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In my opinion

Do you have what it takes to be a dean?

While you don’t necessarily need all these attributes, they definitely help if you are considering an administration role.

BY SAMANTHA BRENNAN | JUL 29 2022

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.

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  1. Shoshanah Jacobs / August 1, 2022 at 09:07

    Turns out that you can change the entire narrative about what’s actually been happening on Senate and the decline of collegial governance by write a top ten list.

  2. Sandra Tomsons / August 1, 2022 at 09:11

    Samantha, this is a brilliant piece. Although I have never been a dean, it appears I have all the characteristics that would make me a good one. Thanks for this analysis, I thought I would be a good administrator. Unless your analysis has omitted a necessary condition, I thought correctly. It occurs to me that you probably should not harp too much about justice for Indigenous Peoples or contract faculty at least at some institutions.

  3. Just a faculty member / August 3, 2022 at 09:44

    If you care about equity, diversity and inclusion, why tolerate (especially when you’re in a position of power, as you are as a dean) meetings that start at 8am? Allowing that to become the norm, or considered acceptable, seems at odds with the idea that people with caregiving responsibilities, people with young kids, etc. can and should fully participate in academic life. I want my dean to put a stop to 8am meetings, except in exceptional circumstances, on the grounds that they set the standard that others follow. Such meetings date from a time when dad was the working person and mom could take care of the kids, in my opinion.

  4. Jon Driver / August 3, 2022 at 14:28

    Excellent advice. I would add two other related attributes. You need the ability to implement decisions, and you need a thick skin.

    It’s very easy to consult endlessly; it’s more difficult to reach a decision; and it’s sheer hard work to implement a decision. Good deans implement and operationalize decisions, and they gather data to make sure that the anticipated outcomes occur and, if necessary, make corrections.

    Deans sometimes have to make unpopular decisions in order to do the right thing. When you do this you will receive vocal public condemnation from those who don’t like your decision. Those who think you are right will tell you very quietly and privately that they agree with you, but they don’t want their loudmouth colleagues to know this!

  5. Candace / August 3, 2022 at 16:07

    Really? Sorry, but half of this is complete and utter nonsense. I’ve been a Dean at 3 different universities, and an Assistant or Associate Dean elsewhere as well, in Canada and the US. This has included the Ivy League. I have, in every position, been told repeatedly by colleagues, supervisors, and those who work for me, as well as Presidents, that I do a stellar job. I’ve won multiple leadership awards – and was nominated by my own faculty and staff. When I’ve left jobs, I’ve been told by people who remained that they heard my staff say they were still mourning me leaving. I’m extremely effective. AND – I do not like Senate meetings (I attend, but 90% of the stuff discussed is not especially relevant to my units, and frankly, it bores me to sit there for 3 hours). I attend convocation, because I have to, and I’m glad the students and their parents are happy, but I personally do NOT enjoy it. I’m a lifelong avoider-of-ceremonies – I didn’t attend any of my own several graduations, and even eloped rather than have a wedding. Yes, people can find me in my office – and my door is always open unless I’m having an HR discussion. (And I was there even throughout the pandemic. When our campus was “Closed” I came in anyway – we were renovating, and someone needed to be here). Yes, there are many BIG things I care about. NO, I am NOT an early riser. I do my level best to avoid 8 am meetings, and when I have to attend them, I’m dumb as a rock. I am genetically hard-wired for late nights – and I will be in my office at 7 pm most days. Who bloody cares when you are there, as long as you make it to the meetings? This is the #1 most ridiculous point. I do like people across campus, and I delight in others’ success, and yes, Ican hold multiple perspectives, and don’t have to fight all the fights. But – another dumb point – I’m allergic to wine and I’m lactose intolerant. Sorry – maytbe you were trying to be cute? But this is ridiculous. Too many of these points are meaningless. And it’s insulting to be told that because I hate early mornings, I’d likely not be suited for a job at which I’ve had tremendous success.