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The New Dean’s Toolbox

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

The New Dean’s Toolbox

So, you’re a new dean, charged with the care and feeding of many faculty and staff (think of all the directors who have become ubiquitous in higher education institutions in recent years!) as well as large numbers of students (and their helicopter parents) now under your “control.” The world you now occupy in the Groves of Academe may be a familiar one, whether you have occupied a similar position in another institution or have labored in the very same one you are expected to lead with joy and enthusiasm as you implement your new vision, new policies, and new expectations for those now in your care. Good luck with that, as Dr. Phil often says. You really can succeed, of course, but this might be a good time to review your dean’s toolbox to see what instruments are there already—or might be needed—for the tasks ahead.

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So, you’re a new dean, charged with the care and feeding of many faculty and staff (think of all the directors who have become ubiquitous in higher education institutions in recent years!) as well as large numbers of students (and their helicopter parents) now under your “control.” The world you now occupy in the Groves of Academe may be a familiar one, whether you have occupied a similar position in another institution or have labored in the very same one you are expected to lead with joy and enthusiasm as you implement your new vision, new policies, and new expectations for those now in your care. Good luck with that, as Dr. Phil often says. You really can succeed, of course, but this might be a good time to review your dean’s toolbox to see what instruments are there already—or might be needed—for the tasks ahead.

  1. A hammer. Of course, no toolbox is complete without this most essential instrument. Your leadership position requires the ability to come down hard when quick, firm action is essential. Every dean must be able to communicate some decisions forcefully with no room for ambiguity or contrary point of view. Naturally, there will have been much lead-up, in most cases, to provide for debate and contrary arguments, but sometimes you must assert your “police role to ensure final debate resolution. However, as Abraham Maslow famously remarked, “If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” The key to successful “deaning” often lies in the dean’s patience and discretion in using the “administrator’s hammer” as a last resort. Do you know when, where, and on whom to use this essential tool?

  2. A saw. Every dean will face decisions that result in cutting someone or some policy loose from firm moorings in the institution. These painful decisions for all concerned test the ability of the dean to be a good communicator who can articulate why the cut is necessary so that everyone understands. An arbitrary dean—who may also be viewed as a micromanager—may win in the short run, but over time the saw gets dull, and sympathy for the dean dissipates. As with the hammer, one must use the saw sparingly and only when fully justified by logic and reliable information to support one’s decision. Can’t afford to support a costly faculty trip that has little value for the institution? Have to let an employee go because of poor performance? Need to let a student leave your place for greener pastures where he or she might be more successful? Use the saw, and do not leave any jagged edges if you can help it.

  3. Sandpaper. The first two tools can leave rough spots on the academic epidermis. Effective deans know how to administer policies and practices that soften the impact and smooth rough edges, for all concerned, of negative decisions left by hammer and saw. Yes, a dean is sometimes the institutional police force but is also sometimes the pastor who provides wise counsel and a sympathetic ear. Are you a good listener who can hear the real message in a tirade or lament? Do you listen with what Eastern philosophers call “the third ear”? We sometimes say about teaching that “students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” The same is true for administrators. How do you “pour oil on troubled waters”? Your ability to be a healer and one who makes the rough spots smooth is a real test of your leadership; no toolbox is complete without sandpaper.

  4. A drill. “Drilling down” has been a staple of administrator jargon in recent years and addresses the need to go below the surface of an issue or problem. In the rush of daily duties, deans sometimes just need to take a deep breath and think more deeply about how to deal with a problem student, staff member, or professor. Have you done enough research? Have you talked to enough (and the right) people? Do you have alternative possibilities and options that you have not seriously considered? Get out the drill! Quick decisions and actions might make you seem like an efficient and decisive dean, but at what cost? Perhaps one more day or one more conversation will result in a better decision or action—and will be well worth your patient drilling.

  5. Tape. A final item for your dean’s toolbox is a roll of strong tape. You will often encounter broken promises, unhinged personnel, disconnected policies, and practices that need mending. The administrator’s tape can help reconnect those things in your dean’s duties that badly need your skillful application of this essential tool. Are students at odds with their professors? Is a department fractured by rivalries and jealousies? Are two of your directors not on the same page when it comes to handling the disputes or disagreements of other personnel? This is the time to get out the tape and bind the broken parts! How do you do that? It may require you to use some of the other tools above—but always with the goal of unifying where there is disunity and healing where there are broken bones. Part of your role as dean is to do your best to have everyone working harmoniously toward common purposes: help where you can, counsel where you must, take firm action if that is essential to put things back together the way they need to be for the health and wholeness of the enterprise you lead.

There are other tools for your toolbox, of course, and you might consider what else you might want to have ready as you begin dealing with the exciting challenges of a new deanship. Our Leadership in Higher Education Conference in Atlanta on October 6–8, 2016, will be another opportunity to supply your toolbox with useful implements of the trade, and I look forward to sessions to help new deans to consider various strategies for success. Hope to see you there!

Thomas R. McDaniel was formerly a professor of education and senior vice president at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is a member of the 2016 board for the Leadership in Higher Education Conference.