Dealing With Difficult Finances

Barbara McFadden Allen, Robin Kaler and Ruth Watkins describe a hypothetical but very common situation for many administrators today -- and offer some suggestions for how to tackle it.

May 26, 2016

As a new dean of a large college of arts and sciences, Sharon finds herself learning on the job every day. Much of what she learns is exciting; she is impressed by thoughtful, high-achieving faculty members, staff members and students, and enthusiastic about her aspirations for programmatic innovation that will raise the visibility and impact of the college.

On the less positive front, however, Sharon discovers that the college’s budget is in much worse condition than anyone had told her before she took the position. Although she had been aware of some cash shortfalls, she is alarmed to discover significant underlying structural deficits, apparently linked to a failure of the college to adapt to shifts in student enrollment.

Yet when she raises the topic with the university provost, Sharon is surprised by his response, which indicates that he expects her to address these financial challenges independently. The top administration of the university simply does not have the capacity to assist and sees the problem as one of the college’s own making.

Sharon also uncovers limited financial literacy among department chairs. Many do not have a clear understanding of the college budget model. She realizes that the college will need to build a stronger culture of partnership between the dean’s office and departments in resource generation and allocation decisions, as well as inspire new approaches, all while -- indeed, in service of -- improving the financial health of the college.

Sharon brought a compelling vision to the deanship, aspiring to strengthen the college’s scholarly profile, increase student retention and graduation rates, and deliver creative educational offerings. Now, in light of the financial context, she wonders if she will have the capacity to reach any of these core goals. She finds it challenging to manage her own disappointment and apprehension.

Can Sharon succeed as a dean?


If she can constructively manage her emotions and swiftly engage the college community in strategic action. She will build trust with the leadership team of department chairs by educating them about budgeting, conveying financial information in an open manner -- absent of judgment or blame -- and involving them in decisions about how to generate more resources and best allocate them. That way, an authentic and effective leadership team can emerge to resolve the various financial challenges.

Although financial vitality might not be an inspiring leadership platform, Sharon can use it to create a model for collaborative decision making that will enable the college to advance on multiple priorities. She may even find that, as the team makes financial progress, she earns the assistance of the university’s top administration.


If she is unable to cope with her disillusionment or negativity, or if she tries to address the challenge without full and open engagement of the department chairs. The college needs a new business model, one that can only be achieved by a partnership of those who need to understand and develop it. If Sharon takes an approach that assigns blame or suggests a lack of university support, she will paralyze innovation and alienate the most talented department leaders. Chairs pick up cues from the tone and energy of their dean.

In a Nutshell

Strong leadership requires not only a bold, ambitious vision but also the establishment and maintenance of effective systems and processes that support the academic mission. Without those foundations, it is difficult to ensure that a college will develop to its fullest potential.

Further, it is often necessary for a leader to manage difficult and challenging emotions. While disappointment and even disillusionment may be understandable reactions to challenges, an open fight with the provost, spearheaded by a dean, rarely ends well.

By definition, a dean is part of university administration. Walking a tightrope -- providing inspirational vision, building sound support systems and being discreet in navigating institutional politics -- is all part of what it means to be a successful academic leader.


Barbara McFadden Allen is executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Robin Kaler is associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ruth Watkins is senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah.

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