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A quick scroll through higher education job listings and executive search sites shows many colleges and universities nationwide are hoping to fill dean positions this academic year. This isn’t unusual. There is a high turnover rate among deans, coupled with typically short tenures, which makes finding a good match crucial.
If you are an aspiring dean, however, it can be daunting to know how to start the job search process, what questions to ask and, if you get the job, how to set yourself and the new institution up for success. After several years as a dean at two different institutions, here is what I learned along the way to help aspiring and new deans throughout the hiring process and in the first months of their deanship.
- During your search, gather as much information as you can. All jobs will be advertised, and usually the search is supported by a search firm. Start by doing your due diligence and closely reading the job description. In addition to providing more information about the role, these postings often include links to essential reading, such as the strategic plan for the university and the specific school you’re considering. Be sure to engage the search firm early on in the process. Ask for an informational meeting with a search consultant to identify opportunities and challenges related to the role and to get a sense of your likely fit for it.
But don’t stop there. Collect as much data as you can. For example, be sure to understand rankings, graduation rates and retention rates, as well as getting a sense of the financial environment by looking at things like 990s (for privates) or credit reports. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but given the financial pressure facing many colleges and universities today, it’s good to know what you might be walking into.
It’s also helpful to obtain a sense of the institution by reading the news and getting some internal and external perspectives. Read through the institution and school’s news publications and sections for past stories, and also conduct a thorough internet search, including any social media feeds. To stay up-to-date with current institutional news, set up Google alerts. These news stories, combined with results from your own research, will help you consider your fit within both the university community and the geographic location.
- If you get a first-round interview, prepare by using the STAR approach to interviewing. First-round interviews usually include about eight to 10 standard questions that closely align with the experiences, qualities and characteristics outlined in the position description. Brainstorm potential questions in advance and prepare responses for each likely topic using the STAR (situation, task, action, result) approach.
- If you are a finalist, be prepared to share your vision for the school and meet with key stakeholder groups. Finalist candidates will spend a day or two on campus, during which time you’ll be meeting with various constituencies and will also give a presentation (that will likely be live-streamed). For your presentation, show you have done your homework, that you actually want the job and that you have come up with some strategic insights and recommendations.
The best way to understand the demands of the campus visit is to think of it as a marathon. The days are long—they can begin with breakfast and go right through to include dinner, with that process repeating itself for part of the next day. Plan ahead for how you will ensure you cross the finish line with your energy and enthusiasm intact—whether that is scheduling time for exercise and meals or just powering through.
Before you visit, ask to see the organization chart for both the institution and school and do your research on fellow deans, the provost and the president. You should also prepare questions to ask the people who represent each group you meet. While you are visiting, request to see the financials of the university and of the school and seek to understand the financial model used. Some financial models don’t include all funds flowing to the school, such as gift funds, so they might not show the full picture. In addition, ensure you fully understand enrollment trends and the current budget situation, including any recent or upcoming program and budget cuts.
- If you are hired, conduct a listening and learning tour in the first 100 days. You must try to find a way to connect with your community over time to have success as a dean—and everyone will have a different approach to forging connections. Since educating students is a college or university’s primary purpose, start by getting a sense of the student experience. Ask for the admissions pitch given to prospective students and attend academic advising sessions to better understand the curriculum and how someone flows through a program. Hold office hours and provide incentives (even if it’s just cookies) for students to drop in and visit.
Connecting with alumni can also help you get a sense of the student experience and the hopes and aspirations alumni have for the institution and the school; coffee chats via Zoom can be an effective way to meet a lot of alumni quickly. In addition, work with development and get on calls with major donors.
You will also benefit from establishing connections with colleagues early on. Get to know your fellow deans and find ways to collaborate. Another goal of your listening tour should be to familiarize yourself with systems and processes at the institution. Understand the purpose of any standing meetings you will lead as well as who attends and why.
It may be helpful to ask for job descriptions of your direct reports and of the senior leadership team. I also look at LinkedIn profiles and/or résumés to get a sense of the background of my team. Respect reporting structures and find a cadence for communicating with your faculty and staff members. I am a fan of cascading communication and making sure I feed information given to me by my provost to my direct reports; in turn, I expect my direct reports to do the same to their direct reports, and so on. But I have found that information doesn’t always flow up and down the organization. Make adjustments until you find what works for you and for them.
- In your first year, set yourself up for success, but be OK with some failures. Higher education is a difficult industry to be in, and it is facing a lot of change across many fronts, so treat people well—including yourself. Despite the common belief that the worldview is the same as all universities and schools, they are riddled with their own processes, vocabulary and acronyms. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Effecting change in higher education is difficult. Be willing to walk away from thwarted ambitions and try again when an opportunity arises. Also, be sure to consider the cadence of strategy in order to manage pace: establish a vision, create a plan and implement. As dean, you should focus more on establishing a vision, but it can take two to three years for ideas to be fully implemented. Be aware that while you might have moved on to the next vision, your team is still knee-deep in implementing your previous one.
In addition, remember that, as dean, you may not be privy to the complexities of the roles of the provost or the president. While I am always willing to express my point of view and stand up for my school, I realize that a lot more is going on in the world of the provost and president than I am aware of.
When things feel tough, stay focused on why you chose to work in higher education: universities exist to educate students and set them up for future success, as well as to benefit the world through the expansion of knowledge. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.