Reflections of a Retired Dean
To serve a college or university as a dean or provost is a special honor and responsibility. I had the pleasure to be in such offices—from department chair, to division head, to dean, to vice president for academic affairs, to provost, to interim president, and (finally!) to senior vice president for a total of 45 years in the same liberal arts college. But I decided to retire in 2015 to let others take the lead in our shared academic enterprise and to devote more time to other academic pursuits. My administrative colleagues have been kind and supportive, even allowing me to retain my fine office suite and providing clerical support for ongoing projects.
Like many other former deans, I have had difficulties letting go of duties and friendships, but I think I have arrived at a happy compromise that might be a useful guide to other academic leaders who are leaving their institutions and wish to continue contributing to the college and the profession. Here are a few ways I have found to stay connected while leaving the heavy lifting (including countless committee, council, and taskforce meetings) to those who have assumed my responsibilities of office:
1) Scholarly work. Being retired gives me more time to write for a variety of journals, including Academic Leader and several other journals in my areas of academic interest. I have published in more than 60 different journals over the years and enjoy sending off manuscripts to some to my favorite publishers when an idea strikes me as worth examining through an article. Most of us, I believe, continue to have research and writing interests (even passions) and still have scholarly contributions to make to our fields.
2) Editing. Many journals welcome academics who want to serve as consulting editors, and this is satisfying academic work for many of us who like to contribute to the profession—whatever our disciplines might be. I have been particularly fortunate to be able to continue as an executive editor of a journal, which gives me the opportunity to stay abreast of the scholarship in my field. New ideas abound, and I enjoy seeing what other scholars are working on and deciding which submitted manuscripts may be of interest to others in our reading audience.
3) Conferences. Academic leaders are often reluctant to leave campus as their ongoing duties hold them in place, but retired leaders have much more freedom to travel to conferences, either to present or just to enjoy the stimulation and fellowship such conferences provide. For example, I have no reason at all to miss the Leadership in Higher Education conference Magna is sponsoring this October in Baltimore and even plan to present a session for new deans. Passing on the wisdom one has gained from experience (including mistakes as well as victories) is a special reward for retired deans. We want our successors to succeed!
4) Mentoring. Related to conference participation is the potential opportunity to give guidance and advice to young faculty members and new administrators in one’s former institution—if you are fortunate enough to be staying in the same vicinity. I am currently helping an assistant professor in my field with ideas for articles and opportunities for other academic endeavors. This can be a real pleasure for one who has the time to offer assistance to those who follow in one’s footsteps up the academic ladder of tenure and promotions and perhaps even into administration some day.
5) Speaking. Another activity that keeps me occupied and involved in my community is speaking at various civic and educational clubs and organizations. Unless one has retired to some barren wilderness or foreign dessert, a retired academic leader will have ample opportunities to address community groups on subjects of interest both to the retiree and to the organization. Why not make use of all that stored knowledge and wisdom? No need to let it atrophy and disappear into the ether!
6) Teaching. Most, if not all, academic leaders entered the palace of administration through the courtyard of teaching; our talents and interests in academic and pedagogical enterprises are what attracted us to the profession at some early point in our careers. So why not return to that first love to teach a course or two in your former institution or some other college near your home? You might polish up a favorite course in your repertoire or even develop a new one, depending on the college’s needs. You might even become a student again by auditing that art history or French culture course a colleague is teaching that sounds fascinating. As the oft-repeated adage says: “Old deans never die; they just lose their faculties.” In retirement we need to keep our faculties alive and well!
A concluding thought
In the final analysis, retirement is what we make it; the choices are ours. Of course, there are travel, golf, the arts, and other leisure activities one has well earned. But the good news is that now we old deans (and other academic leaders) have that one commodity that seemed to be in critically short supply during our years of active service: time. I plan to use my time in a balanced way, with family vacations and travel, to be sure, but also holding on to some of the experiences that were so satisfying during my working years. Perhaps you will as well when you decide to leave the groves of academe for the retired life.
Thomas McDaniel is professor of education emeritus and a former administrator at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.