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So You Want to Be a Dean?

Written by: Dan Butin
Published on: Jan 13, 2016

Iam done. After six years of founding and leading the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College, I have returned to the faculty. In those six years I hired 17 faculty members, started seven academic programs, and worked with two presidents, four provosts, and eight deans.

I started out idealistic, and adamant that I could develop a better model of a school of education. What could be so hard, I thought, in “operationalizing” one’s ideas? What I have since learned: Nothing is more exciting or complicated in higher education as turning ideas into reality. It is way harder than rocket science.

So for any of you faculty members considering moving into administration, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your background may be your greatest asset. The bad news is that it may also be your undoing as a capable administrator.

The role of a dean has been characterized as “dove, dragon, and diplomat.” A dean is often in the unfortunate liminal position of being no longer truly a professor but not completely an administrator, either (like the provost or president) — and thus prone to role conflict and ambiguity. One study found that deans perform as many as 168 different duties. The job has had its defenders. Back in 2003, Stanley Fish, in a column for The Chronicle called “First, Kill All the Administrators,” described administration as “an intellectual task” and, in his trademark brazenness, declared: “James I of England once famously (and prophetically) said, ‘No bishops, no king.’ I say, no administrators, no life of the mind.”

So what does it take to be an academic dean? I see three distinct characteristics central to the role: strategic thinking, risk management, and compromise.


Let me start with the good news. Strategic thinking is really what all of us in higher education have been trained to do. We thrive in the complexity of large heaps of often-conflicting data, searching for connections and implications and unexpected findings, striving to synthesize, or at least hold the tension in balance, of a wide range of stories and narratives, all the while working to articulate just the right framing to make sense of and give prominence to our key findings.

That, in a nutshell, is the power of academic deans who can think strategically. It may come into play in a decision about how an admissions policy is developed, what subfield the next faculty hire should be in, or where to allocate scarce resources. As dean, you may have to think creatively about how to devise a new type of scholarship fund or how to restructure existing courses into an exciting program that will attract students from across the campus. The job is about moving a wide range of highly complex puzzle pieces around in real time with a foreknowledge that the implications could resonate for years or even decades.

It’s exciting stuff, and it’s what we as academics thrive at in our own research.

But that brings me to the bad news. Strategic thinking as a dean requires two other skills that most academics are lousy at: risk management and compromise.

Academics tend to be risk-averse. We are more than happy spending years in front of our computers in order to make sure we have every angle figured out, every argument thoroughly vetted, every last article read. An academic project may be years in the making and not bear fruit for a decade, if ever.

But that’s not the world in which most colleges and universities operate. As dean, my day-to-day life has been a constant series of meetings that required quick decisions. It was like playing 10 simultaneous games of chess — blindfolded.

I would walk into a meeting more or less knowing who would be there, with what issues, and with what desired outcomes. Then someone else would show up. Or a new bit of information about budgets would be mentioned. Or a different idea would emerge. And I would have to pivot and decide: Was this new development important? Should we discuss it more? Should I steamroll ahead with my original plan or refocus? How will my actions be perceived by, and affect, the president, provost, department chairs, faculty, administrative staff, students, their parents, community partners, and key donors. (Did I leave anybody out?) How might it play out on social media or in the local press?

All of which brings me to my final characteristic of being a dean. If I had to articulate the one fundamental difference between faculty and administrative life, it would be the ability and need to compromise. As a professor, I would almost never compromise. Why should I compromise on how I think about a conceptual problem or how to best teach a specific topic? I can of course accommodate diverse student needs and abilities, and change my mind if I learn something new. I can be incredibly flexible in my ways of thinking and teaching. But compromise on what I believed or what I did? Nope.

As a dean, I compromised literally every single day. I compromised when a policy was vague on whether a student should be expelled, and when the marketing department wanted to rephrase how we described our academic programs to make them more understandable and appealing. I compromised when the provost asked me to reconsider a cap on our class sizes, and when I couldn’t pay our adjuncts what they deserved. I compromised because, well, if I hadn’t, nothing would have ever been done.

My six years have been very rewarding — but also very long. The average length of a deanship is about four years. It is a tiring job. So, dear reader, if indeed you desire to be an administrator and can deal with the risk management and the compromises, let me close by offering four “Deanship 101" suggestions.

Follow the money. Time and again, you will be put in positions where you have huge responsibilities and minimal authority. The quickest and surest way to have any semblance of success is to be in control of the budget for those responsibilities. Ask for it, demand it, negotiate for it; get it if you can. You’ll thank me when you do.

Think in terms of systems. No matter how well you work with your faculty and staff — or how much you believe that you (or someone you trust) have things all figured out — you still have to transform practices into policies and procedures. The point is not to create a bureaucracy; though if done poorly that is exactly what will happen. Rather, policies and procedures, when well crafted, will allow you to do your job carefully and decisively. They will facilitate communication, enhance buy-in, and mitigate unforeseen issues. Look at it this way: What happens when you’re gone? Systems and processes are the heart and soul of how institutions continue to function long after you have stepped down.

Within those systems are people. Never forget that. Being a dean requires an immense amount of relationship-centered work. The nature of that work will change: negotiating, collaborating, mentoring, counseling, brainstorming, hiring, firing. But the big-picture reality is this: You are just the leader. Your success is absolutely and fundamentally linked to, and determined by, the people you work with.

Always remember that you were hired (implicitly or explicitly) for your vision. Academe is about ideas, and a dean is the representative of a vision. Deans should never see their jobs merely as making a system run smoothly, as if the institution were producing widgets. We are here to teach and prepare students to become thoughtful and engaged citizens of a complex and pluralistic democracy. Academe is about knowledge production and dissemination, and deans are supposed to have a vision for what that means and how it looks in their fields.

So as you consider whether to move into administration, dig deep into that most basic question: Why? If you can answer that confidently, and stomach the reality that success will be messy and complicated and never to your complete satisfaction, then … welcome aboard.

Dan Butin is a professor of education at Merrimack College, and executive director of its Center for Engaged Democracy. He stepped down as dean of the college’s School of Education and Social Policy in December.