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Associate/Assistant Deans: Leading from the Middle

Leadership and Management

Associate/Assistant Deans: Leading from the Middle

There are many varieties of associate and assistant dean positions. Some specialize in a single area such as assessment or faculty development. Others have broader duties (i.e., associate dean of academic affairs). Those who serve in these roles do so for a variety of reasons. Some become associate dean to determine if a career in administration is a good fit. Some view the role as a part of a progression to higher administrative positions. Some serve temporarily with the intent of returning to a faculty position. And some view it as a long-term position.

While serving as a department chair, as a center director, or in some other faculty leadership role can help develop the necessary skills to succeed as associate dean, there are some important differences. In an interview with Academic Leader, James M. Sloat, assistant dean of faculty for academic development at Colby College, talked about the role of associate dean and the important transitions into and out of these positions.

Familiar but different

One of the challenges of becoming an associate dean is managing the transition from being a faculty member to an administrator. “Associate deans and assistant deans often feel more profoundly in between that they have previously,” Sloat says.

Faculty leaders often feel “in between” the faculty and the administration; however, they know departmental colleagues well and understand their disciplinary perspectives. As assistant or associate dean, not only is the person now on the administrative side of issues but also the faculty he or she works with are from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

If the role is temporary, this feeling of being in the middle can be a bit unsettling. “You’re really neither fish nor fowl. You’re not really in the faculty because you’ve jumped over into administration, but you’re also not really the administration because in many cases people are in these roles on a rotating basis,” Sloat says.

A broader perspective

Serving as an assistant or associate dean opens up one’s perspective beyond that of a single department. “To me it’s incredibly fascinating work because one gets to see the institution as a whole. Over the years I’ve had the great opportunity to work with colleagues from the entire college—faculty in all departments and administrative colleagues are in admissions, development, student life, and athletics. There’s great opportunity for contributing to institutional transformation over time. And these roles are more operational than the dean’s role. Deans have bigger questions and don’t have the time to get down into the operational details of how a program will run. Associate deans have more of an opportunity to do that, which for long-term institutional change is a great position to be in,” Sloat says.

Managing transitions

Sloat offers the following advice for managing the transitions into and out of associate and assistant dean positions:

  • Make the full jump into administration. “When one transitions in and tries to hold on to one’s faculty identity, one may see oneself as the representative of the faculty to the administration, but that is not the role of the associate dean. The associate dean is not the replacement for the faculty senate or for the faculty executive committee, who are in a sense the advocates on behalf of the faculty. The associate dean works for the dean. The associate dean now has a boss in a way that when you’re department chair you don’t really think of yourself as having a boss even though there is a hierarchy. I think the people who make this transition most successfully very quickly own the magnitude of the jump and own the shift in position responsibility. They recognize that they’re now on the administrative side of that line, and so if the dean says, ‘Go and do this,’ my job is to go and do this,” Sloat says.

    However, this does not mean that the associate dean ceases to think like a faculty member and bring that perspective to the dean. “As I raise observations informed by my time as a faculty member, I’m doing so in the service of the dean. And so at the end of the conversation if the dean says, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but we need to go with this anyway,’ then I have my marching orders and that’s what I need to do. That doesn’t mean that I need to go and attempt to bludgeon my faculty colleagues. I don’t think many people have found that to be a successful approach, but it does mean that I’m not torn when it comes to doing my job. I’m the associate dean. I’m the dean’s person to help and support the dean in a way that will advance the interests of the college,” Sloat says.

  • Be prepared for fast-paced, high-volume work. “Obviously faculty members work incredibly hard. They’re incredibly productive. I’m so far from being somebody who imagines that faculty have easy lives. They work very hard. But they often are working very hard in ways that they can control and regulate. They’re teaching a course that they chose to teach. They’re engaged in scholarship of their choosing. They make the decisions that shape the kind of work that they do and when they’re going to do it. When you make the jump over to being an associate dean you cede that control. I work on many different projects, and I don’t necessarily control when things come up that need responses. As someone who makes that transition it’s helpful to realize that you’re going to work on lots of different things, and you’re going to have to turn things around fairly quickly. The good news is that people who are usually identified for these kinds of roles have already demonstrated an ability to turn things around,” Sloat says.
  • Maintain ties to your discipline. “For the faculty member who knows that he or she wants to go back to the faculty, my advice in terms of transition is make sure you keep some ties to your discipline. Three years is not a long time but long enough that if you don’t find a way to keep current with the scholarship in your field, when you come back you’ll lose a lot of time and you’ll feel a bit at sea if you don’t find a way to keep in touch. Often associate deans don’t have lots of surplus time to read all the journals that are coming out, but often it’s possible to read the abstracts. Often it’s possible to attend the national meeting of one’s discipline if one is not able to go to all the subfield or regional meetings in the field. I think that if you know you’re going to back into faculty role, you’ve got to keep that identity alive. You may not have the chance to do a whole lot of writing while you’re in the administrative post, but keeping in touch is really helpful,” Sloat says.
  • Do not burn bridges. “If you know you’re going back to the faculty be careful not burn bridges with the administrative decisions you make. You have a job to do and sometimes the decisions you make will not be favorable to your own department, but it’s best to do that as gently and as kindly as one can and to acknowledge when talking with one’s colleagues in a department that your role is different: ‘We have different constraints that I have to live with and work with, and I was able to make sure that our department’s position was clearly understood in the decision-making process.’ I think that helps your colleagues back home to know that you were at least able to make that case. There will be some hurt feelings from time to time. But looking to cultivate that relationship with one’s home department, continue to meet with and spend time with one’s colleagues is a useful thing,” Sloat says.
  • Build a new network. If you’re considering further administrative work, it’s important to build a new network. “We all as academics have networks of colleagues often stretching back to our years in graduate school, people who are doing the kind of work we do, people with whom we collaborate. Those networks are really important and should continue to be cultivated. But if you’re thinking about an administrative post there’s a whole new network to explore. Finding other associate deans is incredibly helpful. Building relationships at one’s institution with administrators in other divisions is a helpful, important thing to do. The American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD) is a wonderful organization. It has a great Listerv that gives you the ability to reach out to other people who are in dean and associate dean kinds of roles,” Sloat says.

    Building a network also entails going to conferences such as the Association of American Colleges & Universities and ACAD. “That’s part of making that jump into administration. You start to go to different conferences, you join different Listservs, read different publications, and pay attention to different kinds of things in ways that give you that broader perspective and help you make an informed decision about whether that’s the direction that you want to go,” Sloat says.


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