to answers, you can pick up quite a bit.

Finally, respect the fact that you’re human. There will be people on campus who will set out to dehumanize you; I’ve seen good people fall into that trap. Do what you need to do to stay sane. Have a life outside of the college, and keep good boundaries. (For example, be aware that if you’re socializing with people who report to you, they still report to you; any interaction is necessarily layered at best. Old friends are crucial.) My kids have been incredibly helpful in that, since they neither know nor care what I did all day; to them, tonight’s Lego League meeting is far more important than anything that went on on campus. And in an important way, they’re right.

Good luck, and congratulations on the new job! I hope you’re able to wear it well.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any suggestions for a new dean?

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

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