Advice for administrators as they prepare to leave office (essay)
I have noticed that there is a great deal written about taking on a new administrative post at a college or university. New faculty, department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents receive considerable advice about the dos and don’ts of taking on an administrative position. But now that I am in my last of a 13-year run as a dean, I can scarcely find any advice, guidelines, or even empathetic missives about how to leave my job.
This is my second departure from a deanship. My last one was relatively easy -- I was publicly fired by the president and provost after we spent more than a year butting heads. I received my notice first from a television reporter and then, an hour later, by a FedEx package. I was not at all surprised; I had essentially dared my bosses to fire me and they accommodated my request. I waited until 10 p.m. the night I received my “non-renewal” letter and then drove to my office, put all my personal belongings in a cardboard box, and drove home.
A few weeks later, when I was assigned a new faculty office (I was a tenured faculty member), I moved in late one night and emerged the next morning as a full-time faculty member. Most everyone shunned me anyway and I immersed myself in my research and teaching.
This time around I depart after 13 years because my university has term limits. Thirteen years is a pretty good run and I have no regrets about finishing up my term. The problem is, I have no real road map for how to do it. Our previous president, Judy Rodin, took a long and deserved victory lap celebrating her decade as president, but that does not fit a dean of a very small school. I am told that another dean waited until his last faculty meeting and then went around the table and told everyone exactly what he thought of them. Tempting, but I plan to stay on as a faculty member and that does not seem like such a good thing to do to my future colleagues.
So I have tried to fill the void by generating what I call my “Dead Dean Walking List” of how to graciously and appropriately transition:
1. Legacy. In a word, forgetaboutit. Maya Angelou’s quote “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is most applicable here. I have worked for dozens of department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents. I vaguely remember their greatest accomplishments and most public failures; I vividly remember how each made me feel. Your legacy is not measured in metrics, edifices, or such things — it is how people with whom you worked with felt.
2. Be Sure to Take Care of Your Post-Position Needs. This may seem selfish, but be sure to take care of your post-position needs before you leave office. Need an office -- select one. Need furniture -- buy it. Need computers or tech supplies -- buy them. Do not put your successor in the position of having to say “no” to you in the first few months or his or her term.
3. Your Administrative Team. This is tricky. On the one hand, your successor will likely benefit if the team stays in place for at least a year (assuming they are excellent). On the other hand, new administrators may desire to bring in a new team or new team members. If you can (and I did), provide at least a year of job protection for your team. Similarly, discuss with your team whether they will stay in place for at least a year to ensure a smooth transition.
4. Deals. One second after people know your term is ending, they will line up at your office door and want to fashion deals or arrangements that go beyond your term. Be clear that, in most cases, you cannot commit resources beyond your term. If it is in the absolute best interests of the school, make the commitment, write it down, and place it in a folder for the next dean.
5. Dust-ups. Despite your best intentions, there are going to be “dust-ups” as faculty and staff members anticipate the demise of the old regime. You are going to see behavior and actions that you had not witnessed since the beginning of your term. Cut these behaviors down immediately and absolutely. Be sure everyone knows the rules still apply and will apply until midnight of the last day of your term. Be nice, but be firm.
There is one final warning. In the deepest, darkest part of your soul, in a place most people do not want to admit exists, you will hope your successor will fail. Your darkest thought is that your successor’s failure will validate your own success and worth.
Forget it. First, if you really were as good as you think you were, your successor will not fail. Success is your only validation. Second, if your successor does stumble or fall short, you will be the first person blamed.
Richard Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice and Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence at the University of Pennsylvania.