Letter to a New College Dean (On Academic Leadership)
If you have recently taken the position of Dean in a college, or if you're thinking about it, here are some of my personal thoughts on matters that will eventually come your way. If you are an experienced college administrator, then I hope you'll find something there as well, and you will probably smile a little at my idealism.
This is but a collection of thoughts, by no mean complete. They are marked by my own experience and where I am along my journey, but mostly by what I value. This part seems to remain stable.
A Learner's Stance
There is a lot to learn as you step in. You will probably spend the first year feeling behind, as things just jump on you. No worry, it is the same for everyone, and it gets better with time. Just hold on and don't leave your arms dangling outside the cart.
There is the art of solving problems, the art of dealing with difficult personalities, the art of mobilizing the faculty, the art of leading good meetings, the art of aligning vision and action, the art of removing things from your to-do list, the art of remaining true to yourself, the art of dealing with your bosses, the art of saying no to some and yes to others, the art of dealing with labour issues, etc. For all these, there is no recipe, no procedure that always works. There is no right answer, but a lot of wrong answers...
I suggest you allow yourself to make mistake, both implicitly and explicitly. Take the stance of the learner and remain humble. You try things, you make mistakes, you learn from them.
The secret is to keep the stance, all your life, in all things.
Values will remain central in your position. To a certain extent, everything is gray in education. Yet, lines need to be set down in order to manage correctly. As you aim to make decision, implement changes, allocate resources, your values will collide with others'. With time, your values will change the institution, its culture.
Leadership starts with a sense of purpose, and not a sense of entitlement. Ask yourself why you took on that job. If, like me, you were a faculty member, know that your pay per hour will drop, you will really have a boss, you won't be able to avoid the bs by focusing on courses and students, problems will always come your way (and more so if you show that you can solve them), those characters that you've seen in the distance at department meetings will now be in your face, and you will sometimes have to defend things you do not believe in...
So yeah, ask yourself...
That said, if you come to the position with a sense of purpose, with the belief that you can and will improve the institution, that you have the courage to stand up and face the storm, in order to serve the mission, then I think you'll do fine and that we need more of you!
In my view, administrators have removed themselves too much from the teaching operations. Too much is going out the window in the name of academic freedom. Students and student learning need better champions than a few faculty and a student association. They also need deans that work to improve the quality of courses, and the quality of the programs they are in. This is the real game or, as Michael Fullan might say, the moral imperative. This is where we are needed the most. Not to tell faculty what to do, but to engage them in providing the best education they can, as individuals, and as a collective.
Find your Moral Imperative, and Fight for it
You know how people always say: "You have to chose your battles..." Well, this is true, of course, but you have to choose some battles. In your position, it's fairly certain that conflict will come to you, even if you try to avoid it. But I believe most of those are someone else's conflict, not yours, so pick your fights in light of your values. You chose a position of leadership and your task is to make a difference, but towards what?
What is so central that you feel compelled to speak up, stand up and get in the way?
That moral center will perhaps remain gray all your career, which is a good sign and shows you remain humble and ready to revisit your stance, but it will serve as an anchor by which you can judge more easily how best to deal with issues, dilemmas and conflicts.
Leave the side shows. Take central stage. Oh! And don't avoid conflict. Manage it.
Leadership in a Gray World
Most things are gray in education; not clear cut and easy to see. A lot seems based more on ideology than real results. Most changes will have dubious results, partly because everything else is changing at the same time. In short, it's easy to be wrong.
A college needs to have many voices, and they all need to be heard. As much as I don't like endless debates, I do love to hear all sides of an issue. I might make the same decision that I had in mind to start with, but it's not the same.
By embracing the grayness and maintaining the many voices, you get the following:
- You show humility and openness to discuss.
- You develop a group's capacity to understand and solve complex problems.
- You allow for a better idea than yours to emerge.
- You get a clear sense of where there will be resistance during implementation.
- You allow the community of stakeholders to debate.
- You allow the community to share their different perspectives on an issue.
- People working with you feel they have a say and that their input is sought.
- You learn a lot more about the complexity of an issue, and learn prudence.
Don't bring solutions to people. Bring them issues, conundrums, dilemmas and challenges.
Bring People Together in Good Times and Bad Times
If the only time you bring people together is to split a pie and negotiate resources, it is likely you will create a culture of strife and mistrust. People need to spend time with others to get familiar with each other. Trust is built slowly that way.
Create tables where people can share successes, challenges and tools with each other. People should break bread together before they try to split pies.
Dear reader, what is your take on leadership? Is it different in an academic setting?