Home On Being a Dean: The Challenge Of Academic Leadership

On Being a Dean: The Challenge Of Academic Leadership

written by Dr. Krishna Dhir January 19, 2015

Academic leadership has been sought from established leaders in government, military, corporate, and other institutions. However, there appears to be a dearth of willingness, and often even ability, to serve as academic leaders. Why should academic leadership be different from leadership in other institutions of society? Indeed, there are reasons why academic leadership is different from leadership, say, in the military or in a corporate organization. Academic organizations are composed of scholars, who investigate complex ideas and ask difficult questions that encompass the theoretical and the empirical, and the hypothetical and the practical. An academic organization is expected to create, disseminate and apply knowledge, in addition to performingthe conventional organizational tasks of planning, organizing, staffing, and control.A new member of the community of scholars spends multiple years in intensive study, as a probationer-learner, prior to being promoted as, say, Associate Professor or Reader. Usually it takes well over a decade to establish adequate credibility to be appointed a full Professor. Credibility as a scholar plays a major role in academic leadership. In the military, or in other hierarchical organizations, rank plays a crucial role in the flow of information and performance of tasks. It is not surprising that the majority of academic leaders come from within the academia.

Success as a scholar does not in itself qualify one to be an academic leader. In contrast to the long probationary period of scholars, very few first-time deans begin their jobs with adequate training. One reason why their challenges have inherently complex dynamics is that many of the issues shaping them arise from sources external to academia. The socio-economic demands confronting academic institutions are altering the purpose of education. Where democratic societies emphasized the need to create an educated citizenry for well-considered socio-politico-economic decision making, now education is being emphasized as a way to secure means of livelihood in an environment shaped by the evolving knowledge economy, globalization of business, and workforce diversification. Business organizations, competing globally, are redesigning their business models, usually without collaboration with the academia. Additionally, to stay competitive in the changing environment, businesses seek education as a commodity, packaged in short-term courses that are delivered in convenient modes, requiring least disruption in organizational routines. To the extent that academia is unable to respond to the emerging needs, they are deemed irrelevant by the very stakeholders they seek to serve.

“In contrast to the long probationary period of scholars, very few first-time deans begin their jobs with adequate training.”

Academic organizations are not composed of homogenous cultures. They have at least two distinct cultures. The culture, and also the philosophic milieu, in which deans function is quite different from the one in which scholars, comprising a faculty, exist and operate. Generally, a teacher-scholar in an academic faculty works alone. At best, as a member of a collaborative team, a faculty member operates in relatively small groups. Faculty members schedule uninterrupted blocks of time during which they avoid intrusions by others. In contrast, deans deal with various distinct and disparate issues, concomitantly. At best, deans may sequence their activities through fragmented time periods on a number of concurrent tasks or issues. Unlike faculty members, who highly prize their autonomy, deans are expected to be accessible at all times to a wide range of stakeholders.

As stated by Dahringer, “Being a dean involves a great deal of time dealing with faculty – faculty who when tenured are not subject to hiring/firing/disciplinary/reward practices commonly found in the corporate world.” Deans do not have the corporate ‘tools’ of “sticks” and “carrots”. Shrinking academic budgets do not allow even basic incentives a dean might offer individual faculty members. Generally, faculty members see themselves as independent, intellectual contractors, in spite of the corporate structure of a College or a University. “Consultation” is the number one management tactic reported by deans. A very close second is “working towards a higher goal,” while the number three ranked tactic is “discussion and reasoning with involved parties”.

Faculty members are loyal to their respective disciplines. Deans are driven by their institution’s vision, mission and goals. Although a dean hopes that the vision and the mission of the institution are based on common, shared values, the fact remains that scholars are influenced more by their academic associations, where they share their research with peers. Also, deans do not have the luxury of professing as faculty members do. Instead they get their job done by persuading the faculty members and others to alter their agenda to serve the administrative goals of the institutions. The paramount role of persuasion in an academic organization has profound implications for how a dean might approach the conventional organizational tasks of planning, organizing, staffing, and control. The divergence of the cultural and philosophical orientations of the faculty members and deans or department chairs can provide many opportunities for miscommunications, misunderstanding, and conflict.

“Unlike faculty members, who highly prize their autonomy, deans are expected to be accessible at all times to a wide range of stakeholders.”

A crucial point often overlooked by faculty members, especially the ones in earlier phases of their respective academic careers, is that academic governance is not a responsibility solely of the deans. There are a number of tasks that lie in the domain of the faculty responsibilities. Yet, few faculty members familiarize themselves with the challenges of academic leadership in academic institutions. For instance, the task of developing, designing and delivering a curriculum normally resides with the members of the faculty. So does the associated responsibility of assessing the extent to which student learning is accomplished. Just about all activities required to meet the educational needs of the various stakeholders reside in the realm of faculty activities. After all, that is where the intellectual capital of the institution resides.

Usually, deans become deans at the suggestion of others, often at the urging of others. Generally, one does not embark on an academic career with an expressed desire to be a dean. That is quite rare. Yet, Williams describes the job of the dean as “the best job on the campus.” A dean is in an excellent position to impact the full spectrum of academic outcomes and all who have a stake in them. However, the mentality of a chief executive officer does not apply to this job. “A “CEO mentality” in academia is a bygone area.”  In contrast, the chief academic officer accomplishes all goals through orchestration of activities of others, both within and outside the institution. The essential prerequisite is a desire to serve others and to contribute to the development and achievements of others.

“Usually, deans become deans at the suggestion of others, often at the urging of others. Generally, one does not embark on an academic career with an expressed desire to be a dean. That is quite rare”.

The dean’s responsibilities make a never-ending list. Decreasing public funding is raising the pressure to seek external resources through fund-raising. Increasing societal and accreditation-relatedregulation, in a litigious environment that constraints rapid change, demands unprecedented managerial agility. The evolving environment in which an academic institution must operate places immense importance on the strategic planning process. The strategic plan must enable continuous quality improvement in all processes through which the academic unit functions, including the processes through which faculty members are professionally developed and make intellectual contributions;curriculum is developed, designed, and delivered; students are recruited and serviced; and goals of institutional outreach are met. These are just a few items in a dean’s evolving job description. The basic task of the dean is to bridge the cultural gap that exists in the academic unit. The fundamental requirement for success as a dean is passion for all attributes of the intellectual pursuits: knowledge creation, sharing, and application; teaching and learning; developing faculty, staff, and students; and serving the society through attainment of the academic organizational mission.

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