When Good Professors Turn into Bad Deans
“Thanks for your ‘Dean’s Dialogue’ columns, Tom—you offer some good advice to deans and other administrators. But it seems like your deans are always noble and virtuous while the faculty they lead are villains and miscreants. What happens when good professors turn into bad deans?” This was the gist of an email comment I received from a chemistry professor. He had run across some of my columns that I wrote for Academic Leader a few years ago (notably “The Dean’s Dirty Dozen,” stereotypes of faculty who make a dean’s life difficult) and sent a plaintive message of concern after dealing with a fine professor in his department who had risen (or descended, if you prefer) to the dean’s office. “She was highly regarded as a teacher and scholar,” my correspondent continued, “but as dean she has proved herself to be arrogant, distant, self-serving, and a poor communicator to those of us she left behind in the academic trenches. She spent lots of money redecorating her new office and seems to have her eye on an even more exalted post at our university—or elsewhere. She has been a disaster!”
I wasn’t sure how to reply except to thank him for writing and to say I felt his pain. It is true, of course, that we who have been in the “deaning” business have some marvelous faculty colleagues to sustain our collective efforts to make our institutions work effectively. I also confess to an assumption that those who rise to the deanship are usually well motivated and well qualified to serve in their leadership positions. But what do you do in those rare cases when the dean is a disaster? Why do some great professors become poor academic deans? Let me try to answer both of these questions, starting with the second one.
Why good professors may morph into bad deans
There are, no doubt, many explanations for this unfortunate transformation. Here are just a few to consider:
1) The professor paradigm. What makes a great professor? There is no single formula, of course, but most of the best professors are intelligent, creative, and personable. They bring those qualities to bear in their work with students and with their scholarly endeavors. These qualities also serve to make good administrators. However, good professors may also be driven by egos to shine in the public domain and to gain recognition from their adoring students. They may also be highly idiosyncratic, better as lone ranger scholars than as team players. When dean search committees fail to see how certain candidates may be more characterized by a desire for power and recognition than by their better angels, a good professor may turn into an ineffective dean.
2) The perception problem. In some cases, both deans and faculty misperceive the role and performance of the academic dean. Female deans continue to have a heavier burden in winning acceptance in leadership positions. The male dean may be seen as assertive, while the female dean is seen as bossy. That gender-discrimination problem is changing but still lingers. Deans may also fall victim to a misperception that their faculty should now be seen as their employees to be directed and supervised as the dean sees fit. That may be true to a point—but only to a point. Good deans know how to use the principles of effective communication to counteract such misperceptions by faculty, but some deans used to commanding the loyalty and compliance of students fail to appreciate the collegial nature of working in the academy.
3) The president/provost priorities conundrum. Often enough (sometimes too often) the dean is caught between serving the needs of the faculty and meeting the priorities of his or her own leaders—the provost and the president. Faculty may or may not be aware of those priorities or may not see them as important for their own work. In many cases, the dean feels the squeeze and does not have the ability to navigate the chasm. Perhaps this conflict of priorities is most often manifested in budget decisions. Faculty frequently see the dean’s role as one of providing resources for all manner of faculty priorities— released time, research, travel—while the provost and president are desperately trying to keep the budget balanced. The dean who is unable to satisfy two masters (cheerfully and with good grace) will soon lose the confidence of one master or the other.
4) The Peter Principle. Lest we forget, studies of the organizational hierarchy have observed that as people move up the ladder in any bureaucracy, including colleges and universities, the demands of office expose their weaknesses for more and more observers to criticize. In some sense, deans do rise to their level of incompetency. As John McEnroe put it so inelegantly, “The higher the monkey climbs the flagpole, the more people there are who see his rear end.” Very fine professors may simply lack the administrative skills—from budget management to personnel supervision to diplomacy to decision making—that the deanship requires.
What do you do when good professors become bad deans?
This is not an easy question to answer. Faculty may have to grin and bear it, at least for a while, in hopes that the dean will see the light or move on to some other institution where the fit may be better for dean and faculty alike. Here are a few possible approaches to consider if those changes do not magically appear:
1) The dean intervention process. It may be that faculty leaders, perhaps from the faculty senate, should seek a hearing with the dean to clear the air and offer sound managerial advice from the faculty perspective. If handled discretely in a nonconfrontational fashion, such an “intervention” might be received openly and in a responsive fashion by the dean. Such interventions require a good deal of tact by wise faculty leaders but can open up the channels of communication and establish better working relationships between the administrator and the faculty.
2) The dean disciplinary process. While it is always better to solve communication and relationship problems at the lowest level—that is, between faculty and the dean—it may be necessary for faculty to take their concerns and complaints to the dean’s boss. A provost or, even, president will no doubt be aware of conflicts and various concerns regarding a dean’s performance and personal failings. That knowledge may have come from the dean himself or herself. If so, it will emphasize the perceptions of the dean as to what the problems are and why they exist in this environment. Sometimes, when the dean is truly a disaster, faculty must take the initiative to seek help from those at the top of the organization.
3) The dean selection process. If the faculty have suffered under the reign of a bad dean, they might want to look at the process that led to such a poor choice for this leadership position. This might not solve the present dilemma, but it will provide an opportunity for reflection on the criteria in place for hiring the dean. Were there red flags that the search committee should have seen? What can be learned from the unfortunate decision to hire this good professor for a position that he or she is not handling well? What can be done to improve the selection process itself to prevent “disasters” in the future?
A final thought
The great majority of academic deans come from the ranks of the professoriate. This is as it should be: Who else is better suited to understand the pressures and priorities of the faculty? Who else is more acquainted with the demands of teaching, scholarship, and service? However, not all good professors make good deans. In fact, many of the best professors wisely choose to maintain their successful roles in the faculty, eschewing any suggestion that they “go over to the dark side” of administration. In those rare cases when a good professor is chosen to be dean and falls short, institutions should do all they can to improve the dean’s performance and the relationships with the faculty before making a change in leadership. But sometimes only a change can lance the boil on the academic epidermis.
Dr. Thomas McDaniel is senior vice president (retired) and professor of education emeritus at Converse College, Spartanburg, S.C.