Academic Workplace 2013

Eileen Escarda, Novus Select, for The Chronicle

Jeffrey Buller, a dean at Florida Atlantic U., says he measures his success on how well professors are doing.
July 22, 2013

Sixth Annual Survey

Great Colleges to Work For 2013

How Administrators Measure Their Success

By Audrey Williams June

How Administrators Measure Their Success

Eileen Escarda, Novus Select, for The Chronicle

Jeffrey Buller, a dean at Florida Atlantic U., says he measures his success on how well professors are doing.


When classes begin at Florida Atlantic University in the fall, Jeffrey L. Buller will mark his 15th year as a dean. After serving as a dean for roughly half of his career in higher education, Mr. Buller has had plenty of practice in creating workplace environments that help department chairs and faculty shine on the job. And when academic departments run smoothly, with professors who have the support they need to excel at teaching, research, and other parts of faculty life, Mr. Buller knows he's on the right track.

"Success for academic administrators is behind the scenes," says Mr. Buller, dean of the honors college at Florida Atlantic and the author of several books on college administration. "We measure our success by how well our stakeholders are doing."

Chronicle Vitae

For deans and other administrators who oversee key areas of a college campus, the definition of success on the job can take a variety of forms. Sometimes the measures they use to gauge their success are tangible and linked to specific metrics, such as industry benchmarks or a dollar figure. Other times the mark of a job well done is more nuanced, defined by successful working relationships or a simple sense of satisfaction about their role in making their college the best it can be.

Walter H. Gmelch, who just stepped down as dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, has been a dean at three different institutions, and personal success has meant something different at each one. At San Francisco, he oversaw the replacement of two-thirds of the faculty as senior professors retired, with a focus on ensuring that faculty members would be in sync with the university's mission and goals.

"Rather than hire people who were in their own silos or a superstar, I tried to build a team," says Mr. Gmelch, who has returned to the faculty after nine years as dean. "It's a different culture now."

For some deans who are expected to be aggressive fund raisers, success is linked to donations. Being able to say "I raised $20-million" is a signature for them, says Mr. Gmelch, a prominent researcher in the study of academic leaders. Other deans mark their success by promoting the achievements of their faculty and staff, both internally and externally.

"When I go to conferences now, it's about me building my faculty network," Mr. Gmelch says. "It's not about presenting your papers, it's about getting your people connected to others in the field."

When professors talk about the satisfaction they get from seeing students graduate, Mr. Gmelch has an equivalent. "My best day is when a faculty member gets a Fulbright award or a grant from the Ford Foundation," he says. "And you've got to communicate those faculty successes up to the provost and the president."

W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president and vice president of enrollment at Augustana College, in Illinois, says the way he thinks of success has shifted as he has advanced in his career. A veteran in the field of admissions, he can still remember the days when he had a hands-on role in deciding which students would be admitted.

"At some point you stop doing things and you start helping to put things in motion," says Mr. Barnds, who has worked in admissions since 1992.

Like Mr. Buller, Mr. Barnds says that one way he judges his job performance is by the success of those who report to him. "I'm not talking about taking credit for their success in any way, but I ask myself how effective have I been in mentoring them and in working with them," he says.

He can also point to several instances in which Augustana officials asked him to take on new roles, which he sees as a barometer of how well he's performing.

Mr. Barnds came to Augustana in 2005 as vice president of enrollment. In a five-year window he was asked to take on the responsibility of overseeing the communication and marketing units at the liberal-arts college, followed by a foray into planning when he was tapped to update the campus master plan and guide a process to create an addendum to the college's strategic plan. After serving as acting president of Augustana when the president was on sabbatical last summer, he was promoted to executive vice president.

"Each one of those things, in a positive way, stretched me beyond my comfort zone," Mr. Barnds says. "You begin to measure your worth at some level by how often you're able to do that."

Still, professional satisfaction is sometimes delayed for people in his position, Mr. Barnds says, since they are often involved in expansive projects that don't come to fruition right away. "I had the opportunity in the last two years to lead a process to develop a center for student life," he says. "We just opened the facility in August. Sometimes a project is years in the making."

Yet at the end of a day, admissions work is "judged by a number," Mr. Barnds says, even as there is increased attention paid to what's behind the number of students in an incoming class.

"Enrollment work is very similar to campaign work," he says. "We work to get our institution elected."

Sometimes administrators know they have been successful when they have been able to garner support from faculty and staff on an important issue. Kathy E. Hargis experienced that when she became the founding director of Lipscomb University's newly created risk-management office in 2005, a position she still holds today.

"It took a while for people to even know what risk management was," says Ms. Hargis, whose office is responsible for risk management, environmental health and safety, emergency preparedness, business continuity, and insurance coverage for the university. "That was an exciting time for us to communicate what we do to people all over the university."

Besides making sure the risk-management message takes hold, Ms. Hargis also strives to meet basic industry benchmarks. Peers in her field judge the effectiveness of risk-management programs in part on whether the accident rate at their institution is going down and whether there are fewer workers' compensation claims and lawsuits, among other things.

Nearly every dilemma that a risk-management department might confront has been faced by another college at some point. As secretary of the board of directors of the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, Ms. Hargis also gains professional satisfaction from being able to give and receive advice from other institutions.

For Peter Hayashida, vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of California at Riverside, there are plenty of obvious measures of success for his team, including meeting fund-raising goals and adding a specific number of new members to the university's alumni association. But tracking donations only tells part of the story, he says. "The kind of program that we run at a major research university like this one is focused on sustaining long-term donor relationships," he says. "So we're interested in metrics that speak to how effectively we're cultivating those relationships."

In alumni relations, one of the areas Mr. Hayashida oversees, it's not just about racking up members for the alumni association. It's also about figuring out what alumni care about, and how to best engage them with the university. Finding that sweet spot is also key for donors, and it's a sign of success for Mr. Hayashida when he's able to pinpoint it.

"My job is to make it as easy as possible for them to see the connection between what they care about and what we're doing here," says Mr. Hayashida, who previously served as assistant vice chancellor for external affairs and executive director of the foundation at the University of California at Los Angeles. "I want to get a potential donor in front of the people who do the kind of research they care about, or in front of the students who need financial aid, or in front of that facility that needs to be upgraded, and I want to hear them say, 'OK, here's how I can make a difference.'"

With higher education under the microscope in recent years, people outside academe define success differently than administrators and faculty members typically do.

"When I have to define measures of success externally to the community, I have to talk about job placement, I have to talk about levels of incomes for students upon graduation," says Mr. Buller, of Florida Atlantic. "I never get asked about how politically aware students are when they graduate, or, If I send my daughter here, is she going to learn critical thinking?"

Yet with all the signposts of success that administrators look to, one less thought-about milestone is a successful exit from the job. Mr. Buller says administrators should ask themselves if they believe they're still making a difference at work, and whether what they do is rewarding and provides opportunities for growth. If the answers are no, it's probably time to move on.

Success as an academic dean is also linked to good relationships with the provost, the president, the department chairs, and, obviously, other deans, he says. "In a college, no one else does the kind of thing we do," Mr. Buller says. "It's usually your fellow deans who have been there, done that, and can provide the support you need to make it."