September 17th, 2018

More Tools for the New Dean’s Toolbox



A couple years ago, I wrote an essay for Academic Leader suggesting that new deans should examine the administrative implements in their metaphorical “toolbox” to make sure they were ready for the job at hand: providing leadership to their institution when difficult dilemmas require effective administrative action. Those tools included: (1) a hammer when it was imperative to come down hard; (2) a saw when a dean must decide to cut some program or individual loose from the institution; (3) sandpaper to smooth out the rough spots left by hammer and saw; (4) a drill when a complex issue requires more “drilling down” to reach the substrata of the issue; and (5) tape to bind up the fractures, broken relationships, and disconnected policies and practices needing mending.

This article, and several others I had penned for AL in recent issues, became the basis of a session I led for new deans at the very first Magna Leadership in Higher Education Conference held in Atlanta in the fall of 2016 as Hurricane Matthew whipped up its destructive winds on the East Coast. The conference and my session were well received, and we look forward to the second such event in Baltimore this year. In my session, I asked the  new deans to suggest additional tools they thought the toolbox should include. They had some very good ideas, including these below:

  • A flashlight. In every institution, there are dark corners that an alert dean should illuminate lest he or she encounter rough surprises from “things that go bump in the night.” Sometimes these are the institutional “skeletons in the closet” or some of the submerged resentments and conflicts that have been “swept under the rug” but remain sore spots on the academic epidermis. Solving the resulting dilemma requires the bright light of disclosure so that the dean can address the problems with both eyes open. What one sees on the surface is often obscured by the dark rooms in the cellar below. Do you know everything you need to know and understand when a dilemma reaches your office?
  • A measuring tape. The old saying every carpenter and seamstress knows is “measure twice and cut once.” How long has a problem been festering? How deep does it go? Do not be too hasty to make a decision now that you may regret later and could have avoided—if you had only measured twice! Knowing the dimensions of an issue—its height and depth—is the first step in a process requiring thoughtful and accurate measuring before taking your scissors to the fabric. In your busy administrative world, remember that other old saying: “haste makes waste.” Take the time required to measure twice (or even more) so that you avoid a rushed decision. Have you taken accurate readings of all aspects of the issue?
  • A c-clamp. This is a tool you will use only in rare cases where you know that the solution to a conflict between, say, two faculty members can be achieved only by the warring parties themselves. The problem is they are so invested in contrary positions that compromise and creative solutions seem unlikely—even impossible. Your approach need not be a win-lose decision by you (which may well turn out to be viewed as a lose-lose solution by the parties in conflict), but you can insist that the combatants come together to work out a solution to which both can live. Here is where you bring in the c-clamp. It requires forcing the two together and holding them in place until they reach a consensus solution. You might not want to leave them alone together in a locked room (!), but do keep them in a productive conversation. Do you see places a c-clamp might be your best tool?
  • A balance. This helpful instrument is somewhat like the measuring tape—but usually comes into play during and after a dilemma has been addressed by the dean. As poet Robert Bridges put it in his 1929 “Testament of Beauty”: “Our stability is but balance and wise conduct lies in masterful administration of the unforeseen.” Administering unseen developments is part of a dean’s difficult role in the institution; the balance gives you a tool to use when you answer questions like “Was my decision fair?” “Was my response properly measured and temperate?” “Will this solution stay in place rather than tilting out of control later?” Deans often have to find their own balance points between their roles as “pastor” and “policeman” and between their obligations to treat faculty equally and the need to take differences into account. A dean who is perceived as one who plays favorites is a danger to the institutional balance you are asked to honor and preserve. How balanced are your decisions?
  • WD-40. While it took the inventors of this useful spray 40 attempts to get it right, a dean can use it right away to eliminate some of the squeaks and groans from the many individuals reporting to you. Sometimes a complainer needs only the lubrication of your gentle and sympathetic voice. Do you listen patiently to a program director’s lament or a staff member’s criticism of a decision affecting his or her work? A dean who listens carefully to discern what is really behind an issue, the cause of the conflict or complaint that has disrupted the machinery in the communication process, may well be able to lubricate the offending joints. Reframing a complaint in a way that lets the aggrieved person know you really do understand the issue may be all that is required to eliminate the friction. You want your institution or given unit to work like a well-oiled machine! A smooth-running administrative unit requires judicious leadership from a dean who knows just where to apply WD-40. Do you have a can of this lubricant in your toolbox? 

Academic leaders have many challenges because they are so often caught “betwixt and between” competing pressures and responsibilities. It will not always be easy as you try to administer the unforeseen. However, if you have a well-stocked personal toolbox, you may find the job more satisfying and successful than you could have imagined. Your new dean colleagues and I have given you a starter kit, your new dean’s toolbox, as you take on the exciting work in “the groves of academe.” Can you think of other tools you might want to have? Here is a suggestion: Plan on attending the next Leadership in Higher Education Conference in Baltimore and bring your ideas for additional tools to share with another group of new deans; we all will appreciate your experience and insights!

Thomas R. McDaniel is professor of education emeritus and former dean and provost at Converse College; he is the author of School Law for South Carolina Educators.