Who Grades Deans?

At one university, faculty are angry that the administration dumped the popular leader of a college. At another university, faculty want more say that might allow them to dump a college's leader.

February 10, 2015
Sign made by supporters of an ousted dean at Western Michigan

Academic deans straddle two realms: those of the administration and the faculty. While they’re supervisors to faculty members in a sense, they’re also colleagues and collaborators, and many professors view deans as representing academic interests up the hierarchy to provosts and presidents. So it’s probably unsurprising that faculty members play a role in reviewing deans’ performance at most institutions. But just how big a role should they expect to play, and what mechanisms are in place to make sure that professors understand higher-level administrators’ ultimate decisions about deans’ jobs? Two recent cases in which faculty members have expressed concerns about the transparency of personnel decisions about deans raise those questions, among others.

Late last month, scores of supporters of Alexander Enyedi, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Western Michigan University, showed up at a university Board of Trustees meeting to protest the nonrenewal of his contract. Holding signs saying “I stand with Alex” and “Alex Enyedi is [the college],” faculty members said they were concerned about the wisdom of the university’s decision and the process by which it was made. Enyedi, who was well respected among faculty members, had been removed from his position a semester ahead of the end of his five-year contract, without any apparent consultation of the faculty. He’s being assigned other duties as he waits to return to the faculty as a tenured professor of biology.

The decision prompted a no-confidence vote in Tim Greene, provost, from the American Association of University Professors-affiliated faculty union and the resignation of two associate deans from their posts.

“That [Enyedi] is being replaced so urgently and unceremoniously, without time or opportunity for a normal process, having been informed directly of what is occurring only just this morning, is especially disturbing,” Cathryn Bailey and Ed Martini, the associate deans, wrote in an e-mail to college faculty members on Jan. 30, announcing they were stepping back into their faculty roles. “In Wednesday's message to faculty and staff, the provost stated that he has been seeking input from [arts and sciences faculty] members about how to proceed, but the nature of his communications and actions, and this breakneck pace do not inspire considered deliberation or honest dissent.”

C. Dennis Simpson, director and professor of addiction studies and president of the university’s Faculty Senate, said he didn’t work under Enyedi, but that “He was quite obviously well-liked by his faculty,” and had obtained a 91 percent approval rating in a recent union survey of arts and sciences professors. Simpson said faculty participation is strong in selecting new deans at Western Michigan -- like at it is at many institutions -- but faculty have "zero" official say in who stays or goes.

Enyedi, who didn’t immediately return a request for comment, told Michigan Live that he believes he was let go because he’d asked to issue salary adjustments for female office workers. Cheryl Roland, a university spokeswoman, denied that claim, saying that Greene had outlined for faculty members in general terms some of the longstanding issues that led to that decision. They include declines in enrollment and funded research as well as the dean's lack of support and follow-through for decisions made both by the provost and by the university's deans as a collective body, she said.

Legally, there’s nothing prohibiting Western Michigan from quickly dispensing with deans. The university has just one policy regarding the appointments of deans and other senior administrative officers, which says, in part, that they are “employees at will and as such have no property interest in the continuation of such employment. Senior administrative officials may be terminated without cause and without prior notice, and no reasons are required or must be stated for termination of employment.”

Roland put it more bluntly, saying that an executive official “serves at the pleasure of the administration.”

But many faculty members felt they, Enyedi and the notion of shared governance deserved more. Summing up her actions, Bailey -- who is still a professor of women’s and gender studies -- said she resigned in protest of how Enyedi “was treated and in the protest of the process being used to replace him.” An interim dean already has been appointed, and the university is forming a majority-faculty search committee for a permanent replacement.

In a separate case at the State University of New York at Buffalo, faculty members have drafted a report suggesting ways to make more meaningful and transparent decanal reviews. Under a longstanding policy, deans are reviewed every five years, but faculty members say the process is inconsistent and opaque. Concerned faculty members point to the recent resignation of Makau Mutua as dean of the law school amid faculty complaints about his leadership style and allegations that he had lied under oath in a lawsuit brought by a former professor as an example. Mutua denies the perjury claim.

The Mutua situation differs starkly from that of Enyedi, a well-liked leader, but both raise questions about transparency for professors at their institutions. At Buffalo, faculty members say that Mutua’s resignation came just after a review that was a year overdue, and that they weren’t privy to any of the findings.

The new faculty report suggests that decanal reviews should happen promptly every five years, and after three years for new deans. Suggested review criteria include vision and goal setting; management of the unit; interpersonal relationships; communication skills; quality of education in the unit; support for institutional diversity; and research, professional and community endeavors. Peers and all faculty members should be consulted, the report suggests, and, perhaps most notably, “principles of trust and good faith dictate that some form of feedback be provided to the members of the decanal unit at the end of the review process.” In other words, faculty members deserve to know -- to the extent possible, both legally and ethically -- why administrators acted as they did.

“Without formal, regular, transparent systems for people to offer feedback, serious problems can arise and the only options for faculty members who believe there are serious problems are to either leave, or initiate a no-confidence vote, or go to the media to try to exert pressure that way,” said Martha McCluskey, William J. Magavern Faculty Scholar of law at Buffalo, who has been involved in decanal-review reform efforts in the Faculty Senate. “That is not the best way for an institution to function.”

It's perhaps important to note that Mutua -- who did not respond to requests for comment -- was well liked by donors, along with some administrators, and is credited with overseeing a difficult downsizing at the beginning of his deanship. He remains a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar of law at Buffalo.

John DellaContrada, a spokesman for Buffalo, said the university already has a formal, faculty-inclusive review process for deans that’s worked “successfully” for a decade. He also disagreed with some faculty characterizations of Mutua’s case, including the timeline for review. (Who’s right probably depends on when one starts counting: Mutua started as dean in early 2008, after a stint as interim dean; his review began in fall 2013 and was completed in spring 2014. He announced he was resigning in September 2014.) DellaContrada also said Mutua has stated publicly that his involvement in the lawsuit had nothing to do with his decision.

Part of the reason there’s so much controversy surrounding administrative decisions about deans is that deans often feel like fellow faculty members, perhaps creating -- especially if they’re respected -- the same expectations for due process. They’re also often intimately involved in curricular issues, so faculty members want a say in their fate.

The AAUP says in its Statement on Faculty Participation in the Selection, Evaluation and Retention of Administrators that all “All decisions on retention and nonretention of administrators should be based on institutionalized and jointly determined procedures which include significant faculty involvement. ...With respect to other academic administrators, sound practice dictates that the president should neither retain an administrator found wanting by faculty standards nor arbitrarily dismiss an administrator who meets the accountability standards of the academic community.” AAUP also says that the faculty voice is likely to be “weightiest at the department and decanal levels.”

Recommended processes -- not just principles -- for involving the faculty in reviewing deans are few and far between, however. That's partly because practices vary greatly by institution, based on deans' roles. The American Conference of Academic Deans doesn’t comment on best practices for reviewing deans, but it referred a request for comment to a member, Robert Halliday, associate provost and dean for graduate studies at Utica College in New York.

Halliday said that faculty members should feel like they have a say in reviewing deans’ performance, but that being more specific than that is tricky -- and it’s getting trickier. While deans used to essentially be division “chairs,” he said, “The job is changing hand over fist. There are compliance and external accreditation issues and all sort of things that never used to be part of the job. ...That’s inevitably going to give rise to tensions, with deans who learned deaning in one world finding themselves in another.”

More and more, deans are also expected to be fund-raisers, Halliday said -- just one more element of the job that can't be judged by faculty satisfaction alone. “Change is always uncomfortable," he added.

Carol Christ, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley and former president of Smith College, has been both a faculty member and a provost who reviewed deans. Like Halliday, she said there was no "typical" way of involving faculty members in reviews of deans. And while it's an important step in the process, she said, it's not the only one.

“As someone who had the responsibility for the appointment [of deans] and renewal of deans’ contracts, I’d say faculty input is one of the factors that goes into the decision in a reappointment -- but it’s not the only factor,” Christ said. “You have to look at how well the school is doing, the robustness of the programs, any external reviews, admissions -- you would look at metrics of various sorts.” There are also compatibility issues to consider, she said, such as how well a dean is working with senior administrators.

Christ said faculty input ideally is confidential, sometimes by written letter or individual conversations between a provost and a faculty member. Confidentiality is a major concern in discussing the outcomes of decisions, she added, since a dean who didn’t get reappointed might seek out another job elsewhere -- ideally without potentially damaging information following him or her out onto the market. There are also legal standards surrounding personnel privacy.

For those reasons, there’s often a “much more complicated narrative” going on that what the public or even the faculty knows, Christ said. At the very least, personnel decisions about academic deans are “not a popularity contest, and the administration is doing what it understands to be in the best interest, or strengthening or furthering the excellence, of whatever school or college.”

While lots of faculty members might disagree, at least one doesn't mind not having a major say in deanship decisions. Simpson, the Faculty Senate president at Western Michigan, said, "I personally do not want to get into the administration's business because I don't want them getting into mine."


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