Becoming a Dean

Brian Taylor

August 29, 2011

On July 3, 2010, three days after I stepped down from my position as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, I leapt on the bare back of Midnight, my grandniece's horse.

Well, I didn't really leap; I clambered onto the horse's back from the top of a picnic table. I had to work my way to the end of the table so my nephew could bring Midnight right up flush to the edge and I could stretch my left leg across the broad back of Midnight. My fans, relatives all, chanted, "Go, Rosemary, Go!" I went—round the corner of the picnic table, Midnight patient with my ineptitude. "I'm slipping," I called. "Dig in your knees!" and "Grab the mane!" came the sensible suggestions. Sensible, but to no avail, because the sensible thing would have been not to have clambered onto Midnight's bare back in the first place.

So how did I, an eminently sensible former dean, just three days out of office, make a snap decision to try to ride a horse bareback? After spending nine years in the dean's office, carefully weighing decisions, marshalling information, consulting stakeholders, how did I snap?

Oh and snap I did. Did I mention that I fell off the horse, slamming my right shoulder into the picnic table before smashing to the ground? "I think," I said, reaching an obvious conclusion, "I've broken my arm." Now, one year later with steel in my arm and hours of physical therapy behind me, I find myself reflecting on that 30-second horse ride against the backdrop of the nine years I spent as dean.

When I took the post, I had just left one liberal-arts college, where I had been a professor of anthropology for 18 years, for the unknown territory of another liberal-arts college. I went from a co-ed college to a women's college, from a small college to an even-smaller one, from a small town to a city that formed part of greater metropolitan Atlanta.

Before I left my old campus, I interviewed two former deans to get a feel for what it would be like to be chief academic officer. What advice did they give me?

One said, "Leave the office in the afternoon, don't take work home, and have the evenings with your family." Ideal advice, but it didn't work for me. In my years as dean, by the time I arrived home, it was late; I was too tired to enjoy anything but a glass of bourbon on ice with a splash of water. The other former dean said, "You'll be a mystery; they won't know you. Use that. Mystery is power." But I'm not mysterious; that didn't work for me, either.

Both deans had additional advice, which I collected with care: "Know which decisions you need to make quickly, which you need to put aside to think about with deliberation, and which can go on the back burner." "Don't move too quickly. Take a year to get to know the place."

Here is my own distilled advice on being a dean that I offer to any of you who are just starting out as deans or moving up the ranks of administration.

It's all about personalities. I came to say that almost daily as a dean, whatever the situation or problem I faced. That's because the most important part of my job was listening to people. When faculty members would apologize for taking my time, I would respond sincerely that I was there for them, that I valued talking with them.

That worked because I meant it: Dogs, children, and faculty members can spot a fake a mile away. (And I mean no disrespect to any of the three by linking them together. They're my favorites.) If you don't value faculty members and treasure time spent with them, don't become a dean, because that is the first prerequisite of the office.

That has always been the case, in flush times as well as in lean times, but it's been especially true since 2001, when I entered the dean's office and we started cutting budgets and never stopped. As the budget got tighter and tighter, my "cookie funds" (a term I crafted for money that could be used to finance unexpected faculty expenses) had dried up.

Toward the end of my deanship, I could rarely find extra support for research trips, special conferences, or student-faculty research projects. But I always made sure that I listened to faculty members about their needs and concerns. If I couldn't support them with additional dollars, I could at least advocate for them using examples of their aspirations and financial needs.

Learn the culture of place. If you are new to the college, you need to learn about what I call "the culture of place"—and learn it as quickly as you can. While you're learning, tread softly and talk frequently with faculty members, staff, students, alumni, and trustees about what they value in the college. What is the ethos of the place? If the college has a good mission statement, it will encompass the ethos. Memorize the statement (if it's a good one) and use it as a touchstone for all important decisions.

In addition to the mission statement, the ethos also includes the ephemeral tone and tenor of the campus. How do you discover that tone and tenor? By listening, watching, and remembering.

When I asked members of the search committee what they wanted to see in the new dean, I recall the response of a longtime faculty member, "We want someone who will love this place as much as we do." Love of place: Find it, absorb it, treasure it, and do not spoil it. When you do leave your office, you will hopefully have added to the landscape of place. More important, you must not leave it a lesser place.

Leading at the right moments. As academic dean, you must lead but you can't lead if no one follows you. Leadership, however, does not entail raising the flag, shouting the battle cry, and charging ahead. To my mind leadership should sometimes be undertaken gently, sometimes with a clenched jaw, sometimes with nudging from behind, sometimes by circling around the side, and sometimes by standing in the front.

When you have made a mistake—and you will—face the faculty, apologize sincerely for a lapse in judgment, and take the knocks on the chin.

In other words, leadership is not always about being the one in front, in the prominent, public position. But it is about being in front when there is controversy. As leader, the responsibility, particularly for the unpopular, unpleasant or down-right wrong decisions, always rests on your shoulders (which is why, as dean, you will always have a pain in the neck, though you may try hard not to be one).

You will need a sense of humor. That is crucial, for the bad times especially. It's easy to laugh when things are going well; it's harder, but more important, to laugh when things are going poorly.

You will especially need to chuckle when you are in the endless meetings that are endemic to academic life. I recall at some point during my first several weeks as dean, thinking to myself as I rushed from one meeting to the next with scarcely time to put down one set of notes and pick up another, "How will I get my work done when all I do is sit in meetings?"

And then the realization came to me like ice water to the face: "Oh, good heavens. This is my job, going to meetings."

In collecting my thoughts for these reflections, I've paged through my files. I saw plenty of continuity, a continuity that you can either laugh at or despair over. Progress is so slow in higher education, particularly in tight budget times. Many of my notes I made in 2001 cover the same points as those made in meetings in 2010.

So, after my retirement, what does remain besides the frustrating continuity?

I would say, the lives one has touched, the ideas shared, the energy invested with others in the endeavor to make a loved place even better. As the former dean of the college said to me, "Deans come and deans go, and I know why!"

Just make sure that when you leave the dean's office, you keep your sense of humor. And don't clamber on the bare back of a horse. Break a leg only metaphorically for good luck, but don't break an arm.

Life is good and it does exist fully after leaving the dean's office. Why, after all, did I attempt to ride bareback just three days out of the dean's office? I believe it was a freak sort of combustive energy on my part, a rebellion from the caution and cares of nine years of restraint. Those 30 seconds on Midnight's back taught me a lot, particularly about recognizing my own fallibility. I should have known that. I certainly had known it three days before when I was still dean of the college.

Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt is dean of the college emerita and professor emerita of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Georgia.