The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.

Challenges:

1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.

Opportunities:

1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.

—-

* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.

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9 thoughts on “The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

  1. Ah, long ago I had academic dreams. They were crushed (not entirely true) and I moved on (entirely true). So a little bit of me lives vicariously through your academic posts even though you study spiders and I studied European philosophers (or their work). There are some similarities.

    But your thing about meetings! There I can directly relate. And I’ll share two insights or observations. For free.

    1. I don’t know if you can get away with it, but one technique I have when new meetings (especially recurring ones) show up on my calendar—especially the ones whose relevance to me or to which I feel I probably have little to contribute— is that I start by accepting the invitation and then I don’t show up. Then I see what happens. Remarkable how many of them go away.

    2. A common best practice for meetings (which is obvious) is to set an end time. She the clock strikes X saddle up. You’re done. Table any remaining items. But I can trump that: challenge yourself and your colleagues to get done early and give time back! Time back that is marked on the calendar as taken is _very_productive_time_.

    I find otherwise a meeting may look like it could end early, but then someone invariably says ‘anything else?’ and some jackass scrapes their brain for something, _anything_, to keep the meeting going. Don’t encourage that sort of thing. Explicitly discourage it!

    There you go.

    Nice post, Chris. You are both a Professor and a Deanlet, so let your blog reflect that.

    • Thanks Rich, for the post – i really appreciate you taking the time to read AND comment on it. Indeed, when I run meeting, I aim for efficiency – the same can’t be said for everyone else (haha). In my opinion, most meetings can and should be relatively short (never more than one hour), with a super-clear agenda (with deliverables/objectives stated for the meeting), and they must ALWAYS start exactly on time, and end on time (or early as you suggest). Thanks again for the feedback…

  2. Can you elaborate at all on what training you received related to challenge 1? Do you think there’s a version of it that could be given to faculty? This is one of the biggest challenges of teaching Intro Bio for me.

    • Hi Meg – thanks for the comment. My University (through student services and also through our Teaching Services unit) has offered workshops on “helping students in distress” and I recently did a two-day “Mental Health First Aid” training – it was VERY valuable! Here’s a link to that workshop (for Canada – I do know know the US equivalent) http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.ca/EN/Pages/default.aspx I also have a large network of “associate deans” to ask for advice/guidance, and our Dean of Students Office is a very valuable resource, because they see perspectives across the whole University. Anyway, hopefully your University has something similar to offer and if not, maybe your “teaching services” unit can liaise with ours. Here’s the website of some of the workshops our teaching services unit provides: http://www.mcgill.ca/tls/teaching/workshops

      • Oh, and I should say that almost all of the training I have received is available to the whole community – support staff, instructors, deanlets, etc.

  3. Pingback: Recommended reads #54 | Small Pond Science

    • Thanks for pointing me to that post, Jeremy. Very interesting! Indeed, my portfolio does not involve (very much) resource allocation, and if it did, the “challenges” would probably be quite a bit different.

  4. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 05/06/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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