Universities are curious places in many ways. One practice that is especially intriguing is the appointment of academic managers – executive deans, deans, heads of school, department heads. These are in many ways the most critical positions in the entire university because these people have frontline responsibility for the actual teaching and research that takes place. Universities just don’t get it right a lot of the time!
Even in these days of weird and wonderful academic structures, there is still usually one person who is appointed to lead a faculty and that person is invariably referred to as a dean.
The dean is expected to support the achievement of the university’s vision and mission and is held responsible for the strategic direction, the academic leadership and governance of a faculty/school/department – hereafter referred to as a faculty.
The dean must ensure that continuous quality improvement underscores the faculty programmes offered to students and that the educational outcomes for students are of the highest order. The dean must promote and support quality teaching and research endeavours.
The dean is expected to build strong partnerships with external stakeholders – industry, governments and business groups relevant to the disciplines covered by the faculty. And not least is the expectation that the dean has good financial management skills and some entrepreneurial flair.
More than any other attribute, however, the dean must be a leader – someone who is committed to and can successfully drive the people and operations of the faculty towards ever better results and reputation. Without that commitment and capacity to effectively ‘manage staff’, all aspects of the faculty will suffer.
The fact of the matter is that position descriptions for deans do usually request all of the above experience, skillsets and attributes. They also call for candidates to be able to demonstrate a solid research reputation with evidence of (serious externally acquired) grant success, keynote addresses, conference presentations and publications in reputable international journals.
There tends to be less emphasis on proof of teaching-related achievements, although there is generally an expectation that s/he has been a successful educator at some point in his or her career.
It is important for a dean to be well regarded as an academic in his or her own right, as someone with a highly credible research track record and sound understanding of contemporary teaching-learning practices. But things are bound to go less well when a candidate’s research achievements are elevated to the most important criterion for appointment.
Of course, a faculty member will not take issue with their dean having a well-known respected research reputation – far from it and they also would not be concerned about their dean continuing to undertake some research. However, a faculty member will not be well served by a dean who expects to continue to commit most of his or her work time to his/her own research projects and the production of his/her own research outputs.
It’s unfair for such a person to be appointed to such a position in the first place. It’s unfair on the person if s/he assumed they could still spend most of their time on their own research. It’s unfair on the faculty staff not to have someone at the helm who puts faculty interests above their own. It’s unfair on the students who will ultimately feel the ill effects of a faculty floundering about.
A healthy faculty culture
The faculty first and foremost needs someone who will lead the way to nurturing a healthy faculty culture in which people feel they belong and their contribution is valued. At the same time, the role of the dean is to ensure everyone contributes appropriately to the faculty’s operations.
That means the dean must manage people-related conflicts and coordinate different strategies to build effective working teams. The dean's time needs to go towards supporting and enhancing the research outputs of the academics in the faculty, and that means his or her own research endeavours will have to take a back seat the majority of the time.
On the whole, most of a dean’s week is likely to be taken up with meetings with faculty staff about faculty matters – when not representing faculty matters within or external to the university. S/he is not necessarily the one who interacts directly with each and every staff member all the time, but the dean is the person who oversees and steers the directions needed. The faculty has to come first!
From experience, too many university faculties that are ill-functioning, toxic environments with embittered staff are those which appear to have appointed an outstanding, highly regarded internationally recognised researcher as their leader who continues to devote his or her efforts to pursuing his/her own research.
S/he does not expect to give up valuable research time to listen to staff issues. S/he is not inclined to take the time to understand matters that are impacting on the proper functioning of the faculty. Those sorts of concerns distract and take precious time away from his or her substantial research activity. They are the issues that are at best delegated to others to solve or at worst are ignored altogether.
It might take a long or only a short time depending on the structures and systems, but without a dean who devotes his or her time to faculty matters as the priority – and that usually means the people in their charge – a faculty will eventually become directionless and disjointed.
Those who take on the position need to realise that their role is more akin to that of a parent – someone who guides, inspires, encourages, leads, supports and sets clear directions. Universities need high-flying researchers, who push the boundaries of innovation and contribute new thinking to their discipline, but these people should be left to do what they do best, that is, be researchers.
Universities should ensure that their academic managers have proven capacity, commitment to and genuine interest in building a fully functioning faculty.
Nita Temmerman (PhD) is former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean (education) at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia; visiting professor at the Solomon Islands National University; chair of the academic board of the Leaders Institute Australia; and is a specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications.
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