Roles and Responsibilities of a College Dean

Catherine Emihovich

The life of a college dean at an AAU Research Extensive institution is filled with complexities, and requires an intricate balancing act among constant commitments and responsibilities. In addition, the roles that one has to play to fulfill numerous obligations often seem endless, although it can very creative to change hats frequently. My perspective on a dean’s work is that I have two primary responsibilities; one that is basically focused on administrative tasks, and the other that is focused on leadership issues. I discuss the administrative part first since it is more concrete in nature, and then move on to a discussion of leadership, which is more subtle and nuanced. I will then outline various roles I assume within specific domains, along with some of the accomplishments associated with these domains.

My philosophy on administration is modeled after a person whom I very much admired: Hugh Petrie, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo for 16 years. The idea I learned from him was that good administration should seek to be invisible in the sense that the organization works smoothly and effortlessly without seeming to do so (the downside to this approach is that people may think that deans don’t do anything since the college runs itself!). An administrator’s roles are to acquire resources and apply them to solve problems, to carry out essential tasks, and to remove any obstacles that would prevent faculty and students from being fully engaged in the work of teaching, research, and service.

In addition to gathering resources, an essential component is to establish strong leadership teams comprised of skilled people at every level.  In the first two years I have been here, I spent considerable time learning about all the various support offices we have, and have already realigned some support staff roles to better serve the College. I also strongly support new staff training, especially in light of the extensive changes that are coming with the use of PeopleSoft. As I refine my understanding of how this college operates, I will continually explore new ways to increase the efficiency and openness of the support offices that will facilitate the primary goals related to the College and UF Strategic Plans.

Like our new president, I also believe that strong faculty governance is a critical element in helping to create a positive work environment. I have been impressed with the willingness of the faculty to carry out important policy related tasks that improve the quality of life from both an academic and professional development perspective. As FPC and I continue to forge a collaborative working relationship, I think the College will benefit greatly from having more people invested in how decisions are made and implemented.

In the area of leadership development, I think it is critical for a dean to help people see the “big picture” in terms of how their individual contributions are linked to the identity of the college as a whole. This is especially important for increasing our visibility, which in turn improves our national rankings.  When I came for my interview, I mentioned that I would like to implement a model based on the “Scholarship of Engagement.” This model seemed consistent with much of the work that was already underway in the College, and over the last two years, I have begun working with departments and centers to help tie their work (where appropriate) to this model. At the same time, I have worked to establish a collaborative working relationship among the other deans, department chairs, and heads of units within the College, and with other deans and directors across campus. I am especially interested in developing leadership capacity across faculty, and my goal for next year is to put in place some strategies that will enable more people to take on some leadership obligations without making them feel they have to turn into that dreaded word – administrators.

What follows next is a breakout of how I see my time allocated across several domains, and the roles I play within them. I have chosen to use a more narrative format rather than just producing a chart or bulleted list of accomplishments during my past two years.

College/University Development (35%)

Within this domain, one of my roles is to act as a catalyst in the sense that I link different groups of people who have wonderful ideas but who may not be aware of how their ideas can be connected with others. Once the connection is made, the synergy that takes place can be quite amazing. For example, the work being done by several faculty to coordinate all the partnership initiatives is an example of how people can take an idea and shape it to highlight the work being done here. Almost every day, I receive phone calls or emails from people across campus or outside the university asking for help in particular projects, and I spend a great deal of time finding the best possible match for them. I also act as a facilitator to move ideas forward and to secure resources for them. The list of initiatives that have gotten underway is the last two years is quite extensive, and are dependent upon having support to keep them moving ahead. While I certainly did not create these initiatives (e.g., the new University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, the International Media Union, the Lastinger Center for Learning), I have been able to secure resources to either launch them or enable them to maintain momentum as they keep expanding.

Another key role is to be a communicator whereby I keep people informed as to what is happening so they have a sense that progress is continuous and on-going. I must admit that I have found this one of the more challenging aspects of my job, since this is a large college with very busy people. I hired the first college-wide webmaster shortly after I arrived, and this is an area that will continue to grow as we all become more proficient in on-line communication. I continually struggle with ways to keep faculty, students, and staff informed of new events and upcoming changes without seeming to overburden them with information, and this is one area where I expect to spend more time on in the future.

A third key role is to act as a mentor for new faculty members and to help them successfully achieve tenure and promotion. While I have not had as much direct contact with junior faculty as I think I should have, I am very supportive of their work, and I am constantly thinking of ways to provide more support. I have restored faculty travel at the Dean’s level (the awards are decided by a committee established by FPC), and will continue to explore other ways to help them establish a research agenda and improve their teaching. The opening of the new research center, which we expect to happen this summer, will certainly assist new faculty to seek and prepare grant proposals and other contracts. At the same time, I also want to support senior faculty in their on-going professional development since an academic career spans many years, and it is challenging to find ways to keep people engaged. This is an area where outside resources like development are important, since the use of endowed funds can be used creatively to support more established scholars. The use of the BO Smith research professorships will be very helpful in this regard.

As dean, I am also frequently called upon to be a mediator of potential conflicts and areas of disagreement that may arise between a student and faculty member, between two faculty members, across departments and/or centers, or from outside the university. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot give specific examples, but in an informal conversation my colleague deans across the country and I have had about this topic, we realized that a great deal of our time is spent on personnel matters. Bringing a dispute to a successful resolution is not an accomplishment that one can point to with pride without invading people’s privacy, but it is essential for maintaining a positive work environment and keeping the College out of the limelight in negative ways. I sympathize with politicians who hate to fund prevention programs because they can’t take credit for something that did not happen, and instead they fund programs for problems after the fact because they can demonstrate they are responsive to a crisis. The real success is never to experience the crisis at all, which requires constant, behind the scenes negotiations to ensure all parties feel their concerns have been addressed.

Finally, an essential role is to act as a change agent, although this role is highly dependent on collaboration with others. All colleges of education across the country face unprecedented competition and hostility from various sectors, and it will be very challenging for us to maintain the quality of existing programs and establish new ones in this environment. We need to find new ways to deliver current programs across time and space, and to create more interdisciplinary programs that appeal to a broader group of students. Over the next three years, we will devote considerable time and resources to fine-tuning and implementing our strategic plans as we rise to the challenge of re-defining the role of our college in meeting the needs of families, schools, and communities in a fast-paced, technologically driven society.

Resource Development (40%)

This domain consumes even more time as the first one, since without adequate resources, we cannot accomplish any goals tied to program development. In this area, I have been a strong advocate for our college in successful holding our faculty lines when people retire, and securing new lines for programs that have rising graduate enrollments. I am also the chief budget manager for the college, and with the invaluable help of the business office manager (Dotti Delfino), we have been very successful in identifying “pots of money” in other parts of the university where we can either share in the funds or leverage them with other resources. We have also been able to call back resources we have given others in the past, and all these avenues have brightened the budget picture from the reduced straits we faced several years ago. These resources also have to be managed in ways that provide on-going support, without risking the possibility of going into a deficit situation.

One aspect of a dean’s life that has changed dramatically over time is that we are now expected to take a major role in fundraising. As the chief fundraiser for the College, I spend at least two days a week on activities related to development, including extensive travel, and over the last two years Mary Driscoll and I have raised over two million dollars. The majority of these funds is either tied up in scholarships or will be realized only after a donor’s death, but together we have established the fact that education can raise significant amounts of money. Unfortunately, we are losing our development director as she pursues a new job opportunity, but the model we have established to should enable me to continue with successful fundraising efforts until a new director is hired.

Community/School Outreach (15%)

No college of education can be successful today without establishing strong partnerships with our key constituents in schools and communities. My role as a collaborator is to work with faculty, students, and the school community to build strong partnerships. This past year, I established regular, bi-monthly meetings with local superintendents to acquaint them with the work being done in the College, and to identify ways in which we can help meet their needs.

A major factor in developing outreach initiatives is the quality of the work being done by faculty, and making that work visible to the external world. In this sense, I act as a cheerleader to highlight faculty accomplishments and all the various initiatives and projects we have underway. A critical component of this work is to have a strong public relations office, and very shortly I will be hiring a professional director for the Information and Publication Services office.

I also need to stay abreast of political changes affecting education at the state and national level. I find I often to assume the role of a diplomat in providing tactful answers to questions I frequently receive from politicians and people in the media such as: Why don’t colleges of education do a better job of preparing teachers? It’s difficult to explain the complexities of a modern educational system that includes tight bureaucratic control to people whose only frame of reference is that schools were better when they were young, and they wonder why there are so many problems now.  While I am very sympathetic to the outrage many faculty express over particular policies, as a dean I need to navigate tricky political currents so that our college is not disadvantaged when it comes to seeking new resources from state and federal sources.

Personal Professional Development (10%)

In addition to balancing all the obligations of my professional life, I work hard at maintaining some ties to the academic world I left behind as a professor. As a writer and public speaker, I have changed the kinds of writing I do most of the time, and the audiences to which I speak. I now spend more time giving talks to public groups that emphasize the ways in which the college responds to challenges such as working successfully with urban schools, and writing editorials to popular publications that answer questions about the efficacy of professional educator preparation. I have also kept some academic writing alive by co-authoring a book chapter with Rod Webb, reviewing manuscripts for journals, and completing a book review essay for the American Anthropologist.

Finally, although my children are grown and fairly independent, I still maintain close ties with them, and I try to squeeze time in with my husband to go hiking in local parks. In my remaining free time, I am a collector of different kinds of birds in varied media, and I am especially attracted to what can only be described as “funky” or folk art examples of birds.

A Day in the Life of a Dean

To give people a sense of how my day unfolds in relation to the roles I described above, below is an attenuated description of a typical 14 hour day:

7:30 Provost staff breakfast
9:00 Meeting with chairs
11:00 Meeting with one department chair to discuss budget
12:00 Meet with other deans (working lunch)
1:30 Meet with candidate from faculty search
2:00 Meeting across campus
3:30 Meet with faculty member to discuss project idea
4:30 Meet with student who has complaint about a program
5:30 Meet with development director to discuss fundraising trip
6:30 Attend university reception
8:00 Arrive home
9:00 Work on answering email (on average, I receive about 200-300 messages a day) and read reports
11:00 Fall into bed

Despite this heavy schedule, I find that working with talented faculty, staff, and students in our college to be very motivating, and I am excited at all the possibilities that keep emerging that will help make a difference in education. It is an honor and a privilege to work with everyone here, and I appreciate that opportunity every day as I strive to improve the quality of life in the college environment.