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Summertime of a Dean's Career

Tomorrow's Academy

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Overall, this group of summer deans felt that it had taken them two to four years to really feel comfortable in the job. One dean said she felt so uptight for the first couple of years that I questioned if I shouldn't return to the faculty. She went on to explain, Finally, after four-plus years on the job, I found myself settling in to the role. Do you know I didn't even hang any pictures in my office for the first three years? I kept telling myself it was because I was too busy. Looking back, more likely it was because I wanted to make a quick getaway if I had to.



The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at deans in their 'mid-life,\" the 4-7 year period of their deanship. It is from Chapter 3, Summertime of a Dean's Career, in the book, Seasons of a Dean's Life: Understanding the Role and Building Leadership Capacity, by Walt Gmelch, Dee Hopkins, and Sandra Damico. Published by Stylus Publishing. LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102 © 2011 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Team Teaching and Student Learning: A Rough-and-Tumble Enterprise 



Tomorrow's Academia

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Summertime of a Dean's Career


Hitting Your Stride: Years Four to Seven

Years four through seven, the summer of a dean's career, find established deans reaping the benefits of their earlier labors. It is a time of fulfillment, the season when deans finally see their hard work nurturing the college environment, planting ideas, and cultivating collaboration, showing constructive growth and the promise of full bloom. Programmatic ideas they sowed three years ago have taken root and, in turn, are germinating other new and creative ideas. Healthy expansion and the promise of even greater program and enrollment growth in the future have become realities. Summer deans are more aware of how to do things and have become more comfortable with the deanship-and with being dean. The painful beginnings they experienced in the springtime of their deanships are, hopefully, over.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is over as well. Many of the changes that needed to be made in the college have been or are occurring and the dean is the one held responsible - especially if the changes have been unpopular. By the fourth and fifth years, summer deans have built their leadership teams, and their colleges, overall, should finally be coming together. Those faculty and staff who were not contributing to the institution or found the dean's leadership style distracting have, hopefully found academic homes elsewhere. Many of the early goals that summer deans shared with their faculty and staff are nearing fruition; others hold promise because the team is working together. Is the fifth year best? Does the job become easier with time? Are the deans who find themselves midstride in the deanship more effective, or do they lose momentum the longer they serve?

Journey Into the Deanship

In this study, the deans in the summer of their career averaged five years on the job and the majority were still in their first deanship. It is interesting to note that many of the deans interviewed believed that they \"fell into the position\" by \"being in the right place at the right time.\" One commented that he not only fell into the position, he almost drowned. While chair of educational administration, one of the largest graduate departments on his campus, he was flattered when asked by upper administration to become dean of a new, blended college that folded the previous education, consumer science, and health professions colleges and schools into one. He commented that his longtime relationship with the provost, who happened to be a member of the same educational administration department previous to his own appointment, was probably a major factor in his being asked to serve. He also volunteered that being a close friend of the provost had been a hindrance and a help. What this dean found most difficult was that it took well into the summer of his deanship for faculty to accept him as qualified - even though a number of them had accepted his leadership as their chair previous to his appointment as dean. During his first years in the role, the faculty members were so angry with the way in which he had been appointed that they could not bring themselves to accept any of his ideas as feasible - even when they knew their college would benefit. \"Six years into it, things are better now,\" he commented, \"but I wouldn't recommend my route to the deanship for anyone, and, if I had been wiser, I would have turned it down regardless of how much I was tempted.\"

Another dean who had been the associate dean for several years experienced a different reaction to her appointment. When the dean she worked for retired, the decision was made to waive a national search, and she was appointed from within. In this case, unlike the appointed dean mentioned previously, the new in-house \"dean\" felt that she had the backing of the faculty immediately. Overall, the deans, several of whom were appointed or selected from within, felt that this was not the preferred route to the deanship. They also felt that being the internal candidate or selectee was more often a hardship than a help.

Satisfactions and Dissatisfactions

Not every summer dean was selected internally. A number of those interviewed had made a more conscious choice to attain the deanship. One shared that over a two-year period, he had applied for 27 dean positions before he was selected to lead a college of education at a major Research I institution. His ultimate goal was to become a provost, and he had allotted himself a specific number of years in the deanship before moving on.

Another felt fortunate that her first invitation to a state university as a finalist resulted in a deanship. However, she expressed remorse that she had not been aware of the unspoken leadership parameters that institutions follow but do not always share. \"I did not realize how difficult it will be for me to return to a private institution now that I have served as dean of a public institution for the past seven years,\" she lamented. \"My ultimate goal is to preside over a small private liberal arts institution. Instead, I may never find a position outside of the public higher education sector.\" Historically, a great many private institutions-because fundraising skill is so vital for their administrators-seek candidates from other private universities and colleges rather than those with public higher education experience. However, because of the number of state-supported institutions that find their financial backing by the state eroding and lacking, this practice may change. Today, public institution deans find themselves on the road, building their donor base, as often as their private institution colleagues.

Overall, this group of summer deans felt that it had taken them two to four years to really feel comfortable in the job. One dean said she felt so uptight for the first couple of years \"that I questioned if I shouldn't return to the faculty.\" She went on to explain, \"Finally, after four-plus years on the job, I found myself settling in to the role. Do you know I didn't even hang any pictures in my office for the first three years? I kept telling myself it was because I was too busy. Looking back, more likely it was because I wanted to make a quick getaway if I had to.\"

Most summer deans felt that they hit their stride when they were \"making changes, not just learning acronyms,\" \"when faculty accepted me,\" and \"when I felt safe enough to take a risk.\" Being knowledgeable of the many unique programs in the college and all of the people made a big difference in the comfort level for many of those who were interviewed. \"It took me a long time to understand the structure of all of our programs,\" one commented, \"but, once I did, I felt like I could do my job better-and easier.\" Another pointed out, \"My background is educational administration, but, as dean, have to speak to-and sell when it comes to potential donors-all of our programs. It was important for me to understand audiology and kinesiology as well as I understand how to prepare individuals to become principals.\"

Several commented that building relationships with legislators, donors, other deans, and administrators, as well as with members of the community, took hours of their time and attention. \"Now that I've been on the job long enough to know who's who, I can make my way through receptions, greet the movers and the shakers, and still get home before the news at eleven. During my first few years, working the crowd was impossible. I just didn't have the connections.\"

Relationships take time. Over and over again, the summer deans noted how much their years of experience had impacted positively their friendraising and fundraising capabilities. They pointed out that before they had an awareness of specific individuals and their importance to the college, whether it was an alum, a donor, or a business partner, it felt like they were trying to move the college's initiatives forward with one hand tied behind their back. As one summer dean so aptly stated, \"I could never have accomplished the gains we made during this past capital campaign when I was new to this job. The first three years, I didn't even have a clue as to who I should be inviting to our tailgates. For that matter, it has taken me six years just to be recognized by name when I show up at Rotary.\"

During this season of their career, summer deans felt they received their greatest satisfaction from people. The other campus deans were friends now, and cross-campus collaborations were a lot easier to initiate and move along. No longer the \"new dean\" at the provost's table, summer deans expressed more satisfaction in their interactions with fellow deans and upper administration and felt more comfortable in making comments and suggestions. \"My first two years as a dean, I never opened my mouth at the Dean's Council. I was afraid I'd say something stupid or ask a question that every dean ought to know, so I just kept my mouth shut-even when my head was spinning with questions that I wished were answered,\" one commented.

Several summer deans mentioned that working with faculty had become easier and a lot more rewarding over the years. One shared, \"To be honest, I was afraid of the faculty my first few years. I knew they opposed some of the changes I had been charged to complete when I was hired, and there were times when I felt like a bulletproof vest wasn't a bad idea.\" Another commented, \"Now that the faculty are used to me and my leadership style, I think we work better together. It's like we all know one another's hot buttons now and try not to punch them too often.\" Yet another commented, \"Our college is like a family ... the more we work together and support one another, the stronger we've become. And now that a couple of our crankiest members finally decided to retire and moved to Alabama, we are all a lot happier. Both kept the dissention pot boiling.\"

The pleasure many summer deans find in their interactions with people may be, in part, a result of time on the job.

My interactions with students are what I really look forward to each day-especially when they don't relate to a problem. Now that I've been the dean for a number of years, I feel like I've heard it all! Even though I know that's not true, I am aware that my experience comes into play when I'm faced with a student problem or dilemma. I don't come right out and say \"been there, done that,\" but I do catch myself smiling on the inside as I listen to someone's \"new\" problem.

Ironically, personnel issues also caused summer deans their greatest dissatisfaction. Several mentioned the pettiness of faculty and staff. \"At times our secretarial staff reminds me of fourth grade girls on the playground- unwilling to work together and constantly sniping at one another.\" One commented, \"I will never figure out why faculty in one department would rather watch the demise of their own programs than collaborate with another department to make all of their programs more viable.\" Several summer deans said that the jealousy among their faculty members always took them by surprise, regardless of their years as dean. One shared, \"I never expect it from individuals who are supposed to be so smart.\"

Several were also disheartened by the faculty's disinterest in students. As one summer dean put it, \"I have some faculty members who are downright mean. I'm not even sure what attracted them to the teaching profession in the first place because they certainly don't care for students.\" The summer deans found their need to remind faculty about posting office hours, attending graduation ceremonies, participating in college events, and so on, a tedious but necessary chore. \"Some gripe that I won't approve them for tenure if they don't go to the end of the school year picnic. That isn't true but there are days when I'm tempted.\"

Dealing With Difficult Issues

The personnel issues causing the greatest concern for deans at this point in their deanship centered on promotion, tenure, and termination decisions. Never easy, the summer deans did express that, through the years, they had developed more confidence in making the hard calls, \"I used to get migraines writing letters of nonsupport. I still find it one of the hardest parts of my job-but, I am more comfortable saying 'no.'\" Several pointed out that they had learned the hard way not to be too lenient in giving individuals another chance. \"Every time I try to be the nice guy, it comes back and bites me.\" \"The longer I am in the deanship, the easier it is to evaluate-really evaluate regardless of whether it is a grant proposal approval or a tenure decision. Now if I could just convince my chairs to do likewise.\"

There also are the people who, as one dean expressed, \"drive me up the wall.\" Several of the summer deans commented that the longer they serve as deans the less patience they have. \"I think I've learned to be a better listener, but I have less tolerance for some of the inane requests people have.\" \"Years ago, I had an open-door policy and took it upon myself to get intimately involved in every little problem the college had. No more. I've learned to trust my chairs and work hard not to let anyone do inroads around them.\" This sentiment was shared by many.

When necessary, however, the summer deans seemed comfortable addressing difficult issues head-on and recognized that, as deans, the buck did stop with them. One voiced professional, and personal, satisfaction that she had handled several sexual harassment charges promptly and appropriately. \"Over the last six years, I have learned that university procedures and policies are there for a reason and when it comes to cases of harassment-of any type-I follow them step by step,\" she said. \"When I have a really sticky problem-like a male faculty member making inappropriate suggestive comments to young women in his class, for instance-I deal with it immediately.\" Added another, \"Problems of this type don't get any easier and putting them off sometimes makes it worse. That's one thing I've learned through the years-take care of the messy stuff immediately.\" One nodded and said, \"My EEO officer is on speed dial.\"

Several of the summer deans inherited colleges in which instances of harassment, plagiarism, and an unhealthy work environment, among other issues, were routinely ignored. \"When I accepted my second deanship, I discovered that the college had been misappropriating student fees for years. Luckily, I had a similar issue in my first deanship and, even though it is never easy handling something of this magnitude, having dealt with it previously sure did help.\"

Several summer deans mentioned that the longer they held the dean's position the more receptive they were to the suggestions of others. They found the job easier and more rewarding once they realized the value of \"give-and-take.\" As one dean aptly stated, \"I used to see everything as black or white; in reality, I deal with a whole lot of gray.\" Another summer dean reflected, \"I'm not as 'my way or the highway' as I used to be. There are a whole slew of good ways to do most things-and most of them don't happen to be mine.\"

An example one dean gave related to college structure: \"Although I still feel we could function more effectively and save financially as three large departments rather than seven small ones, I have learned to live with the structure we have. That decision, by the way, is a direct result of my years on the job.\" He continued, \"As a brand new dean, I can't tell you how many times I was tempted to switch everything around, but, through the years, I've learned to save my ammunition for the really big fights. Reshuffling our departments, with all of the necessary program and personnel realignments, would cause as much angst among our faculty as who gets the office with the window. I found out a long time ago that the efficiency we might gain by restructuring isn't worth the hard feelings a move of this type would generate.\"

This observation was shared by several of the summer deans who commented that, unless some \"extenuating circumstances\" called for a shake-up in structure, they had learned to live with what they had. One dean said, \"As long as classes are getting scheduled; curricula are being discussed, revised, and created; and evaluations are being conducted, I figure, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'\"

Adaptability, a trait that many of the summer deans appear to have perfected, serves them well when it comes to their relationships with upper administration-especially when so many presidents and provosts are short-timers. In numerous instances, the summer deans felt that upper administration was a \"moving target.\" Most summer deans have experienced at least one change in the presidency and two or more in the provost position. One dean in his seventh year expressed his frustration: \"I've had four presidents and five provosts since accepting the deanship.\" He continued, \"It wouldn't be so bad if they all came in to the university with the same mind-set, but they don't. Every president wants to make his or her mark, and what they want to accomplish is as varied as who they are and where they come from. Don't even get me started on the provosts. Now with my fifth, I'm having to, once again, educate her about education-just like the four before her. Previously a dean of science and technology, she has no idea about pre-K-12 education, how it works, and how it impacts on our programs.\"

This continual shifting of upper administration has, in some instances led to changes in the deanship as well. Summer deans realize that unless their personal and college goals are compatible with those of the provost and president, it is probably time to dust off the vitae and begin applying for the next position, whether another deanship, a provost spot, or a presidency. With substantial dean experience, those in the summer of their career, years four through seven, often find themselves sought after by search committees and professional headhunters. The dilemma, however, is whether or not to go, especially when there is no guarantee that the next position will be any more stable. For several deans these professional decisions, like staying or leaving, were influenced by other more personal factors. Some at this stage of their lives found that care for elderly parents prohibited relocation to another position. Others commented that they were uncomfortable uprooting their children. Still others chose to stay in their present positions because of the economy, housing costs, the fear of not being able to sell a home, and a spouse's job, among others.

Overall, the deans who were in the summer of their career enjoyed \"making things happen.\" They were proud of their accomplishments: developing new programs, receiving accreditation for current programs, creating new research centers, and changing a \"long overdue\" college climate. When they \"hit their stride,\" they still enjoyed deaning-most of the time-but realized that it did not get any easier. Their comfort came from knowing what to do, but they realized they had more to do. Associate deans and spouses provided support, but their lives had not become any less complicated through the years.

What is next for deans who have reached this point in their career? Staying put? Consulting? Returning to the faculty? Seeking a provost position or a presidency? Now that they have \"hit their stride,\" can they keep the fire alive in their current deanship? The next group of deans shed some light on these questions.