Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Ask the Administrator: What Skill Sets do Deans Need?

A newly-tenured longtime reader at a regional comprehensive writes:

While I enjoy research and  teaching, the problems I'm finding really interesting are on the admin side: I've been doing some external relations and curricular development stuff for my faculty, I've  realized I've got a decent head for looking at student data, and can run a reasonably functional committee. My question is: if you were in my position and thinking, over the next four or five years at getting ready for a serious admin role, like a Dean, what skill set would you work on developing? I know you've covered the different career pathways before for those , but I wonder what skills or experiences you wish you had.

Context matters quite a bit, so I’ll speak to the types of deanships I’ve seen at community colleges.  In some university settings, many of these tasks might go to associate deans, to free the dean up for fundraising.

In colleges with “division deans,” the dean’s role is largely about working with faculty. You need to be the kind of supervisor who brings out the best in the people you supervise. (In an academic context, that usually involves a light touch, especially with solid or high performers.)  That means learning how to translate between faculty concerns and the needs of central administration.  It means being at least passably good at internal politics.  It means dealing with student complaints in ways that don’t sound awful two weeks later when they’re quoted out of context.  It means setting, and holding yourself to, a defensible standard of ethics.  And it means finding ways to encourage cooperation among people who don’t have to, at least in the short term.

Your personal style is your own; I’ve seen deans with very different personalities succeed, each in her own way.  But some basics hold regardless of personality.

Patience is a plain necessity. As a professor, you frequently get to be the smartest person in the room. In administration, you have to be willing to let that go.  And not in a disingenuous way, either. You won’t be a subject matter expert in every discipline; when working with faculty in disciplines outside your own, they will have a depth of understanding of their subjects that you will not.  That’s to be expected.  But you can still bring real contributions to the table, based on your access to and ability to interpret the institution as an institution. When you can interpret the institution to the professor and the professor to the institution, you can be of real service.

Patience matters a great deal with student complaints. Students who make their way to you are often pretty upset by the time they get there. If you’re dismissive or snarky, you will just make matters worse by provoking the student.  On the other side, if you’re too credulous, assuming that every complaint is true, you will quickly lose the respect of the faculty.  Instead, you need to be aware of process.  That means being empathetic enough in the moment to defuse the immediate emotions without getting sucked into someone else’s drama.  Boundaries can save you.

My recommendation would be to start gaining the sort of experiences that both show and help develop the skills you’d need.  Accreditation self-studies can be good for that, since they necessarily involve working across silos and with people in very different roles.  If your department chair position opens up, go for it; nothing shows the ability to work with faculty like working with faculty.  Really, anything that involves working across silos and building rapport to work together on difficult tasks will make you appealing.  Some of those “college service” tasks that people often disparage can actually be great places to show that you have the skills that many others do not.

When I moved into my first deanship, I was struck quickly by how differently former peers behaved.  Some didn’t really change, except as appropriate for a given task.  Some suddenly wouldn’t give me the time of day.  And some suddenly found my jokes much funnier.  I wasn’t entirely ready for that, since that’s not my style.  Be prepared, especially if you move up in the same institution in which you taught.  It can be disorienting.

Honesty forces me to admit that others have very different conceptions of the dean’s role, even within the same sort of institutional context.  But I’d say patience, awareness of process, and skill at working across silos should serve you well.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

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

The description of the primary skill set in Dean Reed's first main paragraph captures most of what you need, plus patience (and a thick skin) from the next two paragraphs. That is why preparation for such a career path starts with important low-level management tasks.

Second, I would translate "division dean" at a CC to "department chair" of a large department at a regional comprehensive. If you are in a small department, that job might be done by an asst or assoc dean that oversees several departments. Either way, taking a turn at being chair (or asst chair for X in a large department) is the pathway I've seen followed by many deans and provosts. It is where you develop those skills.

Second, I will second the suggestion about leading the self-study for reaffirmation of accreditation, the wonky part of that process, or developing the plan (whatever it is called in your part of the country), which requires more collegial skills. Along the way you will see more of the internal levers of the college and learn the operational meaning of important buzz words like "reaffirmation of accrediation" and "articulation". Even participating at the committee level will help. At my college, the leader of that kind of activity participated in it a decade earlier and is held in enough respect to be a prime candidate for dean or VP jobs in the future.

At a lower level, managing the development of learning outcomes and managing the data flow for a large gen-ed course in your department is a good way to develop skills and get attention if you are good at both the social (leadership) and technical side of that task.

Either is a way to develop, or perhaps showcase, your skills at dealing with getting kicked from both sides at the same time.
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