A Tale of 2 Deans

What is the difference between an effective dean and a mediocre one?

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

March 03, 2014

It is the best of jobs, it is the worst of jobs, it is marked by occasional wisdom and ample amounts of incredulity—well, you get the idea. Being a dean today is a challenging, daunting, and repeatedly gratifying experience—one that we would highly recommend if you have what it takes.

Effective deans are in high demand as baby-boomer deans like us continue to step down or retire. Returning to the classroom last fall has provided us with the time, space, and distance to reflect on our combined 65-year leadership adventure that we call the "lifecycle of a dean." What follows are our insights on the position to help you decide whether it is a career path you should pursue. Nancy K. Schlossberg’s theory on adult transitions applies well to the dean’s lifecycle: It is a "moving in," "moving through," and "moving out" process.

How do I know if it is my turn to move in to a deanship? If you wait until you are ready to be a dean, you will never become one. No one enters the job completely prepared to be a dean, no matter how confident some may seem. It’s like everything else in life: You start where you are, learn by trial and error, improve as you move along, and discover things while practicing the trade.

There are, however, precursors for doing the dean’s work well. Effective leadership, wrote the late Thomas J. Sergiovanni, takes three things—the head, hand, and heart. All three are important, but we believe the difference between a mediocre dean and a good one is primarily a matter of the heart or what we call "dispositions."

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Certain core dispositions are at the heart of good leadership and are a priori conditions for effective deaning. We have seen ample evidence that knowledge and skill can improve rapidly for the rookie dean. Dispositions, however, are more difficult to change and improve upon, as they emanate from our most deeply held values and beliefs. You either have them or you don’t. Among the dispositions we see as necessary for success in the dean’s office:

  • Believing in the people you lead—that reasonable people provided with reasonable information will make reasonable decisions.
  • A keen predilection for listening to diverse viewpoints, finding common ground on most issues, and seeing the big picture.
  • Understanding that good relationships, effective teams, and shared responsibilities (and rewards) are the pathways to important accomplishments.

Some people might be able to fake such dispositions over the short haul. But since much of what a dean confronts requires improv, the mask quickly falls away and the soul of the leader is exposed.

So what indicators can help you decide if you would be an effective dean? A good clue is the degree to which others are telling you, unsolicited, that you would make a good dean and encouraging you to pursue the job. Another clue: Are senior administrators interested in nominating, sponsoring, or mentoring you on the administrative track? Several professional organizations offer annual institutes for aspiring deans. Those sessions are an excellent opportunity to hear from veteran deans and join others who are considering the position as well.

Other common indicators include a feeling of professional restlessness, a need for a challenge, a perceived duty to help an organization grow, and a sense of responsibility to channel criticism, both your own and other people’s, into positive action.

Oddly enough, many of best deans we have known were initially reluctant to take the job. Reluctant leaders end up being some of the most effective and beloved. While a strong ego is essential for a dean to keep jumping back into the ring after each round, it has to be balanced with ample amounts of humanity and humility.

Do I have what it takes for moving through? We think there is no better job in academe. Deanships come with: (a) resources that can directly affect academic operations, (b) decision-making authority to create and sustain changes, and (c) opportunities to interact with a wide range of people.

As a dean, to ensure the success of both students and faculty in your care, you need ample competence in the college’s disciplines. You need a willingness to be honest and transparent, along with a healthy dose of naive optimism . All of those qualities can help you build a positive campus culture in which people enjoy their work and look forward to a personal and professional affiliation with the college. If all of that resonates with you—and you are willing to be vulnerable and persistent enough to model those imperatives—a deanship may be your cup of tea.

On the practical side, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the 60-hour work week (and sometimes more). There are no "spring breaks" or summer down periods; instead you have vacation and sick days. Student issues arise in the evenings and on weekends. Donor and alumni activities occur during holidays and at the same time as your children’s events. Travel is a must.

You soon discover that your calendar is no longer under your control. It’s a 24-7, 365-day commitment. Being willing to accept such obligations and then balancing the busy dean’s schedule with all of life’s events is essential to surviving and thriving in the job.

Finally, moving through the dean’s job brings a rollercoaster of highs and lows. You go from enjoying a heartfelt welcome to finding out about the hidden agendas and left-over scores to be settled. You spend hours hiring energetic faculty and staff members only to discover that, even with spending most of your days with people, your job can leave you with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Fortunately, deans have many opportunities to network with their fellow deans both within and outside of the campus. Both of us stayed on as deans so long, in part, because of the vast network of supportive people we met doing like work.

How do you know when you are effective as a dean? If you examine all the duties and responsibilities of the position—compounded by the fact that deans must lead and serve in a shared-governance environment that ranges from idealistic to unrealistic—you will find a near impossible and thankless task from which any sane and reasonable person might justifiably run. So, without doubt, the effective dean must have confidence and a strong sense of purpose to keep getting up in the morning and going to work in hopes of making a difference.

Confidence, vision, and strength of purpose are hallmarks of effective leadership. But even the most charismatic leader will never achieve significant and sustainable outcomes unless others are willing to join in. We regularly gauged our effectiveness by the degree to which others were willing to work with us on difficult and often competing tasks.

Effective deaning, like good teaching, is improved through assessment. Providing opportunities for people to give you an anonymous, constructive criticism (usually in the form of an annual review) is a good, even if at times painful way to see how you’re doing and make course corrections. Effective deans have the personal strength to accept the criticism as well as the praise and see how both inform decisions and directions.

How do you know when it is time to move out? That’s more challenging than you might think. There is no bell that tolls or clap of thunder that announces the moment. Sometimes there is a little voice in the back of your head that tells you that your thirst is graciously quenched and it is time to pass the cup to the next generation of energetic and enthusiastic leaders. Sometimes it is your loudest faculty critics who are always generous with advice and criticism but stingy with support or assistance. Sometimes it is blunt trauma like when your doctor, concerned about your stress levels, asks, "Would you rather be dean or live?"

The decision is different and difficult for each of us. It would be so much simpler if we had one person, like the innocent child in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, who would yell out, "It is time to move on." Minus that critical friend, there are a few subtle but telltale signs.

One of the best pieces of career advice that one of us ever received came over a plate of burritos with the writer Ray Bradbury. He said, "I never felt what I did was ‘work’ and never needed a vacation." He said he promised himself, while still a young man, that if he couldn’t leap from bed in the morning excited to get going three out of the five week days, he would find something else to do. When your enthusiasm for academic problems and bureaucratic puzzles wanes, that is a good first gauge that it may be time to step down.

Often times the energy and enthusiasm necessary for the job is sustained by strategic benchmarks. The completion of a multiyear strategic plan, the success of a new student program, or the end of a capital campaign are all generally defined by three- to seven-year cycles. As those benchmarks are achieved, take the time to gauge your interest in leading the next new multiyear project. Sometimes there is one more round left within us and sometimes there’s not.

In other cases, your reasons for quitting may be far more tactical. Personnel problems, fiscal woes, productivity targets, and donor and alumni relations can trigger significant stress. On one hand the pressure amps up our energy to face the challenges of the job and on the other it wears on our health, wellness, and productivity. Occasionally, problems that seemed short-term and minor can escalate and wise deans will know they have accomplished all they can in the position.

Predictability is another meaningful gauge of your readiness to stay or leave. We both found that our role as dean was largely predictable after five years. Patterns became regular and we were able to anticipate and head off many problems. Paradoxically, while that adds much comfort to the job, it also adds an element of mundaneness. When the job started to feel more mundane than comfortable, we found ourselves far more interested in mentoring other future deans in academe than attending routine meetings on our respective campuses. We both preferred to focus on broad challenges affecting the academy at large rather than forwarding reports that appeared redundant and meaningless. Whether the predictability of your deanship is a source of comfort or distress, it serves as another signpost to guide your career decisions.

Higher education needs strong and sustainable leadership. We hope that our ramblings have piqued your curiosity to consider the greatest job in the academy—the deanship.

Of the academic dean’s lifecycle it can rightfully be said, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," and when the time comes to return to the faculty ranks, "it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

M. Mark Wasicsko is a professor of education at Northern Kentucky University and former dean of its College of Education and Human Services. Brad Balch is a professor of education and dean emeritus of the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.