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Leading Up: The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with the Dean

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In this article, the chairs discuss a variety of topics that address some of the challenges and opportunities they had working with their deans. The article provides some guidance and examples that others can use to help develop and construct meaningful working relationships with their deans. 


The posting below looks at some key elements in an effective department chair – dean  relationship. It is by Daniel W. Wheeler, Ethan Krase, Christian K. Hansen, and M. Beth Zimmer and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer 2019, Vol. 30, No. 1. Copyright © 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770 or see: For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at


Rick Reis

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Leading Up: The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with the Dean


As department chairs and academic deans well know, a healthy chair-dean relationship is pivotal to effective academic leadership. The key question is: What can [E1] the chair do to help build and maintain a functional partnership with the dean? This was the subject of a panel of chairs at the 2019 Academic Chairpersons Conference in Houston, Texas. Three chairs from three different institutions and disciplines addressed how they managed to have an effective relationship with their deans. Their perspectives, some of which were learned the hard way, suggest that trial and error, as well as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, are at the center of effective academic leadership. The chairs suggest that careful thought and strategy are necessary to have a successful relationship and to move the department priorities forward. Without mutual trust and respect between the chair and the dean, little good can happen easily. 

In this article, the chairs discuss a variety of topics that address some of the challenges and opportunities they had working with their deans. The article provides some guidance and examples that others can use to help develop and construct meaningful working relationships with their deans. 

Speak the Language of the Dean 

To facilitate effective communication between a chair and a dean, it is important for chairs to understand the dean’s broader perspective on various issues—that is, to learn to speak the language of the dean. Chairs often approach negotiations with the dean from the perspective of being a spokesperson for their departments and fail to consider how a proposed initiative or solution will affect other departments or the college as a whole. An initiative that is good for the department may not be equally good for the college in the eyes of the dean. Speaking the language of the dean is often a matter of rephrasing a proposal in a way that appeals to the dean. This may require chairs to quote goals or priorities in the college or university strategic plan, offering strategies for funding the proposal and demonstrating the long-term benefit for the college. For example, a chair may want to lobby for a new faculty position as a result of many above-capacity class enrollments. Arguing for a new position on the basis of faculty being overworked or having to do more with less is unlikely to gain traction with a typical dean. But arguing on the basis of university priorities of increasing capacity, reducing obstacles for students, or reducing time to graduation for majors outside the chair’s department may help to get the dean’s attention. To speak the language of the dean, chairs must spend time learning about the dean’s personal priorities and what is important to a particular dean. This will enable chairs to better present a proposal by knowing which buttons to push to get the dean excited. Understanding the limitations of the dean’s discretionary funds or having a plan for how the proposal will be funded will make a conversation even more fruitful.

Provide the Dean with Institutional Memory

Chairs are most commonly elected or appointed from within their colleges or universities and often have gone through the various academic ranks before pursuing (or being pursued into) the chair role. They often bring very little or no administrative experience to their new positions, but they know their institutions very well. Deans, on the other hand, are by majority hired from outside through a national search. They often bring in years of administrative experience from one or more other institutions but know little or nothing about the history and past traditions of their new institutions. This scenario provides an excellent opportunity for chairs and deans to take advantage of each other’s unique skills and experiences. Deans may propose an idea or solution that worked well at their previous institutions while chairs who are also seasoned faculty members may be able to offer insight into how such ideas were tried and/or rejected in the past. 

For this partnership to work, chairs must be willing to set aside their natural we-tried-that-and-it-didn’t-work instinct and be open to new ideas while also showing the dean where the institutional bodies are buried. It is important to keep in mind that institutions and the environment they operate in change over time. Therefore, it is quite possible that an idea that was rejected twenty years ago might be the right solution now under new conditions. That said, institutional memory can sometimes help prevent pointless reorganizations in which academic units are simply merged or disassembled every time a new dean comes along.

Remember That the Dean Is Not the Enemy

It is not uncommon among faculty for there to be an us-versus-them mentality when it comes to administration. Several of us recall having colleagues wish us luck as we took on the “dark side” in our new chair roles. Among faculty, the gallows humor that positions the dean as the enemy is relatively harmless. For chairs, however, engaging in this sort of thinking is a certain route to frustration and ineffective leadership. Although the dean does represent upper administration to departments, the dean also carries department priorities and wishes to upper administration, acting as a sort of intermediary between the two entities. Because the chain of communication in academia—chairs to deans to upper administration—is not easily or productively circumvented at most institutions, for chairs, the dean must become a very particular kind of colleague, and an adversarial stance is not a tenable starting point for building a sound working relationship. 

At its core, a chair’s work is unavoidably personal. The kind and quality of a chair’s individual relationships with faculty, staff, students, and administrators are critical to successful leadership. Although all these relationships are important, the chair’s personal rapport with the dean is among the most pivotal. Chairs are thus smart to invest time and energy in understanding their deans on a personal level, which includes learning answers to three key questions:

1. How does the dean prefer to communicate?

2. What pressures are the dean under?

3. Who is the dean as a person?

Chairs must also help the dean understand the same sorts of things about themselves. When chairs and deans know the answers to these questions, they can begin to build the trust and understanding that are central to a mutually beneficial working relationship. Ultimately, the dean can be an asset to the chair when a healthy working relationship exists between the two.

Reduce the Dean’s Tendency to Micromanage

All chairs will likely have to deal with micromanagement at some point in their careers. When a new person is added to the administrative team, this creates an adjustment period where people must learn to trust one another. When the dean appears to closely manage or hover over the chair’s work, this can generate a negative undertone in the workplace. There are many ways to reduce the tendency of a dean to micromanage. Having regular discussions with the dean about particular tasks will sometimes alleviate the mistrust that a dean has of a chair. Once deans see that their chairs are capable of making the right decisions at the right times, they may relax their tendency to hover. Sometimes the appearance of micromanagement might simply be the dean needing to get information. In this case, open dialogue about why the dean needs information from the chair can relieve the feeling of being controlled. Remember that the dean’s office also has outside pressures that require them to get information quickly and to place those demands on the chair. Of course, some deans simply have the disposition that personifies the word micromanager and want to control the work of everyone around them. In this case, learning to turn the dean’s demands into a positive experience might help to create a better working environment. A chair might offer to take over something that the dean seems obsessed with, or the chair might open a discussion about the demands being placed on chairs. This may help micromanaging deans see that their repeated, unrelenting request for information is unnecessary. Chairs might simply offer the dean more information about providing requested information, which can help to alleviate some frustration. If the dean changes the order of the tasks that need to be accomplished, chairs must make sure they inform the dean about what tasks have been put aside for their request. Finally, all chairs must also learn not to micromanage their own faculty and staff and to trust that others will do the tasks needed in their own way. Chairs may assist and give advice, but they should try not to control how others do their work. 

Seek Out the Dean as a Mentor

For chairs who are inspired to advance up the academic leadership chain, it is natural to use the dean as a mentor. Most deans begin their academic leadership careers as department chairs and therefore can be a resource for understanding the typical path involved in advancing from chair to dean. It is also very common for deans to recruit their associate dean(s) among the current chairs in the college, so letting the dean know of your intention to seek advancement is a good way to initiate this process. There are many ways in which a dean can mentor a chair seeking advancement. First, a dean can describe what the role entails. This is knowledge that even chairs who do not wish to advance should find useful. Second, a dean can provide insight into the job application process and explain the myriad factors that go into finding advertised positions that are a good fit with the chair’s background and experience. The dean can explain the pros and cons of seeking positions at similar institutions. Finally, the dean can serve not only as a reference but also as a conduit for opening doors to searches. Deans are frequently contacted by executive recruiters, and writing a personalized letter or email to the recruiter introducing a chair as a potential candidate often provides a higher likelihood of an interview than an unsolicited direct application.

Understand the Dean’s Budget

University budgets are somewhat of a mystery to most chairs, and the ways in which budgets are used or manipulated can sometimes seem obscure. Some of the more common university budget models include incremental budgeting, zero-based budgeting, activity-based budgeting, centralized budgeting, performance-based budgeting, and responsibility-centered management. Chairs should have a general comprehension of the budget management policies at their institutions. This may help a chair understand some of the decision-making policies that occur at upper administrative levels. At the department level, the most important aspect of budgeting is to fully understand the department’s needs and how chairs can use their funds. Chairs should be familiar with the historical perspective of their department budgets to better inform their departments’ long-term needs. Chairs must stay within budget. When a department needs extra money, chairs must discuss their rationale for these extra needs with the dean. This is another example of when chairs must be able to speak the language of the dean. Having a better understanding of the entire college budget means the chair will be able to better convey the reason that the dean should want to allocate additional funds to a specific department. Chairs must determine whether they are constantly over or under budget and why. The department budget affects not only the specific department but also the college and university budget. 

Recognize When Deans Are Resistant to Change

One of the few constants in academia is change itself. Although relatively few people truly enjoy change, deans are sometimes particularly resistant to any changes that they themselves did not think to make. When a need for change arises within a department, chairs play a key role in communicating the reasons and details to the dean. Whether the change involves curricula, budgets, extracurriculars, personnel, or some other feature of department life, in most cases the dean will need either to be aware of or in many cases to support the change as it moves through the appropriate channels. Not all deans embrace this part of their jobs. Before addressing what chairs can do about a dean who resists change, it is worth recognizing why some deans are change adverse. In most academic units, the sheer complexity coupled with the high number of moving pieces can make the status quo attractive. After all, if nothing changes, then perhaps nothing will break, or so the thinking seems to go for some deans. Yet as chairs well know, without change it is nearly impossible to respond constructively to advancements in our fields, shifts in personnel, alterations in student demographics, and advancements in instructional technologies, to name only a few common areas of change. For this reason, chairs must communicate the rationale behind changes in ways that are clear and forthright. One common way to work toward this clarity is via a standard one-page memo. In this document, the chair can lay out the central context, the rationale behind the needed change, the proposed alteration, and the potential costs and benefits, all conveyed using the dean’s language. Such a document then forms the basis from which discussion and negotiation (if needed) can commence. Although some deans are de facto resistant to change, if chairs can convey rationale, cost, and benefit in ways that are readily understandable to a dean who is busily managing an array of disparate contexts, the chances of gaining the dean’s support on a needed change improves markedly.

Learn to Love the Dean You’re With

For chairs, the dean is an absolute reality that shapes daily work—unfortunately, sometimes in ways that are difficult. Although it may be tempting to expend emotional energy thinking back on a previous dean or wishing for the unknown promise of some future dean, chairs can lead most effectively when they find ways to work well with the person who occupies the dean’s office. In this regard, chairs are vastly different from faculty who often have the luxury of more or less avoiding a difficult dean until that person moves on. For chairs, no such option exists. Neither chairs nor deans can readily succeed as leaders without each other. One of our own deans put it succinctly: “We all do better when we all do better.” The chair’s ability to connect with and understand the dean, no matter who that person turns out to be, is thus tantamount to being the responsible, savvy, forward-thinking academic leaders we all strive to be. This is at the very core of the chair’s ability to lead up. 

▲This article is based on a presentation at the 36th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 6–8, 2019, Houston, Texas.

Daniel W. Wheeler is professor emeritus of leadership studies and former head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Ethan Krase is professor and chair of the Department of English at Winona State University. Christian K. Hansen is professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at Eastern Washington University. M. Beth Zimmeris is professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Ferris State University.