My first weeks as a dean were exciting, confusing, and a bit intimidating, as I imagine most people’s are. As the dean and director of education at a small, vocationally oriented college, I knew I could draw on my experiences to help me succeed in the job. Deciding what sort of dean I was destined to be, however, was more challenging.
Thinking back about deans I had known in the past—in various schools and departments, at a range of college and university sizes and with differing governance models—I quickly constructed a list of behaviors that worked well and those that did not. Some of these lessons can be distilled down into three things you need to equip yourself with in your first days as the new dean:
1. A lunch bag: I once knew a dean who was a very gifted administrator. He was smart, kind, and willing to deal with a large staff that ranged from experienced faculty to professional administrators to a wide variety of support professionals.
However, this dean had a problem. Often, he would be called on to adjudicate the competing needs of faculty and administration, and he would listen to both sides of an issue. Then, he would grab his coat and go off to lunch with his friends and peers from the faculty. There, the faculty members had ample time in the collegial environment of the faculty dining room to make their case and to draw on years of friendship to explain why decisions should favor them. Even the sight of this kindly dean trooping off to lunch with his friends was damaging to the office environment.
This is why I suggest every new dean use that first paycheck to buy a snazzy new lunch bag and learn to eat alone. Is it a bad idea to socialize with one’s faculty friends over a meal? Of course not; I have done so myself. But, especially in those first few months, it is important that the new dean establish zones of objectivity—times when the “dean hat” is on and times when it is not. There will be plenty of time for regular lunches with your friends when you step down from the deanship and perhaps return to the ranks of the faculty.
2. A red pen: One of the best vice presidents I ever knew never met a policy he wasn’t willing to edit, especially if the policy was impeding progress or had outlived its usefulness. The most impressive example was his groundbreaking work in…coffee cups.
In our division, the previous leader had established a firm “no food or drink at the desks” policy for the entire office. It made sense. Ours was a public-facing division that presented a first impression of the university to visitors, and allowing the office to look like a lunch room set the wrong tone.
Unfortunately, this had the tendency to drive everyone to the break room several times a day, whenever the urge for food or drink struck. Even though most employees were conscientious about their time, this still meant that many people spent a substantial part of their day going in and out of the basement break room, holding informal meetings there and conducting university business in a less-than-optimum environment.
If I remember no other lessons from this vice president (and there were many to remember), I will always recall the way he rescinded that policy immediately upon taking office. “I want to do everything I can to keep you doing your job,” he said. Soon, employees were back to meeting in their offices and conducting business with the appropriate resources—including a beverage—at hand. The lesson: don’t be afraid to alter policies that no longer work, even if they have achieved the status of “tradition.”
3. A sign that says “the buck stops here”: That same VP had a personal policy that all calls to complain about something the division had done were to be routed straight to his desk. Conversely, any compliment he heard was passed directly to the staff member or members who worked on that particular project. He noted that his job was to absorb the criticism so that it didn’t impact his staff’s ability to work.
Contrast this with a dean who displayed a sign saying “the buck doesn’t even pause here.” His colleagues had given it to him as a joke gift, using a play on Harry Truman’s famous saying, to poke fun at the dean’s ability to delegate the resolution of any problem. While the joke was funny and the ability to delegate an important one, this dean had literally posted a sign reminding everyone not to bring their departmental problems to him. When you’re dean, the thorny problems are often yours; they come with the comfortable chair and the new business cards.
Of course, there are always more lessons to be learned about becoming a dean, and you will certainly learn a few of your own. Perhaps these lessons will help you decide what “parting gifts” you wish to give your successor.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (hilltopcommunications.net).