The Dean’s Disease

October 29, 2009

Considering where the candidates come from and what they end up doing when selected to serve as deans, I guess we really should not be surprised that this type of bad boss behavior is such a big problem amongst deans. You take someone filling one role—that of a lecturer and researcher—and you completely change their role to an administrative one but place them in charge of those still engaging in academic pursuits. It is kind of the classic example of the coworker promoted to a leadership position who gradually loses touch with what his former coworkers, who are now subordinates, are doing. You forget what it was like out there in the field, or the lab, or wherever you were working as an academic before your promotion, but you are expected to manage those who remain working in the academic setting.

I never really thought about it before, but this article really makes clear what a huge change it is to go from being an academic to being a dean. Most academics are trained researchers—they earned a Ph.D. and have been focusing primarily on research and on doing the other things–teaching, etc., that are required to succeed in the academic world. But, once you are hired to become a dean, that all changes. Now you are dealing with administrative matters and navigating the world of fund raising to keep those academics you left behind flush with resources for their research. And, of course, you are put in the position of having to say no to funding or approving certain research projects. Given the stark change in responsibilities, it seems unsurprising that deans undergo this big personality change. As a new dean, you no doubt feel the need to make a break with your past role in order to successfully transition into your new one. You cannot be too friendly with the academics, lest you be accused of favoritism, but if you are not friendly enough, you are distant and unsympathetic to what the academics face. In many ways, its a can’t win proposition.

I think one of the harshest truths from this article is the reality of what awaits those who do not succeed as deans. Once you have lost touch with your research area and with teaching, it seems like it would be almost impossible to successfully return to a role as an academic without catching some major breaks, especially when it comes to publishing your work. After all, for the research world at large you have been out of sight and out of mind while you were acting in the capacity of dean. Not a pretty picture, given that not everyone is cut out for these types of leadership roles.

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