Being Dean of a Professional School

Being the dean of a professional school in a university can be an exciting yet challenging career move. Some thoughts on why these jobs are difficult and some tips are offered from experience. (full article)

The modern position of ‘dean’ in professional schools at universities has evolved a long way from its Cluniac ecclesiastical origins where each group of 10 monks was led, for administrative purposes, by a dean.  Today, being a dean of a professional school is one of the most complex and challenging in higher education. Yet, the role remains highly sought after, while at the same time open to personal risk.

Traditionally, the dean sits at the interface between the academic side of a university and the administrative /corporate leadership and structures of the institution.  Serving as dean of a professional school does provide an extraordinary personal opportunity with many up-sides.  Among these are:

  • the chance to work with a broad and diverse group of highly intelligent faculty colleagues
  • opportunities to frame agendas for exciting new developments or directions in research, pedagogy and interface with professional organizations and agencies beyond the university
  • engagement with alumni, donors and industry in pursuit of shared ideals.

When they step back from the daily or weekly routine, most deans of professional schools admit that it is not an easy job and that there are many landmines along the road to success. Why then is being a dean such a difficult position? Key issues include:

  • Volume of work – there is just a lot to get through across a complex array of issues.  One of the real challenges is to effectively prioritize the difference between the truly ‘important’ and someone else’s view of ‘urgent’.
  • Institutions often appoint the wrong people to be deans – many deans are appointed based upon their extraordinary accomplishments as department chairs, where they have been very effective often through some version of ‘command and control’, i.e. being on top of every detail and involved in many decisions.  The volume of work and decision-making for talented and hard-working department chairs is dense but manageable.   Being a dean is not a linear scale up of volume or complexity in work from that of a department chair. It simply does not work to try to use the same management and leadership style so many department chairs are accustomed to. Nonetheless, many fine deans emerge from successful roles as department chairs and make the necessary transitions.
  • Managing the tensions at the interface between the altruism of the academy and corporate realities.   The dean must work with and interface with at least four quite different dimensions:
    • Individual academic staff – these professionals rightfully focus on direct teaching and research often without need to worry about the larger enterprise beyond their involvement in those realms.
    • An academic governance body within the university – most established universities have coordinated mechanisms for managing the collective academic voice through a shared-governance vehicle such as an Academic Board or Council.   Although the relative power of such entities is highly variable across the spectrum of universities, these bodies are important for addressing matters of common academic interest and policy.
    • The corporate management of the School and University – universities and professional schools have become businesses with all the requirements for attention to good corporate governance, fiduciary responsibility, performance management etc.
    • Key professional external constituencies – successful professional schools are work in synchrony with important professional associations and regulatory/licensure authorities.

Like no other position in the University, the Dean works with all of these constituencies and more (including, particularly in the USA, the philanthropic donors).

Having served as dean of a professional school in a large comprehensive university, I learned that there are some important considerations in managing to be a successful dean and survive personally:

  1. Prioritize – be explicit about what one’s own priorities will be for detailed time investment and work;
  2. Attend to process – be deliberate in considering what style of management will be efficient personally and effective for the School.  This requires an assessment of the history and culture of the institution early on during one’s term as dean;
  3. Delegate – get others involved to help manage the day to day work traffic – there are many nuances in how to effectively do this which differ based upon whether one is appointed from outside or inside the institution and the degree and competence of existing structures/people that support the dean;
  4. Consider a mentor – it is often lonely being a dean.  Identify key resources or external peers who can provide informal guidance and counsel;
  5. Seek external expert assistance for major initiatives and trouble spots – for signature initiatives such as strategic planning or major development projects, recruit internal resources from the wider university if they exist or retain external consulting assistance.  Most professional schools have trouble spots – a faltering department, languishing research unit or difficult faculty member can consume an enormous amount of time and personal energy from the dean.  Having an outsider with experience can often pinpoint the issues and frame potential solutions.