From Gratefully Retired


When we think about past Deans that have impressed us, they invariably had three qualities – they were competent, good communicators, and they commanded the trust of their staff. Most had a vision of the future for their Faculty and were very protective and supportive of their staff, fought bravely to protect their resources from encroachment, and advanced the interests of their Schools.


The decline of collegiality in favour of executive managerialism is widely lamented in the higher education sector. One consequence is that Deans have lost their independence and indeed may to a substantial degree be captive to orders from upstairs, depending on their personality, temperament and political survival skills.  They are simply appointed by the executive to implement the strategic vision for the university. If they do not toe the line their tenure is short. They are set Key Performance Indicators and while they may personally not be sympathetic or supportive of these ‘indicators’, they know they will be judged and remunerated on the (often quantitative) achievement of these targets.


While this is true, a cagey and resourceful Dean will build alliances and form coalitions to protect their Faculty’s interests and deflect undesirable ‘strategic initiatives’. Of course the success of such moves is also dependent on the nature of the Executive (‘the inner sanctum’) and how autocratic they are and how tightly they have centralized decision-making power. A worst case scenario is a very strong Executive, who rule by intimidation and threats with a favoured circle of sycophants, with a compliant Board of Trustees and an ineffective Senate, facing a very compliant but ambitious Dean, who rightly perceives that personal advancement comes from pleasing the Executive regardless of the howls of despair from their colleagues and peers within the School or Faculty.


Under these circumstances we need to have some sympathy for our Deans. Often they are caught in a no-win situation. Some have certainly performed exceedingly well in terms of the criteria of competency, good communication and maintaining staff trust. Others have been shockers; alienating their own professional and academic staff and spending most of their time canoodling with senior management. Ultimately, most Deans have had to make compromises over the issue of divided loyalties.