Image: Kevin Van Aelst
I only had to spend a year as an interim dean to know that I wasn’t interested in the permanent job. In plotting your career, just as important as realizing that you might want to pursue a deanship is knowing that you don’t.
I’ve written before about my experiences as a department chair, a position I held for a total of 10 years at two different community colleges. I was also director of a large, collegewide program — a job with similar duties and expectations as a dean. My advice here is both for department chairs, especially at community colleges, who have thought about trying to move up to a dean’s role or former chairs who have recently become deans and aren’t entirely sure what to expect.
- My experiences as a dean were atypical in some ways, since I was both an interim and a short-timer. However, the "interim" tag aside, I had all the same responsibilities as the "permanent" deans who preceded and followed me, and I was in the position long enough — one full academic year — to understand exactly what those responsibilities entail.
- Second, a deanship at a two-year college can be substantially different from one at a research university. Accordingly, I will attempt to focus on issues common to all deans while at the same time acknowledging some of those important differences.
All of that said, here are some of the things I learned as I made the transition from department chair to dean:
In some ways, it’s an easier job. Of all the positions I’ve held in academe — including being a full-time instructor teaching five classes a semester, coaching the men’s basketball team while teaching a half load, and serving as campus academic dean — department chair was the most demanding. It entailed long hours, endless lines of people waiting to speak with me, and big deadlines always looming for budget requests, class schedules, faculty evaluations.
By contrast, when I was dean, all those soul-sucking but necessary chores were performed by others. I had to oversee them and sign off on the results, of course, but the work of reviewing schedules and faculty evals, and even suggesting a few revisions, is far less tedious and time-consuming than creating them in the first place.
One afternoon during my second month as dean, I had polished off all the paperwork on my desk and realized it was only about 2 p.m. I walked out of my office and asked my assistant, who had been in that position for more than 20 years under multiple deans, if she knew of anything I ought to be doing but wasn’t. (She couldn’t think of anything.) That never happened to me once in all my years as department chair.
But in other ways, it’s much harder. Looking back, that must have been one of the few afternoons when I didn’t have any meetings. Because that is one of a dean’s main duties: to attend countless meetings representing the institution, the unit you oversee, and its departments to various groups, committees, and constituencies.
It’s true that I had to attend a lot of meetings when I was a department chair, too, but not nearly as many. I honestly never knew there could be so many meetings until I became a dean. Whereas my campus had seven department chairs who could often divide the meetings up between themselves — "I’ll be on the calendar committee if you’ll serve on the eval committee" — we only had one academic dean, and I basically had to go to all of them.
For someone like me, who detests meetings, that alone made "deaning" more difficult than chairing.
Further complicating matters was the fact that being dean is such a political position, and I despise office politics (and am not particularly good at them). I tend to be pretty straightforward, even blunt, and have a low tolerance for ethical ambiguity.
High-ranking college administrators, I found, tended to see a lot of gray areas where I saw only black and white. That trait did not serve me well as dean. Meanwhile, the people who reported to me — the department chairs, all good friends of mine (once) — now seemed to look for any opportunity to take offense or get their feelings hurt.
For me, learning to choose my battles carefully became a constant struggle.
You have more responsibility but less control. As a department chair, I had a lot of work to do, but I also had a great deal of control over my various tasks. Sure, the dean could come along and change the spring schedule after I’d worked on it for hours. But that was unlikely if I did a good job. For the most part, the department’s class schedule was mine to make (with significant input from the faculty, of course).
At the same time, the dean served as a kind of safety net. The schedule wasn’t going straight from my laptop to the academic vice president’s office to be downloaded immediately. The dean had to sign off on it, which meant that, if I had done something boneheaded, it would probably be caught and corrected at that stage. It also meant that the dean was ultimately responsible for the content (although I might be called in for a little "come-to-Jesus" meeting afterward if I’d screwed up too badly).
When I became dean, I discovered that my position was exactly reversed. I didn’t have a whole lot of control over things like the course schedule, beyond carefully suggesting a few minor changes here and there (remember what I said about politics?) and perhaps catching the occasional gaffe. Yet in the eyes of those above me (the academic vice president and up) I was responsible for all of it, gaffes included. (Yes, I also conducted one or two of those come-to-Jesus meetings with a department chair myself.)
You have to have big-picture perspective as dean. As a department chair, I always believed my primary responsibility was to the faculty members in my department — to try to make their jobs (and lives) easier, to help them achieve their goals, and to have their backs in disputes with students or upper-level administrators, as long as I believed they were in the right (and, in my experience, they usually were). I still view that as Job One for department chairs.
It’s not that I disagree with the "students first" mantra promulgated by so many institutions, including most community colleges. I just always believed that the best thing chairs can do for students is to make sure they have the most qualified and best equipped professors possible. It doesn’t hurt if those faculty members are relatively happy, too.
As dean, however, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t automatically take the side of faculty members — or of students, either, for that matter. As a member of the senior administration, I represented the institution and, in most cases, had to put its interests first.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t open to other points of view, or that I simply dug in my heels and spouted the party line in any dispute. It just meant that I had to take a broad view of each situation, attempting to balance the needs of the various parties while ultimately protecting the college. As a result, I often felt torn and wondered if I had made the right decision.
You’re no longer a faculty member. Much of my ambivalence stemmed from the fact that, as dean, despite my faculty rank, I wasn’t really a faculty member. I was management, with all that that entails.
Certainly I was a manager of sorts as a department chair. But I was also a full-fledged faculty member. I taught a couple of courses a year. I was evaluated as a faculty member by my boss, the dean (in addition to my evaluation as a chair). Even my annual contract was a faculty contract, with a separate line for my department-chair stipend.
When I became dean, all of that changed. I no longer taught classes, even though I would have liked to. (And probably could have, if I’d pressed the issue. And maybe if I’d stayed in the position longer, I would have.) I was no longer evaluated as a faculty member (which created a few problems down the road, when I returned to the faculty full time). Even my contract no longer had a faculty line.
All of that affected the way my colleagues saw me. Even if they liked me personally, I was still, in their eyes, an administrator, which to many of them made me the enemy. One of the main difficulties for chairs is being caught in the middle, between faculty and administration. But I found that I preferred that dynamic to being permanently cast as "other" by former friends.
You worry more about money. That is the most significant difference between chair and dean.
For a department chair, funding (specifically, the lack thereof) is an occasional irritant. Chairs are usually given a set budget and told to stay within it. That can lead to some frustration, not to mention a good bit of penny-pinching. But for the most part, as a chair, you know how much money you have, and you spend it as carefully and wisely as you can, and let it go at that.
For a dean, trying to figure out where the money is going to come from is a constant. For one thing, deans are often responsible for funding the entire college or campus. And everyone, from department chairs to administrative staff, is always asking the dean for more — which means that the dean must constantly ask for more.
At many institutions, deans are required to go out and raise money in the community, although that generally isn’t the case at community colleges. But whether the dean is begging donors, or just begging the provost, you must always have your hand out. Most department chairs have no idea what their deans go through to procure funds, or how exhausting that can be.
My year as dean taught me that I actually preferred being a department chair, despite the fact that I firmly believe it’s the most difficult job on a campus. But that’s just me. If you think you might want to move up from department chair to a deanship, find out the pros and cons on your own campus to decide whether it’s a good move for you.