The Indispensable Associate Dean

Often overlooked, it's an academic job worth considering, writes Patricia Ann Mabrouk.

February 21, 2018

Many faculty members focus their careers on teaching and research and don’t even consider academic leadership. Even though my research mentor chose the life of an administrator, I cannot tell you that I had ever imagined myself doing so. In part, that is why I am writing this article: to open the eyes of graduate students and other faculty members to such opportunities. I especially want to provide information on the role of the associate dean, which often seems to be overlooked.

The responsibilities for associate deans may vary, but they commonly include undergraduate education, graduate education, research, administration and finance, and faculty affairs. Usually, an associate dean oversees one of those areas, but sometimes they may have oversight of several. For instance, you will often see one person assume responsibilities for undergraduate and graduate education, or graduate education and research, due to the synergies between those areas.

How much decision-making authority and autonomy an associate dean has depends on the management style of the dean. Associate deans are middle managers working between the dean and the academic departments. Deans are middle managers, too, but they spend most of their time looking at things from the big-picture, universitywide perspective. In contrast, associate deans must be effective at zooming in and out. They must also be masters at team building, creating buy-in and working through chairs, faculty members, administrators and others to execute their and their dean’s vision.

Roles and Responsibilities

So what specifically does an associate dean of undergraduate education or graduate education do? They are responsible for oversight and coordination of all the programs and activities that support student recruitment, education and retention in the college. They often work collaboratively with their counterparts in other colleges to realize new academic degree programs and to ensure that the support services, academic courses and degree programs that their college offers meet the needs of faculty members and students in other colleges and complement their degree programs.

For example, one of the most complex and personally and professionally fulfilling projects that I worked on as associate dean of graduate education was the creation of an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in an emergent data sciences discipline that involved faculty members from five different colleges. I worked with a team of interested faculty members within our college to write the proposal for the program and then solicited support from the other participating colleges.

Once the proposal made its way through the administrative approval process -- which involved presentations, discussions and votes by various committees within each college and at the university level -- I helped the faculty team organize a universitywide retreat to identify all the interested core faculty and to refine the program. Subsequently, my dean and I put together a memorandum of understanding governing the financial support for this new degree program for discussion and adoption by the deans of all the participating colleges.

Working on that project required a great deal of listening, team building, trust and goodwill on all sides. The best part was seeing the first class of extremely talented doctoral students admitted to the program, now in its fifth year, arrive on the campus.

Another type of associate dean, the associate dean of research, ensures that a college follows best practices in the management and oversight of funded research initiatives and is responsible for stimulating new and continued research activity. This person works with both individual and groups of faculty members to help them realize their research agendas. They often evaluate preproposals and to help coordinate interdisciplinary, multi-principal investigator research proposals, research center proposals and training grants. Some oversee awards programs, providing seed money for new investigators, small equipment grants or travel grants for graduate students.

Finally, the responsibilities of the associate dean for faculty primarily concern matters affecting faculty roles, such as tenure and promotion. They also supervise hiring, orient new faculty members, support junior faculty members in their efforts to secure tenure and promotion, provide support to the non-tenure-track faculty, coordinate activities to enhance the professional development of the faculty, and handle faculty personnel actions.

The responsibilities of this role can be quite demanding. You may be asked to research and draft tenure and promotion letters for your dean or to investigate allegations of faculty misconduct. If you choose to take on such a role, I encourage you to develop a strong personal and professional support system.

This role can also be quite rewarding. In my tenure as associate dean for faculty affairs, I created the first non-tenure-track faculty committee at my university. The committee worked together to develop materials and programs to support such faculty members, including orientations to welcome new non-tenure-track faculty to our university.

No matter their specific role, associate deans work collaboratively with other administrators, faculty members and students across the university to ensure that their institution is successful in its mission. Associate deans often chair relevant committees within their college and serve on institutional-level committees.

Challenges and Rewards

Among the many challenges of being an academic dean, the biggest is managing difficult conversations, which happen more often than you might expect. It’s important therefore to have a healthy ego and a good sense of humor. Associate deans need self-confidence and must take criticism well and be willing to own their mistakes and that of their charges.

In addition, administration is truly a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year commitment. Crises frequently arise and happen when you least expect -- after normal work hours and on weekends and federal holidays.

That said, you will have a chance to meet and collaborate with a wide array of energetic, talented and dedicated faculty members, administrators, students, alumni and others. And you will have an invaluable opportunity to test and hone your leadership, managerial and supervisory skills.

You will also be able learn how your institution operates. I still remember when the registrar’s office set up a meeting to introduce me to its key personnel. I entered a large meeting room and found myself sitting with more than a dozen individuals who each had distinctly different roles and responsibilities. Over the next four years, I found them to be the most dedicated, hardworking and talented people I’ve ever met and my greatest resources and supporters.

Best of all, you have an opportunity to create change on a larger scale than you ever could as an individual faculty member. You will probably be involved in hiring, teaching and research policies, tenure and promotion decisions, new degree programs, and admissions standards and procedures, among many other matters -- in other words, you’ll be able to influence and improve the very fabric of your institution.


What advice would I offer someone considering becoming an associate dean?

First focus on earning tenure. You don’t want to consider academic leadership until you have achieved this goal. As an associate dean, you may be able to continue some scholarly activity, but certainly not at the level of involvement or rate of productivity you enjoyed as a full-time faculty member.

Develop a strong support network. Identify a few individuals who have held or hold a similar position and whom you trust and respect. They need not be at your institution -- in fact, they are usually more helpful when they're not. It’s better to have a degree of detachment that will keep the focus on problem solving rather than engaging in a ventfest, which might be emotionally satisfying at times but certainly not as productive.

Get it in writing. Ask for the support you need before you take the job, as change happens frequently in administration. Important matters to consider include the term of appointment, administrative stipends, stipends for professional development, the basis on which merit will be evaluated and the like. Ask in advance for a yearlong sabbatical at the end of your term so you have the time and ability to re-establish yourself as a productive faculty member if and when you choose to return to the professoriate.

Take advantage of local and national professional development opportunities. I was fortunate that the senior leadership team and dean at my institution cared deeply about the professional development of their administrators. Early on, I was able to participate in a semester-long professional development program, where I was able to meet and get to know other administrators at various levels across the university.

As part of that experience, I had the invaluable opportunity to receive anonymous, honest feedback from those working with me through a 360-degree review that showed me where I needed to grow as a leader and a manager. In addition, never having been a department chair, I asked for and received support for my participation in a national training conference for new chairs. That experience allowed me to network more broadly and helped me feel more confident in my efforts to support the chairs in my college.

Get to know all the chairs of your college’s departments and the directors of your academic support units. Recognize that each unit has its own culture. Take the time and make an effort to learn the cultures of various units and don’t assume that everyone agrees with the way your home unit does things. Be careful that you are not making assumptions based on your own culture, as they may turn out to be wrong. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and truly hear the answers you receive.

Don’t stay too long in the position. My dean used to say that four years represented a good term in any academic post. I agree.

Also, many administrators think the associate dean role is a training and proving ground for future deans. If you are an aspiring dean, then I suggest you pay careful attention to the demands of that position, because they are distinctly different from those of an associate dean. For example, you’ll find that fund-raising plays an important role in a dean’s responsibilities, which isn’t the case as an associate dean.

And don't assume that you will be promoted to dean within your institution. You may be given the opportunity to serve as an interim dean, but some institutions like to hire deans from other similar institutions.

Faculty members interested in moving into these administrative roles always ask me what kind of preparation or training you need. Should you serve as a chair first? My answer is no. If you have participated in the administrative life of your department, discipline and professional association -- or if you run an active research program -- then you probably have more knowledge and experience than you probably realize.

The key question is whether or not you will find happiness and satisfaction in the role of an administrator, collegially working with and through all those around you. If, at the end of the day, you enjoy the challenge of grappling with complex problems of broad scope and significant impact -- and that leverage the active, collegial participation of large teams or units of individuals -- then I hope you will consider a career in academic leadership.


Patricia Ann Mabrouk is a professor of chemistry at Northeastern University.


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