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President-Faculty Relations: A Dean’s Dilemma?

From the Print Archive Leadership and Management

President-Faculty Relations: A Dean’s Dilemma?

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Academic Leader and has been reprinted from The New Dean’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Academic Leader (Magna Publications, 2019).

The situation: You are an academic dean. Your president is one of the new-breed leaders, a nonacademic administrator whose expertise is in business management, alumni affairs, social life, or development. Further, your faculty is a highly organized cohort of professionals who have the security of a tenure system and the strong leadership of a faculty senate. Now your president, in an effort to establish better communication and rapport with faculty, is meeting with individual faculty members, academic departments, and the faculty senate. Do you see a dilemma in your future?

The scenario above is hardly hypothetical. Increasingly, college presidents come from outside the academy, faculties are highly organized and political, and academic leaders advocate communication and “flat” or horizontal decision-making mechanisms. These evolutions in management theory and practice put the administrative role of the dean, the quintessential middle manager, at peril. At the least, deans need to think about how best to accommodate the increased interaction between faculty and president and to make communication a positive experience for everyone.

The concept of “crisis”

We who spend much of our time in the middle know well the challenge of resolving conflicts. We also recall that the Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity. The desire of both presidents and professors to strengthen relations can constitute dangers and opportunities aplenty. Long gone are the days when a dean might recite the dean’s dictum: “My job is to keep the president from thinking and the faculty from talking.” (Or is it the other way around?) To succeed in an era when presidents and professors seek common ground, with or without the involvement of the dean, deans must find ways to minimize dangers and maximize opportunities. Otherwise, they will find life in the middle to be one crisis after another.

In my years as a professor and an administrator, I’ve had opportunities to assess president-faculty relations and to reflect on the dynamics of such relationships. I have been a professor, an academic dean, and an interim president. I seem to be blessed (cursed?) with an ability to sympathize with conflicting points of view, partly because I understand that where you stand depends on where you sit. Because I have sat in many different seats, I can appreciate almost every point of view. That doesn’t make solving crises any

The dean’s dilemma

As middle manager, deans have the difficult task of communicating faculty needs to presidents and boards while communicating institutional policies and priorities from the top administrative positions to faculty and staff. Unlike some classic business or military chains of command, colleges have shared decision-making processes, which assign distinct spheres of authority to the board, administration, and faculty. The dean’s authority is rarely absolute and is often vaguely defined in college management models and faculty handbooks. In fact, a dean “rules” the faculty only by the consent of the governed and with respect and goodwill earned by fair and faithful leadership. One leads the faculty by helping them achieve their best goals, by bringing them together to solve problems and chart new directions, and by skillful consensus building. Part pastor and part policeman, the dean is lost without human relation skills.

Dilemmas, then, assail deans who fail to listen well, refuse to compromise when good sense and good policy require it, or run roughshod over the sensibilities of individual faculty members. But deans also need to take stands, make decisions, and enforce institutional policies. Presidents can complicate the delicate balances and processes that deans and faculties have worked out over the years to promote a relatively amicable and collegial relationship unique to the academic workplace.

The president’s laudable intentions can result in an intensified triangulation that creates conflict and confusion. If, say, the president has “heard” a faculty complaint about another faculty member, does that imply “support” for the complainant? If the president asks the dean to “address” the concern, does that require the dean to support the complainant? Are presidents more likely to micromanage the faculty and faculty to lobby the president for pet projects?


So, what’s a dean to do? While I have no simple solutions to offer, I do think deans can mitigate middle management crises emanating from this triangulation of president, faculty, and dean. Indeed, with some thought, imagination, and planning, a skillful dean can harness the synergy of triangulation and turn what looks like a crisis into an opportunity. When a president wants to establish communication or collaboration or connection with the faculty, a dean might follow with one or more of these approaches:

  • Reevaluate your relationship with the president. First, be sure that you enjoy the confidence of the president and that your effectiveness with the faculty is not at issue. Next, make sure you and the president have discussed all the dynamics of triangulation and the ground rules you will follow to avoid end runs, divide-and-conquer strategies or other unintended consequences of president-faculty relations. Finally, be sure that you and the president have a common understanding of the goals of such communications and the methods of follow-up.
  • Reinvent your role as dean. A dean’s authority often is more personal than positional (and vaguely defined). Perhaps you need to work more closely with faculty senate leaders—or more effectively with your president to identify academic needs, issues, and priorities. Perhaps you should arrange more conferences for the president and you with key faculty in each academic department. A dean’s authority is limited, but their autonomy is immense.
  • Reestablish your reputation for open communications. Communication is not a zero-sum process. If the president wants more communication with the faculty, that does not mean you should have less. Do you invite open communication by word and deed? Do you get out on campus and into faculty workspaces (including classrooms) with regularity? Do you need to remind yourself that your leadership depends on your availability, your ability to hear and appreciate individual concerns, and your responsiveness? The battle scars of deaning can dull our sensitivities and undermine our communication skills.

Deans and other middle managers can fall victim to the dangers of president-faculty relations or find the opportunities every crisis or dilemma creates to become more versatile, more creative academic leaders. The choice is ours.

Thomas R. McDaniel, MAT, MLA, PhD, is the author of some 300 articles, chapters, and reviews in 60 different journals as well as nine books, including The New Dean’s Survival Guide. He is a former dean, provost, and senior vice president at Converse College.