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So you want to become a dean?

Here's what some current and former deans have to say about the job

by Léo Charbonneau

Rick Vanderlee is faced with a decision. A professor of nursing, he was recently appointed interim dean of arts and science at Nipissing University. The university hasn't yet begun the official search for a permanent dean, but when it does, will he apply?

Dr. Vanderlee says he's interested in the position of dean because he's "intrigued by leadership" and feels he has something to contribute. However, accepting a deanship usually means you've joined the "other side" - the administration. Thus, while some colleagues may be supportive, others will view the move with suspicion and even as a betrayal. "My honeymoon [after accepting the job in June] lasted almost 15 minutes," he says.

David Docherty is similarly new in his position; the political science professor was named dean of arts at Wilfrid Laurier University in July. Because he actively sought the job, he made a promise to himself not to complain about the demands. "I'm fresh enough into it that I haven't yet had to backtrack on that pledge," he says, adding that his colleagues have been supportive. However, even before classes resumed in September, he was surprised by the volume of e-mail and phone calls, and how difficult it is to take a day away from the office.

Nevertheless, in the few short months they've been in their new positions, both deans say they're pleased to be there - a sentiment shared seemingly by the vast majority of deans at Canadian universities. Yes, the first couple of years can be difficult, some longer-serving deans admit, but nearly all of those interviewed say they enjoy the job and would make the same choice, given a second chance. "It's a great experience" was a typical response.

"It's a new challenge, something new to put our minds to, and that's always good," says Andrew Rippin, who's in his sixth year as dean of humanities at the University of Victoria. What's more, it's a position where you can actually make a difference, says Dr. Rippin, a historian of Islamic studies. "There are rewards for putting in the effort because you can see the impact that it makes on an institutional basis."

While all deans acknowledge their dual mandate - to represent their faculty as well as the senior administration - many admit they feel a stronger emotional pull towards their faculty colleagues. Maintaining a balance between the two sides is not always easy, especially if a dean senses the university's priorities lie outside his or her faculty. Nevertheless, you have to take the broader view. "What's good for another faculty is good for the university, is good for your faculty," says one dean.

There are frustrations, to be sure. Working with tight budgets, not surprisingly, is a universal lament. There is also the constant strain of personnel, and personality, issues - or as David Graham, dean of arts and science at Concordia University, diplomatically puts it, "all the challenges that come with dealing with a bunch of highly intelligent, highly articulate, highly independent professionals."

Add to this an extremely heavy workload. The position of dean "will take all the time you can throw at it and demand more. It's like housework, it's never done," says Dr. Graham, who was dean of arts at Memorial University before joining Concordia in August. Dr. Graham reluctantly gave up teaching when he first became a dean, but says he'd like to return to the classroom starting next year. He has managed to keep a small research program going, but others have found that difficult to do.

Ira Levine, currently on sabbatical following two terms as dean of the faculty of communication and design at Ryerson University, says he's envious of deans who do maintain an active research program but wonders if, in the process, "too much gets delegated or left undone." He says he's proud of what he accomplished during his two terms as dean, a time of tremendous growth in his faculty, "but I can certainly say it's been accomplished in part at the cost of my own currency in my discipline."

Asked what makes for an effective faculty head, the deans list various attributes. Several stress good budgetary acumen; others say flexibility and - despite Dr. Levine's comment above - the ability to delegate. "You can't be a control freak in this job," says Marian Binkley, dean of arts at Dalhousie University.

Most deans also cite the need for interpersonal or "people" skills. "If you're not transparent in how you make decisions, if you're not open to new ideas, if you don't listen to people, it doesn't work," says Dr. Binkley, who's an anthropologist. She credits her disciplinary background for giving her the skills necessary to navigate her faculty's many departmental cultures.

In a related vein, a dean becomes a public person "in a way that you're not when you're a member of the professoriate," Dr. Binkley continues, adding that she spends at least two or three nights a week meeting the public, such as local community groups, prospective students and their families, and potential donors.

Fundraising has become a big part of deans' responsibilities, with most saying it consumes at least a quarter of their time. "Deans have an overall view of the academic enterprise that is almost unparalleled," says Concordia's Dr. Graham. "We're very useful when it comes to matching up donors with opportunities."

As for advice to prospective deans, several deans stress that you get to know, and respect, the collective agreement and work closely with the faculty union. "I always saw the union as an ally," says a retired dean. "Before bringing a policy to faculty council, I sometimes would show it to the head of the union first."

Then there's that elusive quality, leadership. "Some deans choose management as their prime objective, others choose leadership, and there's a difference between the two," says Patricia Hughes, dean of law at the University of Calgary. "You can keep things quiet, you can keep things running relatively smoothly, but you haven't challenged people. You haven't asked them to move beyond where they are except in the most minimal way."

Sometimes, in order to advance, you have to make tough decisions. That can be difficult, Dr. Hughes acknowledges. "One of the things about universities is there are few ways in which you can apply sanctions. . . . It's actually very difficult to get people to toe the line if they are absolutely determined not to. That is a real issue."

Paul Bates, dean of McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business, has loads of leadership and management experience, but notes that what he learned as a top Bay Street executive is not always applicable to the university setting. In the corporate office, "one seeks input from the various stakeholders, one makes decisions and effectively issues instructions," he says. However, in academia, "it is not about issuing instructions." Rather, the dean provides "logic and incentive," and through collaborative discussion, moves the organization forward.

Deans of professional faculties say their jobs are likely not much different than those of other deans. What does differ is that they also interact with a major constituency outside the university, such as the legal community, the business community or the health-care community. A faculty depends on validation from its academic peers for its legitimacy, notes Professor Bates, but a professional school also must receive validation from this external community. "In other words, if at the end of the day the business school doesn't improve business, [the school] is not sought after from the business community."

The preparation available to new deans varies. Many say their university offers no formal workshop or preparatory course, other than a brief orientation. Several deans highly recommend the Senior University Administrators Course put on each June in Banff, Alberta, by the University of Manitoba's Centre for Higher Education Research and Development. Others point to the deans' council, found at most universities, as a great source for networking and camaraderie. Professor Bates says he meets with his fellow deans at McMaster formally every other week and informally "almost every day."

One thing that many deans don't appear to prepare for is their post-dean career. Dr. Levine, the dean of communication and design who just completed the maximum of two five-year terms allowed at Ryerson, says leaving the job has been a very difficult experience. Having "lived and breathed" the dean's position for the past 10 years, he's "undergoing some separation anxiety" and is not sure what he'll do next or whether he'll even remain in academia.

Lise Caron, dean of forestry at Université de Moncton, also wonders what's in store for her after university administration. When she finishes her second term in three years, she says she'll still be relatively young and is uncertain if she really wants to go back to teaching. "I'm concerned that I'll feel a bit left behind. Even though I could take a sabbatical to get back up to speed in my discipline, the fact remains that I will have been away from the classroom and active research for 10 years." One option she's considering is joining the private sector.

It is, in fact, "very, very rare" for deans to step back into the faculty ranks, says William Davidson, former dean of science at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Davidson left the deanship after three and a half years to "follow his heart" back into research, in genomics. "In many ways, I think I did my career backwards," he says, now that he's doing the "most productive research of my career."

Intrigued to see what other deans did after they stepped down, Dr. Davidson conducted a quick survey. "I could find evidence of only one other dean who went back into the regular ranks," he says. A few became vice-presidents, academic, while some from science backgrounds went on to become vice-presidents, research. Many, he says, end up in "administrative make-work projects."

One thing is certain, there is no lack of dean's positions, judging from the ads in University Affairs, says Scott Grills, dean of arts at Brandon University. "We talk about the shortage of faculty in Canada, but the talent coming along administratively is also very, very thin," he says. Like most other deans, he strongly encourages those interested in administration to seriously consider it. "It's tremendously important to the university that the job of the dean be done well. That won't be happening if good people aren't willing to do it."

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