- The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership
After 16 months as dean, I have learned that, in a single week, I not infrequently need to deal with a host of difficult, rewarding, and neutral issues. Such issues might include: threat of a lawsuit from a disgruntled student, a past deadline for annual performance reviews of my professional staff members, a prestigious national honor awarded to my associate dean, a meeting with the provost and fellow deans to discuss impending budget cuts, a luncheon with the chancellor and alumni from the class of 1958, planning for the upcoming accreditation review with my staff, the sudden resignation of a department chair, a favorable board of trustees curriculum committee review of a new program from my college, a successful dissertation proposal hearing for one of my few doctoral advisees, three regularly scheduled meetings with department chairs and center directors, an invitation to speak at a symposium, and an avalanche of email.
No matter how many hours I work, there is always more to do. When the week is over, I am wondering what happened to my intentions to analyze data about community engagement by my college’s faculty or to write thank-you notes to donors. At week’s end, I also know that I must honor my own scholarly and personal commitment to work/life balance, or I will soon be unable to face the challenges and opportunities awaiting me the next week.
Therefore, I read The Essential Academic Dean by Jeffrey L. Buller with a great deal of personal interest to accompany my scholarly interest in organizations and administration in higher education. The volume tries to help deans like me—in all disciplines and at all types of colleges and universities—make sense of their roles as middle managers in academe. By design, the focus is on practice rather than theory.
A new dean, according to Buller, should begin a career of leading “from the middle” by fostering collegial candor, articulating a college vision, being consistent but not inflexible, and remembering that the dean’s most important duty is to advocate for the unit’s academic programs. Although the volume is targeted more toward an audience of prospective or new deans rather than experienced deans, Buller includes only one chapter on “Preparing for the Dean’s Role” but five on leaving a deanship. It would help to have more information about how to navigate promotion from within one’s current institution as well as what a new dean coming from a different institution and geographic location should learn as quickly as possible.
Buller does suggest that new deans should “find ways of seeing the big picture, the details, and the view from your own office simultaneously” (p. 6), but I wish he had provided more information about how deans might not only see, but also prioritize in order to act and lead effectively on multiple levels in varied areas at the same time.
Buller considers 51 separate elements of dean’s jobs in short, easily digestible, insightful, and practical chapters. Although he says that later chapters build on information shared in earlier chapters, he also encourages readers to consult chapters in any order on an as-needed basis.
The chapters include specific suggestions and examples. For instance, when discussing a dean’s work with department chairs (Chapter 13), Buller not only discusses the advisability of providing training for chairs but also suggests needed training topics: family leave, making job offers, assessment, and legal issues. This chapter also includes Buller’s justification for not hosting long retreats and his suggestions for how to use a chairs group as an internal advisory board.
A few chapters are predicated on somewhat unexpected non-academic references. For example, in Chapter 21 on “Searching for and Building a Strong Administrative Team,” Buller draws heavily on the operating philosophy of Southwest Airlines to encourage deans to hire their office staff based on intangible personal qualities rather than their skills and...