10 Suggestions for a New Academic Dean

Full vitae suggestions new academic dean

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By Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti

Few people go into academe with an eye toward a career in administration. Those numbers are even more minuscule for Latinas/os like us. It doesn’t help that institutions aren’t very intentional about helping professors acquire the skills to lead.

In the summer of 2017, when both of us started work as an academic dean — one in arts and sciences, and the other in engineering — we searched for tips to assist our transition into the role. We found many books dedicated to academic leadership, but we needed something more concise.

So, two years into the job, we thought it would be useful to share a few things we’ve learned in the hope that this will help other new deans.

Explain yourself. Be prepared to succinctly describe — to yourself and others — why you wanted to be a dean on the campus.

In an interview for the dean’s job, one of us, Javier, met with the president who liked Javier’s vision for the college but recommended he condense it into a two-minute elevator speech. At the time, Javier was not sure how to interpret that observation: Was the president truly impressed or overwhelmed by too much detail?

What Javier realizes now: "I was going to have to give that speech every time I met a new faculty member, alumnus, donor, student. So I needed to communicate clearly and concisely the essence of why I applied to be a dean of this college at thisinstitution. My message needed a consistent core that would evolve as I became more informed."

The pace in campus administration is fast-moving. You will need to keep operations running smoothly while putting out fires and pivoting frequently. One study found that deans perform as many as 168 different duties — so be ready to remind yourself why you chose to do this and then use that motivation to keep yourself centered amid the chaos.

This job is different from any other you’ve held. In a 2016 Chronicle essay, "So You Want to Be a Dean," Dan Butin wrote, "A dean is often in the unfortunate liminal position of being no longer truly a professor but not completely an administrator, either (like the provost or president) — and thus prone to role conflict and ambiguity."

Other faculty leadership positions have a limited term and are often filled internally — think: department chairs, faculty-senate leaders, or even assistant/associate deans. But it is more and more common for academic deans to be hired from outside an institution. Even if you moved up the ranks within a single institution to become dean, you may keep the job indefinitely — it’s not a role that will rotate widely on the campus.

If you are an outside hire, don’t assume that practices and procedures you were accustomed to at your old campus will readily translate to the new one. Be mindful of over utilizing "well at my old institution we did X," which can come across as pretentious and condescending. If you’re an inside hire, don’t assume that practices and procedures that worked in the department you chaired will work as dean overseeing a broad mix of fields.

Listen. A lot. And then strategize. Your new college comes with a history. Spend as much time as you can afford listening to its faculty members, staffers, and students. What do they have, need, or want to do their best work? Do not rely too much on any one source, but rather triangulate them to differentiate fact from perception.

Acknowledge the college’s past accomplishments and note shortcomings that can be transformed into opportunities. As a dean you will have few carrots and even fewer sticks, so telling folks what to do will not work. Build consensus where possible and recognize that sometimes it is not (but you can get close).

Help your new colleagues get to know how you work. Explain your leadership style, vision, and values. Remind yourself that building working relationships takes time. Keep in mind, there is a fine line between being friendly, open, and approachable — and being friends. Avoid the latter.

Part of thinking strategically is regularly setting aside time to reflect and evaluate. You can and will be consumed by managerial responsibilities (not to mention email). If you do not periodically pause to reflect, you can easily lose sight of priorities. You will need blocks of time to think, so schedule them in your calendar.

You have only a few peers on your campus. Being a dean can be an isolating experience (remember: friendly but not friends). Professors, staff members, and students see you differently — as do other administrators. You will need people to confide in, and a team that will strengthen your weaknesses and provide reinforcements.

Deans may come and go. Most likely, your college has long functioned as an academic unit within the university prior to your arrival. That means others have championed efforts to move the college in one direction or another. Identify who they are and determine if, and how, they might fit with your plans.

Look to empower or foster other leaders within the ranks. Done strategically, that can also help alleviate any undue dissent or resentment from those who may feel disenfranchised and who might otherwise impede progress. For instance, an interim dean who was a finalist for your position could be a strong ally, especially if that person was widely trusted by the faculty. Identify people who are assets within the college, and do not waste their talents.

At the same time, build your team outside of the workplace. You need to find meaning and value in relationships apart from the job. Sometimes it’s hard to admit, but we all need a life when we leave the office. You and your work will be stronger as a result.

Prepare to compromise. Learning a new position takes time — even more so for a dean who is new to the institution and region. Things will take longer than you anticipate. Sometimes the compromises you have to make — on timelines, goals, expectations — are with yourself. Things happen, timetables shift. Don’t be averse to adjusting your pace.

And don’t view compromise as a shortcoming, but rather, as an opportunity to learn something new or turn toward a more optimal path. If you have a better attitude toward unexpected obstacles, so will the people you’re leading.

The magic is in distinguishing between what requires compromise and what must be an executive decision. Sure it’s best to build consensus, but sometimes you have gathered enough input and it’s time to make an informed decision with reasonable risk.

Set the tone and share your vision. Establishing a strategic plan for your college may seem like busywork. But its value — even if all you’re doing is reiterating an existing plan — comes from agreeing on "where we as a college have been," "where we wish to go," and "who we want to become." Agree on all that, and you can map out the details of "how will we get there."

As a new dean, part of your responsibility is to guide the discussion to a timely, effective, and actionable conclusion. So guide it. Share your ideas and vision as a starting point. Direct the discussion toward a plan that will be widely accepted.

For example, Jessica spent her first semester as dean meeting with faculty members to establish new mission and vision statements for our college. Through interactive exercises, faculty members defined the college as it is now and described where they wanted it to go. It was a revealing and transparent learning experience for everyone, and it built trust. The resulting vision and mission statements helped clarify our aspirations and focus our strategic planning.

When in doubt, focus on the students. As dean, your vision for your college should be forward-looking and ever-evolving, while a mission statement is more stable and defined. Having a clear, widely-supported mission provides a common framework that regulates your decision-making, allocation of resources, and time and effort. When those things are at a premium and you are puzzling over competing priorities, remember that first on the list should be the students.

Find a few mentors with administrative experience. Oftentimes we look to our supervisor for mentorship. However, in the dean’s seat, it may not be wise to expect your immediate boss to mentor you. First, the provost and the president are consumed with responsibilities and may have very little time to mentor you. And second, a mentor guides you not only in your current job, but also for the future — and your boss is unlikely to be interested in helping you move up.

Mentorship in this position is more likely to happen informally through interactions with your fellow deans. One of us has learned greatly from working with and observing more-experienced deans. Take advantage of any opportunity to observe, and learn from, another dean.

We also highly recommend you seek mentors beyond your campus by attending administrative conferences and workshops to build a network of peers. One of us approached a colleague who had mentored us as a junior faculty member and asked if that person knew of others within our discipline who had stepped into administrative roles. The former mentor was happy to provide names of folks who had "crossed over to the dark side," and even made introductions.

There is no I in "dean." Your success will be measured by others’ accomplishments — professors, staff members, and students. A key part of your job is to recognize and, when appropriate, celebrate their accomplishments. Properly appreciated, faculty and staff members are far more resilient, especially in tough times.

There is no worse way to stymie buy-in than by usurping another’s credit. And you may win over critics, naysayers, and skeptics by recognizing the successes of others in your college. But make sure your praise and appreciation is authentic — that you mean it when you say "thank you" or "job well done."

Be accessible but not "on call." How accessible you are to faculty and staff members and students will depend on the scale of your operation and the cultural norms of your institution. Try to match the campus norm for what is considered reasonable access to the dean.

Establish a climate and culture of open and direct communication to the degree that you can. People will be less disappointed not to get what they want if they believe their ideas, views, and concerns were heard, understood, and valued.

That said, not every problem is yours to solve. People will be overly reliant on you if you are always available or too quick to comply. And you want to avoid stepping on the toes of other administrators: When some issue is brought to your attention, your first question should be whether the matter was previously communicated to the chair or supervisor immediately responsible. Empowering people to solve their own problems releases you to focus on more strategic matters.

A final word of advice: You have accepted a position as a problem-solver, and people are often unhappy when dealing with stubborn problems. They will resist change because "we’ve always done it this way." Make the case for rethinking those old practices. And try not to take the predictable blowback personally.

Suggested Readings

  • The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan: How to Take Charge, Build or Merge Your Team, and Get Immediate Results, by George B. Bradt, Jayme A. Check, and John A. Lawler.
  • The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership, by Jeffrey L. Buller.
  • HBR’s 10 Must Reads for New Managers, published by the Harvard Business Review.
  • Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott.
  • Dean & Provost, a newsletter published by Jossey-Bass.

Organizations and Other Resources for Deans

Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti is dean of arts and sciences at California Lutheran University, and Javier A. Kypuros is dean of engineering at the University of Texas at Tyler

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