Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There's a Dean For That

Deans Deans every where
nor any .. (something something something)

As I traipse through my academic existence, I keep finding new Deans I didn't know existed. Over the years, in my routine professorial existence, I have encountered the Usual Deans -- deans of collegiate units within the university and the various deans who have responsibilities for students, money etc. These Deans are typically "familiar" people, in the sense of having been long-serving faculty members; many of them were former department heads. I don't mean "familiar" in the sense that I (or most faculty) know them well, but they are familiar in the sense of having followed a similar career path as many of us faculty (before they veered into administration). They are typically well respected (and well paid) for the important jobs that they do. I have been fortunate to work with excellent deans and associate/assistant deans over the years.

However, many of the Unusual Deans that I have been encountering recently are a bit less "familiar" in this way. Some of them veered into administration very early in their careers, and some are deans of "unfamiliar" (to me) things, like programs I didn't even know existed. Many (most?) are in the humanities or social sciences, so are exotic to me for other reasons.

This familiar/unfamiliar, usual/unusual designation is of course highly subjective (FSPcentric), relative to my own existence, and in no way implies criticism or a negative opinion of these exotic (to me) deans. I do, however, find myself wondering, from time to time: why does that position require a Dean? The more deans I encounter, the less sure I am what the title even means anymore. According to Wikipedia:

In academic administrations such as universities or colleges, a dean is the person with significant authority over a specific academic unit, or over a specific area of concern, or both.

I suppose one could spend a bit of time pondering what, exactly, "significant" means, but this definition is, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying in that "specific area of concern" is vague, although I can see that this is the part of the definition that refers to Deans of Students, Research Things, and so on.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter, I suppose, whether someone who has significant authority over a specific area of concern is a dean or something else, except that, at my institution, Deans of Whatever tend to have higher salaries than professors. I think that can be a source of unhappiness among the hard-working professoriate, especially if there seem to be a lot of these rather exotic dean-people, deaning in highly specialized areas of concern.


Alex said...

You call them Deans? On our official flowchart we usually call them something like "Deputy Associate Vice President for..."

On the unofficial flowchart we call them things that can't be typed on a family-oriented blog.

Anonymous said...

Dean of Deans
Dean of Dean Salary Increases
Dean of Multiplication
Dean of Exponential Growth

Anonymous said...

Dean of lab radio
Dean of the Parking Deck
The Dean of Kings


Anonymous said...

I want to be the Dean of Deans. Not really.

Anonymous said...

Dean of Paperclips
Dean of Affairs
Dean of Effort

Anonymous said...

I share your feelings! A few months ago I happened to share a dinner table with the "Assistant Dean of something_important" at my well known research university. Before that, I associated the word dean with someone senior, wise, and well respected, but that Assistant Dean was really young, and the way he behaved and what he talked about really surprised me. The shock lasted for quite a long time and I even remember googling him after I came home that night. I think a different word should be found for the sort of work that these people do.

Anonymous said...

Now you know where all research overhead is going.


Anonymous said...

How about Vice Dean, Assistant and Associate Deans

Anonymous said...

My favorite are those with double diminutive titles

e.g. Associate Vice Chancellor

Mark P

FormerScienceProfessor said...

Ah ha, but what of the elusive sub-species: the "Deanlet"? Early or middle career professors released from teaching duties to perform important dean-like duties in highly specialized dean-like environs. Can you spot one in your school?

nanoalchemist said...

I want to be James Dean.

Anonymous said...

For Assistant Deans: Teeny Deanies

Anonymous said...

Just so we're clear, we talk about you guys pretty much the same way.

Oh, and You're Welcome for shielding you from about 90% of the work load that compliance with federal regulations requires.

Also, too-that time when your student didn't commit suicide because we managed to work with HR and Payroll (no easy task) and get him or her on an LOA with no gap in health insurance so they could get the counseling they need free of charge? You're welcome for that too. And I missed my son's swim meet because I had to meet with your student's parents and their lawyer, so that we could prevent a law suit over that one.

And that time where I ripped the provost a new one-behind closed doors of course-because she botched the communication of an important process change that made all of you guys pitch hissys and send vitriolic e-mails to my administrative assistant-well, I'll give you a pass on that because, as I argued to the provost, you had a valid point even if you acted like a child in communicating it.

And PS, I never thought I would have ended up here, but I noticed over the years, that all of the stuff that I did sign on for-teaching, service, leadership, mentoring, advising-was being slowly taken out of my hands when I was on the tenure tack, because the President wanted to "free us up" to generate more indirect costs, and being given to Deanlets. So I followed the stuff I like doing, and am kick-a&& good at.

So, I need to go now and finish preparing my lectures and exam questions for next week. Yeah, it's saturday, but with all the crises in my office this week, my 50 hours was just not enough to get any lecture prep done.

So, in summary, you're welcome.

your humble servant
the Deanlet

Alex said...


You're not wrong; I recognize that there are necessary things that you and your peers are responsible for taking care of. However, all of those things should ultimately be in service to the true missions of the university, the things that faculty do: Teaching, mentoring, and research. You are supposed to work for us, not the other way around. While I can't speak to how you as an individual do things, in general your cohort has a hard time communicating what we're actually going to do. Two examples:

1) No matter how many times I've asked the question, whether to administrators or educational researchers, I still can't figure out what assessment is all about and what the real difference is between grading and assessing learning. On a fundamental level, if I'm doing my grading well, I'm measuring the extent to which they displayed knowledge or understanding of the course content, right?

What I do know is that my inability to grasp what assessment really is has not stopped me from aping the meaningless assessment reports written by others, and I never fail to be amazed at how your peers at my institution (I know that you aren't at my school because at my school your peers don't teach classes) are happy with any report, no matter how meaningless.

If your peers are pleased with any old thing I throw together, that will earn them less respect rather than more.

2) Just the other day, I was in an "information" session for faculty applying for sabbaticals. The Deputy Vice something or other running the thing started off with a lot of jargon from various handbooks and appendices. I looked in her handouts, found the page that describes what I should put in my sabbatical application, and said "Tell me what you actually want. I see several points to address, tell me how the people reviewing these things interpret and apply these criteria." I mean, that's the only question that really matters, right? Everything else is administrivia.

She said "We'll get to that in a little while" at which point my eyes rolled and she said "Yes, I see that you're rolling your eyes." Well, yes, and now she just acknowledged in a room full of faculty that she exasperates us, and she seemed completely unapologetic.

This same Deputy Vice something or other has given me run around and doubletalk on other occasions, so I don't feel bad about rolling my eyes at her.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what in any of this made the anonymous Deanlet so angry. I suspect it goes beyond anything written here.

Anonymous said...

Alex, You are also not wrong, and I appreciate where you are coming from. Sadly, I do see some of my colleagues in what you have written. The ranks of Deanlets do include the incompetent and the clueless. The clueless are usually the folks that have no experience or perspective concerning the enormous demands on faculty time, and they have failed to grasp the one central truth of Deanlet existence, that you have pointed out, Alex-we serve the faculty. I take this very seriously, and am continually amazed at how often I find myself alone on this.

Ironically the incompetent are often people who were faculty, and whose research careers came to an end, and perhaps their teaching was never all that great. But they are kept on, probably because they are tenured, or sleeping with someone important, or both, and are given the Deanlet job in spite of having no previous interest, talent or experience with leadership.

The problem is, we keep a lot of stuff running, do a lot of stuff you never see, and deal with crap that I, at least, consider part of my mandate to shield you from. And mostly this is invisible-that's fine. But if we f*ck up, well, then it is not invisible, as you well know. Just as no one ever talks about the planes that don't crash, or the houses that don't burn down, or the bridges that don't collapse, you may not be aware of how often we get it right.

I _completely_ understand your frustration on the communication difficulties. Again, I am often baffled by how far we are into a project rollout before it occurs to anyone to think of how this will be communicated. It is in part just a failure to see things as others might-surely everybody understands how important thins think that I think is important really is, so I don't have to explain it. But it is also the case that sometimes Deanlets really don't know why we are asking you to do this new thing. And, sadly, I have noticed sometimes Deans and Provosts and Chancellors or what not actually prefer opacity and caginess to thinking about strategic communication.

I'm just saying that I consider it my job to make sure that you can do what you think is your job while also doing what the Provost or Chancellor or federal regulatory agency thinks your job is. And I am not alone, perhaps not even in the minority. You just see the ones who suck.

Just before I read your reply, I was talking to a colleague and expressing my frustration that, as I see it, the three main non-student constituencies of the university-faculty, admin and operational staff-rarely see ourselves as being on the same team and working toward the same mission. Its some kind of zero sum turf war.

And the students ultimately suffer.

Alex said...


Honestly, I am actually an easy person to please, as long as you are willing to be a bit politically incorrect:

If you tell me that I have to write this report or whatever because some idiot many layers removed from us put it into a regulation that the relevant bodies either cannot or will not reinterpret, well, so be it. I am a practical man, and I understand that the modest cost of my very comfortable white collar job is that sometimes I have to jump through stupid hoops.

However, if you start telling me how important this is, and insist on pretending that what we put into this report really matters, I'm sorry, but I'm not an idiot. I wrote the same stupid report last year and nothing happened because of it. When you say otherwise, you're insulting my intelligence.

My employer can make me do what they want; that's the nature of a job. However, my employer cannot make me think what they want. So tell me to write the report, just don't try to persuade me that it's important in any sense other than the "You do want your paycheck, don't you?" sense. I'm cool with that. I've seen "Thank You For Smoking", so I'm comfortable with the Yuppie Nuremberg Defense. Just don't tell me that it's important in any other sense, because we both know that writing this report won't help a student learn anything (except to the extent that appeasing some higher body keeps the school funded and out of legal trouble).

Alex said...

One other thing:

I understand that now and then you or your peers might come to a department meeting and tell us that, due to a bunch of rules put in place by higher-ups who will not consider appeals, we must configure our activities in a particular way. So be it.


If a different deanlet comes to us later on and says "My colleague was incorrect, you need to reconfigure your activities in a different way...", after we've already set things up and assigned tasks and put in a bunch of work, expect me to be angry. In fact, don't be shocked if I start reading the legal memos written by the esteemed Professor John Yoo, looking to see what sorts of, um, "enhanced" measures might technically be legal. You aren't the only one parsing legal documents!

Anonymous said...

Alex and Deanlet
I am well aware that both faculty and administrators do things behind the scenes and these things may appear trivial and meaningless, but keep the university functioning in some small way(much the same way that students are unaware of how much prep goes into an individual class, nor are they aware of all the other aspects of being a professor). I have two main concerns with Deans, Associate Deans, Assistant Deans (or whatever title exists): 1. the preponderance of large universities to create such positions along with associated staff positions (secretaries, student assistants etc). The ratio of Deans (and staff) to students has increased 230% at my school in the past 30 years, costing the school A LOT of money as these positions are generally higher paid. And 2. I fail to understand what some of these positions actually do. This boils down to a lack of communication as I'm sure that a few of these positions are necessary due to new legislative issues/laws etc or due to the fact that parents are increasingly involved in their child's education etc. However, convincing me that we need a new (Assistant) Dean of (something) and they need to be paid 3x what I'm making, when the only thing that I can see they are doing is making more paperwork for me is hardly getting faculty buy-in. I believe we all need to communicate better or we will continue to maintain the 'us vs them' attitude that is entrenched in university culture (at least at my institution).

EliRabett said...

Why in every discussion with a Deanlet doe they start by saying "No true Scotsman"

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at all of the "Assistant" and "Associate" Directors my college seems to have, esp. in the Admissions Office.

Anonymous said...

Interesting posts here. Same at my school. After 20+ years...so many assistant/associate {VP's, deans} AND so many more lecturers and so many fewer professors. And lecturers are not required to deal with all the assessment/technique of the week stuff handed down. So the few TT faculty that remain are usually pretty tied up in service to the university/administration and spend less time on teaching and research. So sad...
and the students suffer