Just recently I came across an organizational structure for a School that had both Directors and Associate Directors as well as Associate and Assistant Deans (plus, of course the Dean). The individuals holding the various dean and director positions were all very clear as to who did what and who reported to whom. The question was whether anyone outside of the administration had the same level of clarity. As it turned out, Assistant Deans reported to Directors but how would anyone know that or even expect it? For many outsiders looking into higher education, the assumption is that anyone with a dean title has more of an academic leadership role. How did this happen ? The answer often is that a prior dean favored the dean title and the current dean favors the director title but so as to not make anyone feel bad, the current dean has decided not to take away the dean title from anyone who already had it.
When, as an assistant professor, I was first invited to move part-time into administration, the title I was given was Assistant to the Associate Provost title. A meaningful title but not for the job I was doing. At the time I was working on a program for student evaluation of teachers and courses. My title gave no clue. All too often in higher education (especially in non faculty positions) a person’s title doesn’t give sufficient information and consequently students sometimes have a difficult time determining who they should see when they need information or guidance or support in a particular area. My own title can also be a problem. At the time I was first appointed as Provost (and before Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs was added) I called my mom to tell her that I was moving from the business school dean position to the Provost position. After I told her, there was dead silence on the phone for easily a minute or two; followed by her asking me whether this was a promotion or a demotion. A comprehensive orientation program for all constituencies can be very helpful in regard to titles, but clearer titles would make an enormous difference.
We also need to contend today with title inflation (and I don’t see any likelihood of title deflation in the years ahead). The assistant dean title is the entry level title in more and more academic and non-academic offices in the typical college or university. Because assistant dean is entry level, we have more associate deans , who hold positions somewhat above entry level , and also more of a need to come up with additional hierarchical titles between associate dean and dean to denote real differences in job responsibilities. Therefore, it is not unusual to see senior associate deans or vice deans or senior vice deans (but can anyone tell me whether and why senior is more senior than vice?) And many of these same colleges and universities also have somewhat similar office that are headed by a director. Does having an assistant dean for recreation and at the same time an assistant director for career development make sense? We need not only clearer titles but we also need more consistent titles.
Higher education is the engine for personal growth, professional growth, and societal change. But just as outcomes assessment has helped us more clearly demonstrate outcomes, clearer more consistent titles will help all our students and the community more clearly understand who does what.