Wednesday, December 5, 2012

If I Were Dean

I have been approached over the years by headhunters and by administrators as well as faculty asking me whether I would be interested in being a Dean.

Having seen a lot as a faculty member, not only at my own university, but also at other universities at which I have had various appointments (Harvard, MIT, Brown, the Royal Institute of Technology, the University of Innsbruck, and, most recently, the University of Gothenburg), and having had numerous discussions with many faculty and having served on numerous search committees, I have given such invitations serious thought and consideration.

I have been a faculty member under "permanent," interim, and, my favorite -- "acting" deans. I have also worked under DITS (just this past weekend a colleague told me that this acronym stands for "Dean in Training").

Dr. Christina Paxson, the recently inducted new President of Brown University, in an interview published in BAM, stated why she moved into administration: “When you’re not an administrator,” she explained, “your impact can be great, but it’s still somewhat limited to your own students and your own research. When you move into administration, if you do well, you have a positive impact on the education and research of a lot of people. You sort of amplify what you can do.”

Indeed, she nailed it -- having a positive impact. But what concrete steps can result in a truly positive impact?

If I were Dean I would:

  • Communicate regularly with faculty and outside constituencies through such simple (but very important) things as giving pats on the back for great work, writing a nice personal note, making sure that newsletters are published and are online, publicizing accomplishments to all electronically and otherwise.  I would nominate my deserving faculty for rewards, awards,  and recognitions and would celebrate their achievements, recognizing that different individuals have different strengths and talents. A wonderful past Dean would have flowers delivered to my office and even to my home when there was a notable accomplishment and I still have certain thank you notes from him. (Is it surprising that he was also outstanding at raising funds -- clearly not -- everyone responded to his genuine warmth and caring and although he is no longer a Dean, he is still sought after for advice).  
  • Have integrity and right wrongs when and where needed. Be proactive. I have seen too much of a "it's a departmental issue." But if there is no leadership at the departmental level, this is a major copout.  True leadership MUST come from the top. My model of a truly outstanding Dean was Dean Robert J. Birgeneau of MIT. He was the Dean of the School of Science at MIT who not only established the Committee on Women Faculty with a report that demonstrated with data how women faculty were marginalized there and what was needed to be done. You can read the historic events in The MIT Faculty Newsletter Special Edition. The study and analyses demonstrated that making institutional change must come from the top and that administrative support is needed. The problems that needed to be addressed regarding female faculty included:  unequal resources and rewards; undervaluation of equal accomplishments, marginalization of women as they rise (this never stops, does it?), family-work conflicts, and the small number of female faculty. Now for a fascinating fact -- in 1960 there were ZERO female faculty in science and engineering at MIT. Birgeneau helped tremendously to change the environment at MIT but, once he left, the momentum receded.  He left MIT to go to UC Berkeley and the hiring of female faculty went flat again.  If you have the time (I listened and watched spellbound) you can learn more about these issues in a video lecture by Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT given recently in Hong Kong, entitled:, "Addressing the Under-representation of Women Faculty in Science and Engineering at MIT - A Data-driven Approach" A faculty member at HKUST who was in the audience and is a dear friend brought this video to my attention. You can hear Dr. Hopkins talk about how she walked around at MIT at night with a tape measure to measure the lab spaces given to various faculty. 
  • Support the intellectual life of the community. Education happens not only in the classroom but also outside the classroom. In a university it is essential to have speakers. I have personally used my own funds to support speakers over many years. You can see the lists over many semesters of individuals from whom we learned a tremendous amount. These talks were not required and we packed them in. Faculty came from throughout the UMass Amherst campus and some audience members came from as far as Boston, and even Vermont, and New Jersey. However, there comes a time when (and I did this for 14 semesters) when it is time for the administration to step up and support such activities and not just have a single female not only helping the students through the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter to organize the series but to also fund the majority of it.
  • Shape the direction of the school through inputs from faculty, students, staff, alums, and other constituencies. Be a bridge builder. Without substance and content a "brand" has no meaning. A reputation is built on the quality of the curriculum, the advances in research and knowledge, and on the excellence in terms of both breadth and depth of outreach activities. It also rests on the ability to work as a team and with proper incentives in place.
  • Give others a chance. Don't just appoint and reappoint those who have had opportunities in the past. Invite new faces to serve on important committees or as administrators, if they so wish to.