The Changing Nature of the Academic Deanship. ERIC Digest. 

by Wolverton, Mimi - Gmelch, Walter H. - Montez, Joni - Nies, Charles T. 

The leadership linchpin that holds an organization together lies midway between those perceived as leaders and those upon whose work the reputation of the organization rests. In universities today, academic deans fill this role (Austin, Ahearn, & English, 1997b; Dibden, 1968; Gould, 1964). This monograph provides a compilation of scholarly literature written about academic deans. The premise upon which it builds suggests that changes external to the academy have affected the nature of the academic deanship and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future (Bensimon & Neumann, 1993). With this in mind, the authors seek to answer four questions about academic deans: Who are they and what do they do? What challenges do they face? What strategies might they use to meet these challenges? What can universities do to help deans become more effective? 


While the deanship's lineage can be traced back to medieval universities, its emergence in U.S. universities is a relatively recent phenomenon (Dibden, 1968); Gould, 1964; Griffiths & McCarthy, 1980; Tucker & Bryan, 1988). It was not until 1913 that the position gained universal acceptance (Bowker, 1982; Deferrari, 1956; Gould, 1964). The profile of deans over time has changed slightly but still remains predominantly white and male. Deans continue to be about the same age, in their mid-fifties. They are married and have been in their positions five to six years, on average. 

Strong scholarly credentials distinguish most deans. Early on, presidents selected
deans directly from faculty ranks. Today, the majority are selected by a committee of faculty and administrators. More than 60% have been department chairs, with the clearest career trajectories manifesting themselves in colleges of liberal arts at research universities. Their duties have moved, over time, from being almost exclusively student focused to include a multifaceted array of roles, such as budgeting and fundraising, personnel and work environment management, program oversight, and external public relations. As a result, deans experience increasing amounts of ambiguity and conflict, which raise their levels of work- related stress. 


Deans come to the position, for the most part, under prepared to deal with strained fiscal resources, externally imposed accountability pressures, demand for relevant curricula and programs, technology advancement and educational delivery, faculty ill-equipped to meet student and system demands, diversity, and professional and personal imbalance. They receive the charge to lead change in the face of shifting demographics of students, changing political and economic attitudes, demands placed on them by the corporate sector, and rapid advancements in technology. 

Currently, greater numbers of students who are more diverse than ever before attend college. These students expect faculty to engage them in learning activities that incorporate technology and relate to the workplace. And, they expect to have mentors in the faculty and administration who look like them and will be committed to supporting their educational efforts. At the same time, competing social problems, such as crime, racial inequality, and health and welfare, make it difficult for institutions of higher education to secure a significant portion of available public funds. And, increasingly, the corporate sector has signaled its disillusionment with the quality of preparation members of the workforce receive at colleges. Simultaneously, businesses engage in research partnerships where patenting and dissemination restrictions could limit academic freedom. Finally, technological advancements that change daily create a constant need for higher education to keep current. These advancements help drive curricular reform in terms of both content and delivery. 


Universities expect deans to lead their colleges. To do so, deans must ensure that their colleges realize university missions in terms of instruction and research. The authors offer an overall strategy-one that moves deans as managers of day-to-day operations to deans as leaders in a dynamic environment. In addition, they offer six specific strategies that relate to persistent challenges: create a diverse culture, know the legal environment, become technologically connected, strategically manage and secure financial resources, seek and maintain professional and personal balance, and nurture the integrity of your college. Diversity strategies focus on the assessment of college history, policies and procedures, the college's psychological climate, and the behaviors of people within it. Strategies that relate to legal issues deal with laws that pertain to discriminatory student admissions and faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion practices; academic freedom; and students' expectations for program quality. A final section suggests how deans might go about instilling a culture of ethical practice within their colleges. Technology strategies seek solutions to issues of student learning and education delivery, personnel productivity, and the use of fiscal resources. Funding strategies address two areas-fiscal management and resource procurement. Balance strategies help deans strike a balance between their professional and personal lives, scholarship and leadership, and long-term agendas and short-term tasks. These strategies help deans take control of their agendas through time, boundary, and stress management. College integrity has to do with how the general public perceives its colleges and universities. It hinges on the success universities have in building alliances with people and organizations in a fashion that fulfills recognizable public needs. Deans can take several approaches to this endeavor-redefining faculty work, re-framing academic departments, refocusing department chairs, reconnecting colleges with communities, and revisiting the concept of change leadership. 


Universities provide the broader context within which deans succeed or fail (Bensimon, Neumann, & Birnbaum, 1989; Thiessen & Howey, 1998). As such, universities have a role to play in ensuring that their deans lead well. The final section provides ideas that can help universities further the leadership abilities of their deans. Its components include selection, socialization, development, and evaluation. A final topic, rethinking the position, piques the imagination. 


Austin, M. J., Ahearn, F. L., & English, R. A. (Eds.). (1997). The professional dean: Meeting the leadership challenges. ( Vol. XXV). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

Bensimon, E. M., & Neumann, A. (1993). Redesigning collegiate leadership: Teams and teamwork in higher education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Bensimon, E. M., Neumann, A., & Birnbaum, R. (1989). Making sense of administrative leadership: The "L" word in higher education (AAHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University. 

Bowker, L. H. (1982). The academic dean: A descriptive study. Teaching Sociology, 9(3), 257-271. 

Deferrari, R.J. (Ed.) (1956). The problems of administration in the American college. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press. 

Dibden, A. J. (Ed.). (1968). The academic deanship in American colleges and universities. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. 

Gould, J. W. (1964). The academic deanship. New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press. 

Griffiths, D. E., & McCarty, D. J. (Eds.). (1980). The dilemma of the deanship. Danville, IL: The Interstate Printers & Publishers, Inc. 

Thiessen, D., & Howey, K. R. (Eds.). (1998). Agents, provocateurs: Reform-minded leaders for schools of education. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. 

Tucker, A., & Bryan, R. A. (1988). The academic dean: Dove, dragon and diplomat. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 


Aguirre Jr., A. (2000). Women and minority faculty in the academic workplace: Recruitment, retention, and academic culture (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 27(6) ). San Francisco: Jossey- Bass. 

Andersen, D.A. (1999). Deans of the Future. Paper presented at the Conference of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, Washington, DC. 


Bates, A. W. T. (2000). Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Conger, J.A. & Benjamin, B. (1999). Building leaders: How successful companies develop the next generation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

Cox Jr., T. (1994). Cultural diversity in organizations: Theory, research and practice. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. 

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