Academic Deans in Higher Education Institutions

  • Mimi WolvertonEmail author
Living reference work entry

Historically, academic deans have been male, white, and in their mid-50s. Although some shifts have occurred in recent years with more women and people of color being hired into these positions, the deanship remains male and majority dominated. Most deans progress upward through faculty ranks and into either a department chair or associate dean’s position prior to moving into a deanship. Although some deans continue in this capacity for extended periods, on average, they remain academic deans for 5–6 years; after which, they either return to faculty ranks or advance into higher levels of institutional administration.

Most deans become deans because of a desire to contribute – to improve the college and influence faculty development. Dealing with growth, facilitating change, even confronting crisis (whether financial, academic, or staff discontent) in a way that moves the college forward can spark their resolve to serve. Deans also strive for personal growth – experimenting with and, in some instances, setting a new career direction. Financial gain and any power, or authority associated with the position, rarely serve as motivating factors.

Deans serve at the will of institutional provosts and presidents and lead at the discretion of faculty. They head professional bureaucracies (colleges), which house networks of smaller professional bureaucracies (departments) managed by chairs whose main duty is to coordinate and facilitate faculty work. These colleges, in their entirety, function under the umbrella of overarching institutions, themselves professional bureaucracies [Professional bureaucracies are decentralized systems of authority, designed to allow employed professional a greater degree of control over their work].

This hierarchical positioning of deans makes them organizational linchpins. They communicate institutional goals, needs, and demands down and faculty concerns, needs, and desires up. They advocate for and attempt to shape both sets of priorities. Their ultimate goal: to further faculty innovation and research and student learning.

Responsibilities and Tasks

A myriad of tasks surround this goal. These tasks can be collapsed into six broadly defined areas of responsibility: internal productivity, academic personnel management, resource management, leadership, external and political relations, and personal scholarship.

Sustaining internal productivity involves building a work climate in which morale is high and creativity abounds, establishing and sustaining effective lines of communication with and among faculty and support staff, and most importantly fostering good teaching and scholarship. Celebrating the life of the college and its people becomes an important aspect of promoting internal productivity.

Academic personnel management refers to recruiting, selecting, developing, and evaluating department chairs and faculty. Organizing, and working with, department chairs, directors, and other senior staff comprise essential elements. Mentoring becomes the first step in developing individual and corporate capacity within a college and promoting academic health and faculty and student vitality. Deans as lead mentors model good mentoring practice and encourage others to engage in similar activities.

Effective resource management keeps daily operations of the college and its departments running smoothly. The word stewardship captures much of the essence of this role. Tasks that define it include: supervising and supporting nonacademic support staff, managing college resources, assuring accurate college record keeping, maintaining college technological currency, and guaranteeing legal and agency guideline compliance.

The multifaceted nature of leadership obligates deans to advance beyond management to providing guidance and inspiration. Deans delegate authority to ensure department and college effectiveness. They own and correct mistakes when mistakes occur. Deans attuned to their environments navigate the intricate labyrinth that lies within their own colleges across departments and centers, and between their colleges, the larger institution, and the communities within which they reside. Doing so entails cultivating effective communication channels across these factions through which concerns can be raised. And it necessitates regular solicitation of ideas on how to improve the college. Effective deans remain perpetually alert to the college’s place within the larger institution and its faculty, administrators, and students’ roles as institutional citizens. Effective deans promote public-spirited, social consciousness.

Leadership is closely related to a fifth responsibility dimension – external and political relations. Tasks identified as either external or political in nature include: developing and initiating long-range college goals, building relationships with the external community at large and with college stakeholders in particular, fostering positive alumni relations, obtaining and managing external funding, and engaging in long-range financial planning. In addition, deans typically identify two college- and institution-specific tasks, fostering gender and ethnic diversity within the college and representing the college to upper administration, as relevant to this dimension. Although the former certainly can impact the work environment (a concern captured as germane to internal productivity), cultivating diversity can necessitate broadening the faculty and student recruitment pools, an external activity. The latter, representing the college to the administration, while internal to the institution, is perhaps viewed as politically charged. In all, these tasks appear closely related to and dependent on effective leadership.

The final responsibility dimension deans identify relates to personal scholarship. Personal scholarship encompasses engaging in professional growth, remaining current within ones discipline, maintaining a scholarly program, and modeling scholarly behavior through research and publishing.

Influences on Deans

Even though all six responsibilities shape the reality of a dean’s life, the intensity with which each impacts that reality ebbs and flows. When ambiguity is present, deans have difficulty in determining the roles in which they should engage at any given time. The situation worsens if expectations remain vague over extended periods. As a consequence, when the purpose of the institution is in flux, more stress arises. For instance, roles change when 2-year colleges begin offering 4-year degrees. Are they still 2-year institutions? When comprehensive universities expect faculty to conduct research, publish, and generate grant dollars, are they really comprehensive in nature? To be effective and meet their potential, deans and colleges must have a clear sense of purpose. They must know what really matters.

Mission drift suggests change efforts in the offing. If deans are hired to bring about change, their college’s people often have goals that differ from the new institutional directives. The more tenured faculty in a college, the more likely the group as a whole will become increasingly vocal and demanding and less willing to bow to the desires of central administration. In addition, carrying out a provost’s instructions can run counter to protecting academic autonomy and faculty independence.

Change, even with the best intentions, comes with mandates from presidents and provosts. If inadequately funded, these mandates frequently result in failure at the college level. Diversity initiatives, use of technology in every classroom, emphasis on improving quality or graduation rates or research productivity of the faculty all take money. Lack of resources, fiscal and human, intensifies the conflict that naturally surrounds change efforts and increases job-related stress.

For deans, role conflict also rears its head on a daily basis. Do I serve as an arbiter of personal squabbles among faculty and/or staff? As one dean so succinctly put it, “Everybody’s perspective collides with everybody else’s in the dean’s office.” How many meetings am I really obliged to attend? How do I avoid being weighed down by everyday minutia and the demands of daily tasks when I should be working on my relationship with chairs and faculty, raising money for college endeavors, and forwarding my own scholarship agenda? In other words, dean lack time and that leads to stress.

Family life and personal expectations compound stress for many deans, especially those who are young, have children living at home, hold excessively high self-expectations regarding what they hope to accomplish as deans, and perceive themselves solely as administrators. Here again, lack of time becomes a stressor and roles become misconstrued.

Stress is a certainty of life. At ideal levels, it invigorates us. In excess, it incapacitates us. The key is to optimize it. And herein lies the challenge. The more role conflict and ambiguity associated with the deanship, the greater the levels of stress and the lower the levels of job satisfaction experienced.

Role conflict and ambiguity will always exist but certain aspects of the job either minimize or maximize their effect. Both decrease when deans are satisfied with their level of scholarly productivity, view their institutions as good places to work, and see their colleges as adequately funded. Charges like sustaining current programming and dealing with growth result in the least amount of conflict and ambiguity, probably because college members have agreed upon agendas. Older deans who had mentors who helped them transition into their positions seem to fare better.

Role conflict and ambiguity are exacerbated by a lack of a clearly articulated purpose and uncertainty. In some instances, lowering the level of one increases the level of the other. For example, deans who view themselves as faculty experience less role conflict, but ambiguity decreases for those who think of themselves as administrators and vice versa.

Cultivating optimal stress levels depends in large part on fit between the dean and the environment. Fit means finding a balance between conflicting roles and the ability to shift between roles as needed. The six, primary responsibility dimensions compete for attention and time, and each necessitates some level of compromise.

Conflicting Roles

Within the college, the clearest imbalance for deans arises quickly as administrative tasks involved in stimulating internal productivity and engaging in the overall academic management of the college overwhelm personal scholarship efforts. Deans have a past life and often in this former existence they were very good scholars. The dilemma they face revolves around the fact that time is finite and administrative and leadership responsibilities ascribed to the deanship often displace what was once the driving motivation for most of them. Developing new programs, strengthening existing ones, recruiting high-quality students, and dealing with underprepared ones all take time. Faculty recruitment and retention, dealing with difficult personnel, and moving faculty toward change are critical elements of a healthy college. They take time. Ensuring diversity of faculty and the college’s student population is equally important and time consuming. Successful deans almost always decrease their research productivity levels, change their research agendas, or engage in team efforts to continue with ongoing lines of investigation. Some simply discontinue research efforts altogether.

A similar disparity manifests itself in the management-leadership catch-22 deans face. Quite simply, the daily-to-dos of running the college wage war against “what we’re all about.” Here, resource management and engaging in the external and political realities of the college butt up against leadership activities that distinguish a college from its peers and demonstrate its worth. The former demand immediacy and the latter: reflection. Budgeting the use of fiscal and personnel resources not only calls for clearly defining day-to-day operational activities that require funding and determining the level of funding they need but also thinking beyond today to the tomorrows 1–5 years down the road. The continual need to upgrade technology and revisit the way in which it is used to foster learning exemplifies the tug between management and leadership. Similarly, public and legislative demands for accountability vie for time with long-range planning and community outreach. In today’s environment, fund raising becomes a critical endeavor that not only helps ensure short-term operational goals are met but future possibilities explored and brought to fruition. It requires not only political acumen but insightful leadership as well.

Institutional obligations and college goals dictate which tasks and responsibilities deans favor at a given time. If a college holds a preeminent reputation for research, a dean might adopt a “steady as it goes strategy” – showcasing college strengths to attract funding, high-quality students, and top faculty. Here, greater emphasis might be placed on academic and resource management along with external relations.

If the institution’s mission shifts or undergoes significant change, say with an increased emphasis on academic quality and productivity, it might require a new way of thinking, departmental reorganization, creating new groups with greater synergy. These demands might involve fund-raising efforts for scholarships and endowed faculty positions. Deans might need to model scholarly behavior. Internal productivity, external relations, and personal scholarship take precedence.

When cultural change, such as proactively pursuing gender and racial diversity or wholeheartedly embracing technology, is in the wind, academic and resource management become keys to changing behavior and disrupting engrained inclinations, behaviors, and preferences.

Similarly, a dean might face crisis. A prime example: the survival of the college. Here, streamlining operations, cutting costs, and closing or collapsing departments call for particular attention to academic and resource management and external and political relations.

Lack of Fit

Deans deal with most types of change, conflict, and ambiguity and do so successfully. Rarely, however, can they rectify a lack of fit between them and their colleges. Such a mismatch leads to more stress, greater job dissatisfaction, and the possibility of a failed deanship.

Lack of fit is a latent construct, which can materialize after a dean’s hire. Environments change; goals shift. A dean might possess a set of skills and exhibit a predisposition toward a specific organizational philosophy that matches the needs of the college at the time of hire. A change in institutional demands can require the use of strengths the dean does not possess, and past effectiveness can disappear.

For instance, a dean might be hired as a scholar leader charged with increasing faculty research productivity. Then several years later, a financial downturn threatens the college’s existence. On the one hand, the dean must model desired behavior by maintaining a research agenda, publishing work, and procuring research grants. On the other, he/she must become a fundraiser and political advocate. Although not mutually exclusive, these skill sets are not natural bedfellows. Very likely, this dean’s skills and mind set no longer match the needs of college.

Time management, operational management, and leadership itself jolt the uninitiated. Mary Catherine Bateson once commented, “Being a new dean is like learning to ice skate in full view of your faculty.” And it’s true. Going it alone makes the ice slipperier and the falls more painful. Working harder does not necessarily improve time management but it does wear deans out faster. The results – high turnover, burn out, and low productivity – cost too much in terms of people, time, and money.

The Importance of Leadership

A veteran dean described his job as part entrepreneur, part fundraiser, part marketer, part seasoned administrator. Indeed, change places deans in the position of managing tension between various factions of the institution and college while at the same time keeping the organization focused on its mission and goals. Success demands they build collaborative partnerships with their faculties, other administrators, and college stakeholders. Better deans do so by maintaining an academic mentality on the one hand and embracing a business orientation on the other.

They look for creative ways to organize the work of the college. If budgets permit, a cadre of associate and assistant deans emerges to carry part of the load. A codeanship, where two or more faculty share an office and split the work and stipend, but speak with one voice, represents a more unconventional approach to managing and leading a college. Such an arrangement often allows deans to continue pursuing their research agendas.

The prime charge given to deans is to create college cultures conducive to collegiality and productivity. To do so successfully requires imagination, creativity, and stamina. Every situation in which deans find themselves requires leadership. The most effective deans balance leadership and management, slightly favoring leadership. They think broadly, foster creativity, and promote innovation. They communicate, and they do it often. They make the tough decisions but do so impartially. As one dean noted, “Almost nothing buys more good will than people knowing your going to be fair, objective, and evenhanded.”

In essence, deans build communities of scholars, set their direction, and empower others to help fulfill their potential. Not a simple task, but one crucial to institutional well-being.

Author’s Note on Institution Type and Location and Available Resources

I use the word institution as an inclusive term. Although the experiences of academic deans who serve in 2-year colleges, liberal arts colleges, technical institutes, comprehensive universities that do not offer doctoral programs, and research universities can differ, the majority of their responsibilities and the challenges they face are similar.

The same caveat holds across countries. Even though priorities and organizational structures might vary, successfully navigating the terrain any academic dean treads requires familiarity with the entire array of tasks mentioned herein. For academic deans, no matter the institution type or country, the charge remains the same – facilitate faculty productivity and ensure student learning.

Not a great deal of literature on academic deans exists. Much of what does tends toward personal, anecdotal accounts, or discipline-specific research studies (i.e., deans of schools of medicine or nursing). Further, very little international literature exists.

In an effort to provide resources for those interested in learning more about academic deans, I have included research-based studies as well as practice-based instructional tools.


  1. The following three books and one article offer practical guidance and information about what deans do and how they can work to be effective.Google Scholar
  2. Behling, L.L. 2014. The resource handbook for academic deans. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  3. Buller, J.L. 2015. The essential academic dean or provost: A comprehensive desk reference. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  4. June, A. W. 2014. To change a campus, talk to the dean. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 28, XLI(13), A18–A21.Google Scholar
  5. Krahenbuhl, G.S. 2004. Building the academic deanship: Strategies for success. Westport: ACE/Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  6. The three pieces listed below, two books and one article, report the results of the most comprehensive study of academic deans to date (over 1300 deans – education, business, liberal arts and science, and allied health – at 360, four-year USA institutions were surveyed with a 60% response rate. The study was replicated in Australia with similar results but not extensively reported.Google Scholar
  7. Montez, J., M. Wolverton, and W.H. Gmelch. 2003. The roles and challenges of the deanship. Review of Higher Education 26 (2): 243–268.Google Scholar
  8. Wolverton, M., and W.H. Gmelch. 2002. College deans: Leading from within. Phoenix: Oryx Press/Greenwood Publishing.Google Scholar
  9. Wolverton, M, Gmelch, W. H., Montez, J. & Nies, C. (2001). The changing nature of the academic deanship, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 28(1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Retired Higher Education Professor and Consultant AustinTexasUSA