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The Academic Dean

Typical Characteristics of Academic Deans, Career Path to the Academic Deanship

Academic deans are typically the highest ranking academic officials in an institution, next only to the president or chancellor and the provost or chief academic officer. Academic deans preside over colleges, schools, or divisions comprised of a cluster of disciplines or disciplinary specialties, such as arts and sciences, engineering, fine arts, business, natural sciences, education, and health sciences. Most academic deans are situated in the institutional hierarchy as reporting to vice presidents or provosts; however, some hold the dual title of dean and vice president, a situation that is often an artifact of institution size and type. Smaller liberal arts institutions and community colleges, where numbers of faculty are fewer, may have a dean of faculty or academic dean who has jurisdiction over faculty in all disciplines. Deans' roles frequently vary according to academic field, institution type, and institutional context. In institutions marked by higher levels of disciplinary specialization, such as research and doctoral institutions, the number of academic deans is larger so as to accommodate the unique leadership demands of the diverse disciplinary programs housed in the institution.

Drawn from the senior faculty ranks, academic deans are seen by many as serving a dual role, that of scholar and administrator, particularly in institutions that place high value on research and publication in assessing faculty performance. Terms of appointment are typically in the range of five to seven years, and while appointments may be extended, very few serve more than ten years in a deanship position. This is no doubt due to the demands inherent in the role and the associated stress characteristic of the management environment. Deans answer to a variety of constituents, including faculty, the central campus administration, students, and alumni, and in order to be effective must be capable of understanding and serving their often disparate interests and conflicting goals.

Deans serve both academic and administrative purposes in that they are responsible for hiring department chairs and providing management oversight to bureaucratic processes within the unit. Depending on unit size, deans often have some number of associate and assistant deans to whom they delegate responsibilities associated with administrative functions related to finances, facilities, personnel, and management of academic or curricular programs. The position's uniqueness lies in its routine contact with a broad range of institutional constituents–the president or chancellor, the chief academic affairs officer, the faculty, students, external stakeholders such as donors and corporate supporters, and in some cases the boards that provide institutional or unit oversight. The unique position occupied by academic deans places them at the forefront of institutional change.

Decision-making responsibilities of academic deans typically encompass the following areas: (a) educational program/curriculum; (b) faculty selection, promotion, and development; (c) student affairs; (d) finance; (e) physical facilities development; and (f) public and alumni relations. Given the comprehensiveness of responsibility, it is not uncommon for the role of academic deans in larger, more complex institutions to resemble that of a chief executive officer of a moderately sized business enterprise. Resources under their control are often into the tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in large research institutions. With diminishing state support of higher education and increased operational costs, the need to identify new sources of revenue has increased considerably, and the work of garnering such support has become a primary function of academic deans in most institutional settings. Responsibilities associated with fundraising, the increasingly complex financial environment presented by issues of student access and equity, and increasing numbers of part-time faculty has made the role of the academic dean far more complex than it has been in the past.

Typical Characteristics of Academic Deans

The press of responsibility and the critical role assumed by academic deans is reflected in the increasing skills required for the position. Typically, academic deans are not only required to be scholars of highest repute but also to possess some measure of managerial and leadership talent. Communication with faculty is a central activity to the deanship and one that often provokes disagreement, if not conflict. Faculty interactions often involve sensitive issues, such as tenure decisions and salary concerns, demanding an acute sensitivity to faculty needs and skills in problem-solving and conflict management. The most effective deans are skilled in building consensus, influencing outcomes in support of academic programs in a context of disparate goals, and in negotiating for resources in an increasingly scarce resource environment. On a university-wide level, many of the rivalries among academic units are resolved in the relationship between the dean and the central administration. Thus, persuasiveness and ability to navigate the political environment are essential. Effective deans also possess skills in collaboration and integration that facilitate development and implementation of new academic programs and cultivation of new opportunities for research and student learning.

Possibly one of the biggest challenges of academic deans is enacting leadership in a context where those being led neither believe they need to be led, nor are predisposed to succumb to administrative policy and procedural dictates. Such is the case with the typical faculty collective. To complicate matters further, faculty believe the kind of work in which they are engaged–teaching and research–does not require extensive bureaucratic structures, thus the administrative apparatus that demands their conformity is viewed as a nuisance and a diversion of resources. Consequently, deans must operate in an environment within which their authority is subject to ongoing challenge, making fortitude, perseverance, and humility important attributes for survival.

Career Path to the Academic Deanship

One typically ascends to the full-time administrative post of the deanship through the academic ranks, having achieved success as a scholar and teacher. This particular path often includes time spent in a previous administrative role such as department chair and an assistant or associate deanship. An alternative route, and one which is less characteristic of deans in research and doctoral institutions where scholarly performance is typically the primary prerequisite for candidacy, is that of the trained administrator. These individuals specialize in the practice and study of institutional management and have made a career in institutional administration. Another route that is becoming more common, particularly in professional schools such as business and engineering, is via the corporate world. The experience of the seasoned business executive is viewed as bringing added value in the development of important linkages with business and industry.


DIBDEN, ARTHUR J. 1968. The Academic Deanship in American Colleges and Universities. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

GRIFFITHS, DANIEL E., and McCARTY, DONALD J. 1980. The Dilemma of the Deanship. Danville, IL: The Interstate Printers and Publishers.

MORRIS, VAN CLEVE. 1981. Deaning: Middle Management in Academe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

TUCKER, ALAN, and BRYAN, ROBERT A. 1991. The Academic Dean. New York: ACE and Macmillan.

WOLVERTON, MIMI, WOLVERTON, MARVIN L., and GMELCH, WALTER H. 1999. "The Impact of Role Conflict and Ambiguity on Academic Deans." Journal of Higher Education 70 (1):80–106.


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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)