Focus and purpose of the role
The interview and survey data suggest that associate deans perform a range of functions within UK universities, each with a particular focus. As shown in Tables 1 and 5, of the 16 interviewees were associate deans with responsibility for Teaching and Learning, 3 were responsible for Quality Enhancement, 3 for Student Experience, 2 for Research, 1 had the title of Associate Dean for Operation and Performance Management, and 1 for Strategy and Development. The majority of survey respondents were associate deans with responsibility for Teaching and Learning (51%, n = 68) while 39 (29%) were associate deans for research, 17 (13%) associate deans for External Relations, and 10 (8%) associate deans with responsibility for Strategy. Cross tabulations showing differences between pre-and post-1992 institutions are shown in Table 4.
What was clear from the responses to this question in the survey, however, was that a number of associate deans had responsibilities that were not easily defined within these umbrella terms with 42 respondents identifying other areas that they were responsible for including finance and planning, processing systems, postgraduate research, business development, admissions, marketing and recruitment, regulations and policy, student employability, enterprise, internationalisation, infrastructure, and social responsibility. The survey data also suggest that the majority of associate deans work both within their faculty and across the university as a whole. For example, as shown in Table 4, 99 respondents (60%) said that their position was a joint faculty/university role.
Some of the interviewees explained how their role was explicitly linked to an espoused policy shift towards a more distributed leadership model within their institution. For example, one associate dean (AD) explained how his role fitted into this new structure:
…the whole point about the restructuring in the university has been about transformative leadership and distributed leadership. And although we focused on people in the faculty executive, that idea of distributed leadership goes down to the level of programme leads. Programme leads are meant to exercise leadership functions…In order to facilitate that, just after restructuring the university put on a long programme in terms of what’s transformative leadership all about. We were each assigned coaches so we could take along examples of how things were working etc, etc. … just to try and inculcate people with what the idea of distributed leadership really does mean and what transformative leadership means.
Others discussed how they felt that their ‘distributed leadership’ role provided a link between senior leaders and other academics. For example, one said:
It’s to keep the Dean honest. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way but at the most senior levels of management you become very detached from what’s actually going on on the ground. Certainly when the Associate Dean role was created one of my colleagues said we just have to accept that we are the Dean’s eyes and ears on planet earth and I thought that was quite a good way of summarizing a lot of the role. So, I think we’re an important interface between senior mangement and staff who are actually delivering for students. I do think we play an important role in ensuring that what is strategically seen as desirable is actually deliverable and can be operationalised…
And another commented on the ‘distributed’ leadership structure of their organisation down to programme level, but highlighted how difficult this model was in practice:
The most challenging thing is leading, leading heaps of people, who are very, very difficult to interface with, if at all. So how do you take them with you, like associate lectures or module leaders, when you’re so remote from them? You can, there are models of distributed leadership, and that’s what we try and do. So, you have program leads, you have someone on portfolios, and then you have a coordinator for those portfolios and program teams. But there are a lot of links that can get broken…if you're leading something you need to understand what the goal is, what the division is, and if they’re part of it, and if you're part of it, and that’s very hard.
These findings suggest that introducing the role of associate deans is seen as an important step by institutions in helping to ‘distribute’ leadership functions within a university, providing a perceived crucial link between senior leaders and academic staff, but that such leadership distribution is not a simple or easy process.
The interviewees were also keen to point out that while their roles encompassed many activities, with one explaining ‘in reality it is sort of everything including walking around with a dustpan and brush metaphorically sweeping up after the Dean or sweeping up after this, that or the other…’; their role was very strategic in nature, including working across faculties and institutions. From the survey data, it was clear that the strategic nature of the role was also seen as very important, both across the faculty and across the university, with 94% agreeing that one of the main purposes of the role was linked to strategic development across the faculty and 83% agreeing that another was linked to strategic development across the university as opposed to only 60% who agreed that one of the main purposes of the role was linked to managing resources and just 42% who agreed that the management of staff was one of the role’s main purpose. While the importance of the strategic purpose of the role appears to be broadly similar across both types of institutions, the answer to this question demonstrates some key differences between the two types of institutions in relation to the management of staff, which was perceived as a main purpose by more associate deans in post-1992 institutions than pre-1992 institutions. These results are shown in Table 5.
In answer to the question, ‘to what extent have you been able to define the Associate Dean role?’, the consensus amongst those interviewed appeared to be that they were given some scope to define what they might do, for example, how they might operationalise strategic demands and projects, but that was within the parameters of what was possible and what needed doing as the following examples show:
Not quite as much (flexibility) as I would like to because I think things are often overtaken by events and I think people ask you this occasionally, what are you going to do with the role?
There’s a job description that lays out responsibilities, but I suppose how you define it is as what you give, how you divide up your time between those roles they seem to have equal hierarchy status in job description. And to some extent you’re not free to do that, because there are certain things that need doing.
Even if respondents felt they had relatively little scope in defining what the associate dean’s role might be, there was some room in, as one put it, ‘defining how you are going to make that role work’. However, both the definition and actual undertaking of the role was felt to be ‘often taken over by events’. It appeared that the role required flexibility and some degree of autonomy to make decisions from the dean if it was to work well.
Another theme that emerged from the interview data was a sense that in some cases, it was only the associate dean group themselves who had a clear sense of what they did—to others it was not always clear. Indeed, several associate deans felt that their role was not fully understood by other colleagues. One lamented:
If still not sure everybody throughout the university understands what the role is … it’s fairly easy to latch onto what a department head is … this other bloke (the Associate Dean) does all sorts of different things and if it’s not specifically research or teaching, then it must be his fault. And then there’s the question, ‘what do you do then?’
Other comments in the interviews suggested that the position may need clarification in some cases and that it was important for an institution to firmly establish, for administrators and other academics, the scope and purpose of the role:
So we often say amongst ourselves that other people outside the role don’t understand it.
The Dean really has very little concept of what our roles are about, which is a bit tricky for someone who is supposed to be your line manager.
I’m still not sure everybody throughout the university understands what the role is.
I sometimes think the work of a deputy dean often is quite invisible because sometimes you are the instigator, sometimes you are not. You are often not at the delivery end of things so it comes through somebody else but you have shaped it along its path, whatever it is, we have taken an idea through to fruition and you are in the background of somebody doing that rather than demonstrating that you have taken the lead.
Some of these issues were also reflected in the survey data. For example, when survey participants were asked how well defined the role was within their institutions, 41 (24%) participants in total indicated that their role was loosely or not at all well defined.
Contracts and remuneration
The interviewees were all on different contracts depending on which type of institution they worked in. For example, the majority of those in post-1992 universities held the role on a permanent basis and were in a promoted senior post with an associated enhanced salary. In contrast, however, the majority of interviewees in pre-1992 universities held the post on a fixed-term basis and were receiving an annual allowance. These differences were also reflected in the survey data. As shown in Table 6, the contractual nature of the role differed both between and within post- and pre-1992 universities with 50 participants (29%) from post-1992 universities stating that their role was permanent alongside only 16 (9%) from pre-1992 institutions. In contrast, 85 participants (50%) from pre-1992 universities were on a fixed-term contract alongside only 19 (11%) from post-1992 institutions.
As also shown in Table 6, there were a number of differences between how associate deans were remunerated for their role, with 19 participants (13%) from pre-1992 universities and 59 (39%) from post-1992 universities being in a paid, promoted senior post. Of those who received an allowance, 14 (9%) received up to £3000, 38 (25%) received between £4000 and £6000, 11 (7%) receiving between £7000 and £10,000, and 9 (6%) receiving over £10,000. The latter group were all from pre-1992 universities. From those that had ticked ‘other’ as an option here, there were 19 associate deans (11%) who did not receive any remuneration for their role. These participants all worked in pre-1992 universities.
Staff and budgetary management
The majority of interviewees did not line manage any academic members of staff although most had responsibility for an administrator or administrative team. As set out in Table 7, 96 of those surveyed (59%) also did not manage any academic staff directly. Of those that did, the majority (43%) were only responsible for between one and five academic staff members. Similar results were found in relation to managing administrative staff with 100 participants (60%) having no line management responsibilities over administrative staff. Of those that did, the majority (70%) were responsible for between one and five staff members.
There were mixed responses as to whether the associate deans interviewed were responsible for a budget with approximately half of the sample saying that they were in charge of one. The survey revealed similar results (Table 6) with 105 associate deans (63%) identifying as budget holders. Of those, 60% were managing a budget of £50 k or over, evenly split between pre-and post-1992 institutions.
Leadership by negotiation
In view of the fact that several interviewees perceived that they did not hold any real ‘authoritative power’ because they did not have a budget or line management responsibilities, many discussed how they had to achieve results using negotiation. For example, when one was asked what authority they felt they had in their role, they replied:
Well part of me says not a lot because ultimately it’s very difficult for me to tell anybody to do anything because if they don’t like it they’ll just go to the Dean and it’s the Dean ultimately who’s job description says they have responsibility for dealing with these people. However, there are occasions, and I do try to be a consultative person and always like that way of working, down at the level of detail of individual staff, and individual Programme Directors…So it’s much more about negotiation and facilitation and encouraging and prompting and reminding, and seeking improvements that way.
Another discussed similar strategies:
My particular strategy is to get off my backside as much as possible and talk to people, get people together…it’s the mediation, it’s the negotiation, it’s the persuasion, it’s that proper use of rhetoric in terms of getting parties together. That’s the way I try to do it...
And another talked about relationship building:
I think it really comes down to personal relationships, effective personal relationships are the big things that help at all kinds of levels…What helps me a lot is having a strong relationship with key individuals in the school, because I think for associate deans, that’s almost your power base really…unless you have a strong relationship with the individuals in that school, then it’s very difficult, you can be very easily shut out of it. So, I’ve tried quite hard to build up strong relationships with key individuals so that I can get to the point of being able to have coffee with them, and just talk about general ideas…and I think that’s what’s worked really well.
Another interviewee explained how they tried to develop shared values within their team in order to get things done, although they admitted that they found it a difficult and slow process:
I think it’s all a work in progress to tell the truth. What I try to do is work pretty closely with my program leads…I was hoping that if we could get an understanding of each other, and they understood how important my lines of communication were, then that would be alright. But there’s a sort of nodding theory and then there’s doing it. And I know from bitter experience that sometimes the chain has been broken because somebody didn’t do the job, and sometimes that person is, has a slightly subverted ethos, because they don’t agree with it. So, they’ve made it worse, so they’ve made an us and them kind of scenario…I’ve tried to get everyone to respect why, to understand why you’re doing it… So, it’s trying to build up a kind of ethos, where people understand freedom, but also boundaries of those freedoms…It sort of works, but it’s slow…and in some respects when the senior management team make a decision…they think they’ve made a decision and it’s just going to happen, but to actually make those things happen is a slow process. And it’s actually much slower than I ever thought it would be. It’s not anybody’s fault. But they’re big ships. The faculties are enormous organisations, big budgets and a lot of people. So, it’s all slow.
And another, in response to the question, ‘do you have any budgetary responsibilities?’ also talked about the need for influence and persuasion in their role, without holding a budget as a ‘lever’:
Nope [laughter]. No levers, no levers except charm and common sense. Yeah so, we don’t have any money…But I knew when I came into the role…I still struggle with it to be honest. How much can I tell people what to do, and how much can I float things as a good idea? And you know I’ve seen some of my colleagues in the past being very forceful, telling people what to do, which hasn’t necessarily always gone down well…But that’s the tricky thing about these influencing roles in leadership…