Does it matter?
In my experience, what matters more is who the Dean of the College is, not what the College is.
And by who, I don't mean in what discipline the Dean's PhD is or what department is the Dean's official "tenure home", but rather who the Dean is in terms of their personality, administrative philosophy, and breadth of view.
I have known liberal artist deans who were excellent administrators of colleges of arts and sciences, and I have known others who resented the science and engineering departments.
There are also science/engineering deans who are fascinated by the liberal arts and see them as an integral part of any great university, and there are of course others who are contemptuous of the "research" done in liberal arts departments.
Deans of any intellectual background can be great or they can be evil political schemers who have favorite departments and less favorite departments for unfair reasons, erasing any benefit to some STEM departments of having a dean who understands the needs of a research-intensive science department.
So, my overall opinion is that the right person can do a great job leading any sort of administrative organization at a university, at any level.
But, I must say that I have had a few recent experiences that made me I wish that more administrators (deans and/or others) who have a direct effect on my professional life had experience running a research group or, at least, would listen to advice from those who do. I know that this experience does not ensure a wise and fair leader, but it's an easy explanation for some of the more baffling decisions made by certain administrators in my corner of academe.
Some important information that seem to be missing from the administrative world view of some of these people include:
- An understanding that we professors do not spend all of our working hours in our office. If we have labs, we may spend time there. For administrative purposes, in terms of keeping track of where we professors do our jobs, labs should count the same as offices. And some faculty conduct some of their research off-campus. And I don't just mean cafes.
- An awareness that postdocs exist, and that they are neither students nor faculty. In an economic crisis, the university can do all sorts of unpleasant things to faculty positions and salaries, but postdocs should be protected from these measures. Postdocs are typically paid from grants, so they should get whatever raises are budgeted in the grant, and the administration of their salaries and raises should not rest with a central organization that seems to have little understanding of the role of postdocs in a research university that is swarming with them. (Bizarre, no?)
- A realization that policies related to oversight of research conduct and grants management should not be so onerous that faculty spend a vast amount of time on administrative matters that should be simple, obvious, and straightforward rather than complex and time consuming (and that assume we are all thieving drug dealers who want to do heinous experiments on humans). For example, I object to the fact that my colleagues and I now have to:
- justify research expenses (again and again) that clearly can have no other purpose but research,
- spend our own money on research items or activities because it is so difficult to deal with the accounting system in a timely way (some research activities are time sensitive and the research will not occur if an order form is bogged down somewhere in the accounting system), and
- navigate an increasingly opaque system of measuring the time we spend on different research projects (especially in the summer).
I have been known to make this complaint (recently), but, even though it might be somewhat accurate in some cases, I know that it isn't a completely satisfying explanation.