Recent Posts



Luke, Come to the Dark Side: The Joys of Dean-ing

I was having lunch the other day with a former dean, and once again the conversation veered into the motivations for doing this job. My colleague missed being at the table and in charge. Why does someone become a dean? I do get asked this a lot, especially by colleagues in my own discipline who wonder why I would want to do less of everything that they’re trying to do more of? It is an oft-stated truism about deanship that no one starts out in academia wanting to be a dean, and essentially no one is trained to be one!

For my part, I think it’s related in the first instance to my background. In high school I directed plays and managed my town’s nature centre. By the time I went to graduate school, I had already run a tenant union and large music festivals. And from 1976 onward, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I’ve crafted six-month goals and objectives for work and all aspects of my life. So what we in academia call academic administration came more naturally to me than to some colleagues, for whom it’s akin to wearing a rough wool garment and flogging oneself. And let me be very honest: I like the responsibility of running things. I’ve said on a few occasions that if I’m going to have to put up with living inside a bureaucratic institution, I’d at least like to have a say in how it’s run.

I recall one particular interaction that crystallized my dissatisfaction with having no say. When I was an Assistant Professor, I was working with another professor to develop a long-range and encompassing fundraising plan for my Music Department, but it was scuttled when the Chair decided instead to approach our major donor for a piano. A major opportunity lost, I regretted that I was on the periphery of decision-making and had no effect on strategy. So a few weeks later, when another university came calling for a future Chair of a Music Department, I was primed to want to try my hand. I wanted to be in the conversation, not screaming from the periphery.

As a chair, I discovered an interesting thing about administration: when it works it can create the same kind of magic I used to think I could help to create as a musician, festival director, or teacher. At my own festivals, for example, I would go from stage to stage to sample how my programming was working with the audiences. After months of scheduling artists on particular stages and linking performance thematically, I could see if my imagination had been effective, and I would get a thrill if the audience was reacting as I had imagined, or even if moving and unpredictable interactions were occurring. My guiding principle was to create an event so well run that its architecture was invisible, and to all the world it looked like a great, spontaneous party.

Let’s extrapolate that to university administration! What if the machinery of recruitment, admissions, orientation, advising and course registration worked seamlessly for students, and they didn’t have to spend their lives standing in line and being bounced around from office to office? What if the process or recruiting faculty, mentoring them, assisting their teaching, enabling their research, and facilitating great interactions with colleagues were friction-free in terms of guidelines and approvals? What if we could achieve a truly diverse, intellectually challenging, collegial atmosphere for debate and the free flow of ideas? What results when some of this is in place can also be like magic. Students can be turned on by ideas and experiences, people innovate and work with others to solve intractable problems. This is idealist thinking, I recognize, but when we’re effective in solving the everyday problems and overcoming the irritants and frustrations of academic life, we get a little closer to the functioning of an ideal collegium. This part of the job I love, and it thrills me to every once in a while to see a bit of magic take place.

Speaking after I was given a toilet plunger by a department, a metaphor for the job of dean.

Let me raise another aspect of the job that’s immensely appealing to me. I had a particularly difficult time in coming to know what I wanted to “do with my life”, at least on a long-term basis, because I’m by nature an insatiably curious person. I was lucky growing up on a game farm where my parents indulged my curiosity with Time-Life Books and National Geographic Magazines and whatever they could get on astronomy, archeology, calligraphy, or, to cite my favorite: animal tracks and spore! As I’ve written previously, my early adult life was characterized by a string of very different jobs. In fact, one could describe my current job as “therapy for the insatiably curious”. On a given day, I might read cases or have conversations about tourism in the USSR, Shakespeare’s innovations with vengeance plays, Coast Salish language revitalization, sustainability in China, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, the relationship between political parties and development in a village in Rajasthan, or the use of drone bombs in contemporary American warfare. And in a small way I get to contribute to sustaining the foundation for all of this great research and teaching to happen.

I’ve realized over the years that I’m a visual thinker and a systems thinker, and that I’ve always been attracted to the challenges of solving problems. In fact, I’m a sucker for challenges. As my wife is fond of reminding me, every academic job I’ve taken has been at a smaller effective salary than my last job, but they’ve always resulted in bigger challenges. And a deanship might be viewed as a succession of challenges, generally scores of them every day: structure a spousal hiring for retention of a faculty member; review and respond to an external review; figure out how to fund a construction project for a department; seek out donors for an endowed professorship; cancel a professorial search to reinforce the importance of diversity; determine the routing of a difficult tenure and promotion case; try to solve the long-term insolvency of a unit; consider a major new program with another Faculty; review appointment letters; review proposals to Senate; convince candidates to serve as Heads; see if we can assist in a retirement … that’s just culled from a portion of the docket on one day this week.

Every once in a while, I even get to teach a class, and thankfully I get to interact with students much the time. And if I’m ridiculously disciplined, or maybe selfish, I can eke out a little time to work on research and publication – I’m setting up a research lab/office, and I escape there whenever I can. In the most enjoyable moments of the job, I’m surrounded by and interacting with smart and creative people, I get to explore ideas and solutions and plan, maybe even laugh at some of the absurdities of institutional life, and I even get to help a little magic to happen. Being a part of the decision making, indulging my curiosity, helping some good things to happen that affect student’s lives and that can have a beneficial impact on society – these are the core attractions of the deanship for me. This is what makes putting up with the pace of the job and the stresses of having to make hard decisions and the constant strains on Faculty finances all tolerable. My lunch partner the other day talked about how much fun it had been to be a dean, and mentioned that in her current work she was having to find out how to influence the course of academic life and programs without having the authority to make it happen. I can relate — it is fun! It can also be incredibly stressful and consuming, and to use a word beloved of deans these days: relentless. But it is never boring.

I remember an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education many years ago that looked at what people do after serving as a dean. Less that a quarter of them went back into the classroom as full-time professors. Most have been too far removed from the literature and the changes in classroom technology and pedagogy to feel that they are the still the kinds of effective instructors that they looked for in their faculty. Most either retire or go onto other academic administrative positions. I have no idea what I will want to do when the time comes around, but it looks like I will once again have to ask myself the question: “What do I want to do when I grow up?”

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet