The Delicate Balance of the Academic Dean

by Emily Allen Williams

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"Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it."
-James Baldwin

The position of the dean in higher educational administration is a very fascinating rung on the academic ladder. It is a position of influence and responsibility as well as one of compromise and complication. It may be debated but never wholly negated that top-notch deans are the movers and shakers of the academic enterprise. It is with the academic dean that new programs are advanced, new faculty members are recruited, and students successfully tracked from entry to graduation. The work of the academic dean in achieving these outcomes occurs successfully only through the synthesized work and support of senior administration, faculty, and staff. Indeed, it is not a solo journey.

Known pervasively as the middle managers of higher education, the dean serves as both the catalyst and conduit for the information, resources, and [yes] challenges that emanate from all sides of the academic corridor in moving the school, students, and faculty to various levels of achievement and accolade. Put another way, the academic dean necessarily makes many moves on a complicated playing field in advancing the work of the school. Senior administration, department chairs/conveners, faculty, and students all have and expect both immediate and on-going access to the dean.

What is the price to be paid for the immediate access, the moving and shaking, and the entities to whom the dean is responsible? The answer is, of course, complicated and depends, in large part, on the levels of understanding and support of the dean within the institution. Most academic deans face a great deal of criticism for not being able to sufficiently placate the dreams and wishes of everyone within the state of the realities that attend the life of the academy. While many of the forwarded dreams and wishes need to be respected and worked forward as real-time issues by the dean, it is important to understand the journey of some academic deans toward fulfilling requests, particularly at small colleges and universities.1

In short, it is important to "walk a mile" in these administrators' shoes, if only through theory, before rushing to censure them in all manners ranging from alleged non-cooperation in advancing academic programs, funding insufficiently developed/vetted departmental initiatives, and hiring new faculty with questionable credentials. In some extreme situations, such situations have led to voting "no-confidence" for the dean when agendas are not satisfied by entities that do not have the entire photo-journal of situations and instead just have a snapshot of reality.

The academic dean's work primarily centers on serving as the leader of their school (also, in some institutions, referred to as college or division), which involves the oversight of departments led either by department chairs or conveners. The dean also has the fiduciary responsibility for accurate and timely monitoring and managing of the school and departmental budgets along with the balanced allocation of program support to include faculty professional development funding and student research and presentation funding. What do these responsibilities really equate to for the dean? Transparently, the dean is responsible for leading and maintaining a clear vision and mission towards a focused and realistic implementation of a strategic plan for the unit which aligns with the strategic plan of the college/university.

Making a difference becomes key in this mid-management role. What brands the school? Is there a clear identity internally as well as externally? Why would students and faculty want to become a part of the school? Is there sufficient support from senior administration as well as autonomy for the dean to lead in advancing a vision into reality from one academic year to the next? In consideration of these questions, the dean needs to focus on a delicate balance of knowledge, collaboration, and negotiation across academic lines. It is this delicate balancing that enables the dean to be successful in addressing the foundational as well as complex demands that emanate from senior administration, department chairs/conveners, faculty, and students.

  • Senior Administration: Interfacing with senior officials of the institution (president, provost, and presidential cabinet members) is by design both planned and dynamic. There are scheduled meetings and situations where the dean must deliver the messages of the day-to-day work of their schools in holistically advancing the institution. There are, however, many impromptu occasions where the dean must respond quickly but logically in advancing major initiatives (financial and programmatic) of senior administration. Similarly, the dean is responsible for taking controversial policies and procedures to department chairs/conveners, faculty, and staff and interpreting them for implementation, which [often] places the dean in a compromising position. The dean is frequently called upon to make difficult decisions and effect change which brings the dean within a realm of academic discontent. The dean can routinely be found in the cross-fire of negotiating for their faculty and students alongside the many necessary and unavoidable limitations and policy decisions articulated from senior administration.
  • Department Chairs/Conveners: The dean has the responsibility of providing leadership and direction to department chairs/conveners in managing the day-to-day operations of their units. Assisting these unit leaders to lead effectively with the balance of their own teaching, supervision of faculty, and mediation of both faculty and student issues is crucial in deans not becoming "mini-department chairs/conveners." To be effective, the dean must have department chairs/conveners who can move forward on day-to-day matters without constant intervention from the dean. Providing one-on-one support to chairs/conveners in managing and assisting in the evaluation of current faculty and the hiring of new high-quality faculty is key for deans in being able to manage the political landscape of departments without becoming entrenched in discipline-specific nuances that can be handled at departmental levels.
  • Faculty: Faculty want to be heard by the person who they feel can most readily advance their dreams and desires into realities. In many cases, faculty move beyond their departmental leadership and go directly to the dean with their requests. The dean must find a way -- in a positive manner -- to emphasize the importance of protocol in the stream of requests emanating from faculty. While the dean may be viewed as the solution-holder, the departmental leadership must participate in the delicate balance of the school towards positive outcomes. The effective dean must create relationships with faculty without compromising the lines of communication between the department leader and faculty members.
  • Students: The academic dean should be visible and accessible to students. While the dean should not be perceived as "untouchable" to students, the dean is not the first line of arbitration in student-faculty complications, grade and graduation audit issues, and financial matters, among others. These matters firmly reside in the departments. Again, a healthy regard for protocol must be explained to students via their department chair/convener and adviser or the dean risks being unable to advance the larger concerns of the unit in providing major services to students and faculty.
The dean is close to the "heartbeat" of the academic enterprise and most of its major moving parts. The dean embodies both broadly and specifically the needs, wants, desires, and -- yes -- often, the discord and despair of the school. It is the effective academic dean, however, that continues to seek and encourage cooperation, collegiality, and support in advancing the academic enterprise for the greater enhancement of students, faculty, and the community the institution seeks to serve. Indeed, the effective academic dean is a supreme "doer" who recalls James Baldwin's words, "Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it."
1 “Small” here refers to institutions with approximately 6,000 or fewer students.

Note: The author has been academic dean at two colleges/universities. She is currently Vice Provost for Curriculum and Assessment.