Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Liberal Arts Deans

In Straight Man, Richard Russo has a wonderful line to the effect that there’s nothing scarier than a happy liberal arts dean, since the possibility of happiness in that role suggests a world other than the world that exists.

It’s true.  I had to smile when I saw IHE tackle the same theme.

The IHE piece was written from a university perspective, so applying it to community colleges requires some translation.  For example, the bright line between “general education” and “liberal arts” isn’t quite so strong at the community college level.  And at medium-sized or smaller schools, there’s generally one central budget, rather than a series of tubs on their own bottoms.  (I don’t like the metaphor either, but it’s the generally accepted usage.)

Liberal arts faculty at the community college level often feel like the red-headed stepchildren of higher ed.  They’ve often been trained at the highest levels, but they’re teaching too much, paid too little, and generally ignored by both their scholarly disciplines and the larger political discourse.  (The disciplines like to assume that everybody lives and dies by publication; the political discourse assumes that community colleges are job training centers and nothing more.)  When the folks you went to grad school with are bitching about 3/3 loads and grade-grubbing students, and you’re teaching 5/5 loads for lower pay to students with a much wider range of preparation, it can be hard not to get frustrated.

As a dean, you’re a bit of a stand-in for all of those larger forces.  Faculty can’t lash out at higher education generally, or at the government as a whole, or at their students.  But they can lash out at the local administration.  

Worse, in a dean’s role, you don’t always have the autonomy or resources to address many of the concerns that, truth be told, you probably share.  That’s especially true if you’re in a setting in which faculty have tenure and you don’t.

So with all of that said, why would a reasonably intelligent person of goodwill give up tenure, summers, casual dress, and a flexible/autonomous schedule to deal with other people’s problems?  Yes, there’s usually a pay bump, but it’s far less than folks on the blogs seem to think, particularly in the community college world.  By itself, that wouldn’t do it.

The best ones do it because they’ve seen the difference an effective dean makes in the classroom.  When someone is minding the store, and the details are being handled, then faculty are free to focus on actually teaching their classes.  That matters.  And the better deans are able not only to manage the administrivia involved in maintenance, but also to see around corners.  They figure out the win/win solution hiding in the sticky dilemma.  They remember hearing about a grant at some interminable meeting last year that would be just the thing for an ambitious professor’s new program.   The good ones are able to notice, and bring up, tweaks that professors can make in class that would help.  They’re able to anticipate the ways that policies might be received, to separate productive feedback from griping, and to crowdsource dilemmas in ways that respect everybody’s intelligence.  They know how to get past the drama of knee-jerk conflict and get to a sustainable solution.  And yes, the best ones also know how to manage up.

In the STEM and workforce areas, grant money is easier to find.  It’s relatively easy to get people motivated when there’s new money to be had.  That happens much less often for, say, English composition.  Deans who can’t play Santa have a tougher row to hoe.  And every single time there’s another state or federal announcement of workforce this or efficiency that, you can hear some of the liberal arts faculty grinding their teeth.

These aren’t the kinds of issues that can be resolved by combining nearby departments or by separating gen ed from liberal arts.  They’re deeper than that.  People who can breathe at those depths are few and far between.  But we’d be in a heap of trouble without them.

I am a relatively young faculty member at a CC who regularly has people on campus tell him that he would be a great administrator. And every time they do I think of that paragraph from your book about why someone would give up tenure (even if it means little in my state), a lighter workload, summers off (even if I teach during them), ability to dress how I want and leave work before 6 or 7 every night, and the relatively stress-free life of a faculty member for what would be a $10k pay bump after factoring in overloads and summer classes. If I wanted responsibility with no authority and the pervasive sense of banging my head on a wall, I would just get involved with our Faculty Senate.

Even if I would be good at it, I have never been able to answer the question of why I would want to do that to myself. I've worked very closely with our CAO over the past couple of years and her life seems so much more stressful on a daily basis than even my worst days as a faculty member.
I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to be a dean, liberal arts or otherwise.

As Dean Dad points out, as a dean you don’t get all that much more money. In addition, you have to work harder and you will have longer hours than you ever did when you were teaching full-time. As a dean, you don’t have tenure and you could lose your job with no notice, at the whim of the president or the provost. You sometimes have to spend so much time in ceremonial duties on the rubber-chicken circuit that your spouse and kids forget what you look like. Whenever your faculty members come to see you, it is never to tell you how great you are but is almost always to whine and complain about something or the other, and often there is very little you can do about it. Your budget is continually being cut and you have to get used to doing more with less, year after year. You have to carry out without complaint or dissent the policies dictated by higher ups, sometimes policies that you find silly or repugnant, and you can’t even use the Nuremberg defense when your faculty members complain. You have to impose each new silly rule or regulation that comes from the government or from the accrediting agencies, and your faculty members rightly resent the extra time and effort that will be imposed on them by the need for compliance.

As a dean, you certainly can’t please everyone all the time, and you never try to do so. However, very often you have to issue decisions or make calls that get some people very angry with you. Some of them may even start to hate you, and they will start saying nasty things about all over the campus. As Machiavelli said, it is better to be feared than loved, but not hated. If the number of people that hate you exceeds some magic threshold, I suppose that it would be time to pack it all in and quit your deanship and move along to greener pastures.

The only way that a savvy faculty member should ever accept a deanship is to negotiate an agreement with the higher ups that the new dean be able to retain a tenured position in their department, one that they could return to if being a dean becomes too stressful or if they find that they get too many people angry with them. Also, if they are accepting a deanship at a new school, they should arrange to be appointed to a tenured position in the appropriate discipline at their new school.

In addition, I think that it would be a good idea if the dean could arrange to continue to teach in their discipline. It could actually be only one course per term, but teaching this course would remind the dean what life is like down there in the trenches, and would let them continue to maintain some degree of contact with reality.

Posting error earlier... Summary:

Many places rotate faculty as deans and other administrators. Gives faculty a broader view of managing the institution (and addressing their colleagues' concerns). Trade-offs are lack of continuity/ramping up of the new person.
Moving into a position as a dean can be a big pay raise. At my college, deans start at $100k/year and max out at over $150k. A typical faculty member gets about $70k. Of course, we do have some budget issues...
Interesting reference to tenure; in 20 years of teaching in higher education, I've seen one faculty member get tenure, and every report says tenure is dying, if not dead. I find it funny you say "faculty have tenure, you don't"...I've found administators impossible to remove no matter their behavior, while faculty can vanish without a trace, leaving the survivors wondering what happened.
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