I’ve been thinking lately about the signs that prove you’ll fit into academic administrative work. Are you likely to become a chair, a dean, or a provost? Will you enjoy it? What attracts someone to working as a dean anyway?
What follows is not a complete list of traits that make you a “good” dean. They’re not necessary conditions. You can do a good job and not have them. But if you do, the job will be easier. I’m not including things on the list like being good with numbers and spreadsheets, reading and replying quickly to a high volume of email, being good at chairing meetings or having hard conversations. Those things matter, but this is more about your approach to academic life and life in general, than it is about specific skills.
1. You like university senate. Most of us love senate. We are geeky about policies and procedures. We enjoy debate and discussion and value collegial governance. Senate makes us smile. It’s a rare academic administrator who doesn’t enjoy senate meetings.
2. You always attend convocation. I’ve been going since I was a junior faculty member and I get teary every time. My cheeks usually hurt from smiling. It’s not just that I love wearing my regalia and the silly hat. Convocation is my personal antidote to cynicism. Seeing the happy graduating students and their proud family members reminds me why we all do this work.
3. People can find you in your office. I used to say that half of the job of being a good chair, and it’s true of dean too, is being there. Most of us work long days on campus and spend lots of time in our offices. If you do that now, then you won’t struggle with that aspect of academic administration. I’m a long-time compartmentalizer. I work in my campus office and I mostly don’t work at home. (Sidenote: The pandemic nearly killed me.)
4. There are big things you care about. It helps if there are big issues you care about and can do something about in your role. For me it’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization. I also care about defending the teacher/scholar/administrator role. I think it’s important that academic administrator roles be held by faculty and that we can go back to being faculty when we’re done.
5. You’re an early riser. Many days of the week I have meetings that start at 8 a.m. I don’t just need to be in attendance, I need to be awake and ready to contribute. It helps that I’m the child of bakers and a life-long early riser. I’ve often thought it would be a struggle to be a night owl and have an academic admin role.
6. You like people across campus. I remember in my early days of being a professor I joined a campus feminist group of women staff, faculty, and students. Yes, we did good work but it also helped to know people across the university.
7. You take pleasure in the success of others. A lot of being a dean or chair is setting up others for success and then celebrating when they achieve great things. If that’s a natural thing that you do, working as an academic administrator might come more easily to you.
8. You are able to hold multiple perspectives under non-ideal circumstances. As dean I have to be able to hear and understand things from a labour perspective, from the government perspective, from a student perspective, from the perspective of a department chair, from the viewpoint of the senior admin team, and so on. I also have to be able to distinguish between the arguments that I think are right and the ones that I think will have traction in a particular context.
9. You don’t have to fight all of the fights. I sit in a lot of meetings where I hear things I disagree with, but often decide to sit a given argument out. Sometimes it’s a “not my circus, not my monkeys” kind of thing. oOther times it affects all of us, but I’ll let other deans take on the fight.
10. You like wine and cheese. This is changing, but as a non-drinker I struggle with all of the celebratory academic social events that feature wine. If you like wine and cheese, more power to you. Enjoy! I’ll be over in the corner nursing my cranberry and club soda, nibbling on pretzels.
Samantha Brennan is dean of the college of arts and a faculty member in the department of philosophy at the University of Guelph.