What the hell does a Dean do?

So I started working in higher education in 1986 when I taught my first college class. I’ve been working in the California Community College system since 2002 and took my first dean’s position in 2005. I’ve been working as a dean ever since. When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell the I’m a dean, they always seem impressed. But then, as we talk further I almost inevitably get the question, what the hell does a dean actually do?

You see while the title seems important and impressive, in fact most people have no idea what the job actually is. The extent of experience most people have with deans is watching Dean Wormer in the movie Animal House. And frankly, as I near retirement I think when it gets much closer, I might just call someone into my office and scream, “that’s it, you’re on double secret probation!” I’m sure whoever that poor person is will feel utterly confused, mostly because there is no such thing as double secret probation and they’ll have no idea why I’m screaming it at them. And they’ll be even more confused as I erupt into hysterical laughter.

When I get asked this question about what a dean does I usually start by explaining it in the following way. There are two aspects to the job of being a dean. First, a dean lives in the middle of a four-way intersection with no speed limits, no stop signs and no traffic lights. Traffic is coming from all four directions. One direction is the community, another is the administration, another the students and another is the faculty. The dean’s job is to be in the middle of the intersection and keep anyone from dying in a head-on collision, while also not getting run over and keeping traffic moving.

The other thing I mention is that as a dean (the ultimate middle-management position) you spend half of the day reminding the administration there are students present, and the other half of the day reminding the faculty that the college is a business.

Being a little less flippant about the whole thing, the job is, as a colleague said just yesterday, “all about managing people.” We spend the majority of our time working with students, faculty, classified professional staff and other administrators to truly make the wheels of the system go round. This is done by providing information, interpreting rules and contracts and implementing directives from vice-presidents, presidents, board of trustees and chancellors who are often far removed from what actually happens on the ground day-to-day. As such, decisions are frequently made from above that are hard to, and at times even impossible to implement. At least without causing some level of chaos at the ground level.

Given this, the decisions you do make as a dean often cause consternation for faculty who unfortunately, and all to often, assign personal motives or even formulate conspiracy theories around your actions. Students rarely are aware of all of the rules under which they operate in a college system. Sure, the rules are listed in a student conduct manual and in the college catalog but it is an utterly unique student who has actually read and understood them all. In my 35 years in education, I’ve yet to encounter that student. So students are often upset about what you won’t let them do. In fact, it’s not under the dean’s control but as the frequent messenger bearing bad news, you take the brunt of the responses and unhappiness.

We also act as student conduct officers, mediation specialists, we are constantly called upon to de-escalate tense situations. We are expected to be the rules experts meaning that every bargaining unit expects us to know every detail of their contracts often hundreds of pages in length, to know every single rule in the catalog often several hundred pages in length, every single board policy, policies which are buried in years of board of trustees minutes and almost never searchable or organized in any manner. And finally, in California to know all the rules of Title V of the Education Code. Now I have have 19 years of college training including 12 years of graduate school and a year of law school, and Title V may be the most incomprehensible set of rules and regulations ever assembled. It’s also almost impossible to search and not laid out in any form of logic that I’m familiar with. But this doesn’t prevent everyone from expecting we have each rule memorized and being upset when we don’t.

We also inevitably ending up being career and personal counselors to our faculty and staff, as well as often being expected to provide concierge level service. Our students often find us when they are at the end of their rope and have been bounced around from office to office. So we play the role of academic counselor, personal counselor, tour guide, life coach and often mentor to students who could find no one else to help.

The most difficult part of the job is the realization that while you have immense amounts of authority and responsibility, you have almost no power or authority. However, you are still expected to pull a division (my largest was almost 300 people) together to accomplish tasks and goals set out by the college. I often explain what that’s like this way. Imagine you’re a general about to go into battle, your army is lied up behind you, and you yell charge! You run screaming across the field and then you subtly look over your shoulder to see if anyone actually followed you.

And after everything I’ve described above, we are referred to as the “dark side” by faculty, constantly vilified as the “bad guys” and generally treated like robots not humans. We almost never get recognition for the part we play in the system and while in California we are generally well paid, most deans average 50 hours or more a week and if you break our salaries down to an hourly wage, we make less than faculty.

So who would want this job? The fact is there is a lot of job dissatisfaction within the ranks of deans. Almost every dean was a faculty member at some point, we all got into this business to help students and the role we play makes that happen. But in fact most people don’t last very long as a dean. As part of the career ladder most people serve in the role three to five years before moving up into a VP position or retreating back to faculty. I’ve managed to stay in this job for so long because I have taken a unique path through my career, about every three years I quit, travel for a year and then come back to a new position.

The job is a personnel heavy gig, if you don’t have the skills and ability to deal with people, find consensus and work collaboratively it’s really hard to get things done. You also have to be able maintain a really healthy work/life balance in order to not burn out. As someone who is an extreme introvert, it means that doing this all day is incredibly draining for me. So I’ve had to develop a very healthy work/life balance to keep myself sane in this job.

So that’s what a dean does, every particular position has it’s own unique quirks but that’s the general core of the job.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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