When I was a graduate student I could not have told you the name of the dean of the graduate college within which I was enrolled nor the name of the dean of the college in which I taught for six years. And I could not have named either because neither dean affected my daily life. I probably could have named my university’s president because he was frequently in the news, but I doubt I was even aware that a provost existed.
As a graduate student, you’re generally shielded from layers of administration that don’t affect your daily life, which unfortunately means that after we defend dissertations and take up faculty positions, many of us are virtually ignorant of what administrators do and of how to interact with university leadership outside our own departments. Once you are in a faculty position, the decisions of university leaders such as chancellors, provosts, and deans will have much more tangible effects upon your career and life.
As a graduate student, probably only one level of the university commonly affects your life, and that is the level of the department, the basic academic unit of our postsecondary education system. As a graduate student, you navigate among your fellow graduate students and the faculty who teach graduate courses, supervise research, and supervise the teaching you do. That navigation is typically limited to the confines of your home department (interdisciplinary trends aside). In terms of administrative layers, that’s about all the typical graduate student ever has to worry about. Unless, that is, you’ve gotten yourself into some large-scale trouble, which I’m going to assume you haven’t.
But once you become a faculty member the world gets bigger. You suddenly are forced to become aware of the layers of administration above you. One way that you become aware of administration is through the cynical, snarky jokes that some of your colleagues will make about specific administrators, or about that really nasty boogeyman, the nameless, faceless "administration" in general. The jokes and the cynicism are so omnipresent that they almost seem like a condition for employment in higher education at times, but the jokes mask the fact that many junior faculty members have never received instruction on what it is that specific administrative roles accomplish. Until you actually know what a dean or provost does, you haven’t earned the right to be cynical (due time, due time).
There are essentially four levels of university leadership within typical organization structures that faculty members need to be aware of, the department (led by a chair or head), the college (led by a dean), the provost, and the university chancellor or president. At liberal arts colleges, which are by definition relatively small institutions, the dean and provost roles may well be combined. Within American universities, related departments are generally organized into colleges, and institutions comprising multiple colleges are universities. A department head or chair will lead an individual department. Whether the individual is called a "head" or a "chair" varies slightly between university governance systems. Another variation is whether or not the departmental leader is elected by the faculty of the department and then affirmed by higher administration, or simply selected by administrators at the college or university level. I’m going to assume that this departmental leader is one whose role even most junior faculty are familiar with, so I won’t dwell here.
Outside of your own department, things become a little more complex and foreign. Let’s start, literally, at the top.
Again depending on the nature of your university’s organizational structure and/or state law, your university is led by either a chancellor or a president. This university leader is responsible for everything that happens on your campus, to include not only academics, but also the budget for the institution, and absolutely everything that falls under the purview of your university. This leader sets institutional priorities, but also answers upward, in many state university systems, to a systemwide chancellor or president who is in charge of an entire state system. Your university chancellor or president might also deal with the state legislature (if you’re at a public university), and probably meets with a board of regents (essentially, guardians of the university, very often political appointees with ties to the university), while also maintaining relationships with the alumni that remain involved with (and hopefully donating to) your university. It’s unlikely that you’ll interact with the president or chancellor often, and when you do it’s likely to be at a large university event or possibly at a special forum.
At most universities a provost is the chief academic officer. In all the cases I’m aware of, the provost answers directly to the president or chancellor. This leader is responsible for everything having to do with academics, including both faculty and student academic concerns. Another way to think of the provost is as the leader of the deans (hang with me for a moment, I’m getting back to deans). Unlike the chancellor, who deals with everything from athletics to proposed legislation, the provost is focused on the university’s academic mission, and how to achieve that mission with an allotted budget. But even this “focus” is broad. Faculty members tend to think of “academics” as two things, teaching and research. But the provost, for example, is responsible for making sure, among many other things, that there are labs to conduct research in and classrooms available for instruction. Again, though, a junior faculty member’s level of interaction with a provost is likely to be minimal, at least on a day-to-day basis. Later, when you go up for tenure, the provost will, in most systems weigh in on your case, once your file has been reviewed at departmental and college levels (again, depending on state law and/or your institution’s governance procedures).
Now we reach the college level, wherein the combination of allied departments that are organized together within a college are collectively led by a dean.
It is standard for interviewees who have made it to the "on campus" portion of the interview process to at some point meet with the dean of the college where the hiring department resides. It is an important meeting. Apart from your department head, the dean of your college will affect your career more directly than any other administrator. And yet, for many job applicants, their meetings with deans during job interviews may be the very first time that they have ever met a dean. And the candidate, as a result, might not even be very sure what a dean does, aside from being, uh, important. That was certainly my own case when I attended my first on-campus interviews.
One of a dean’s primary responsibilities is managing personnel within the college, which is why it is typical for candidates to meet with a dean during the interview. The dean has a stake in who a department hires. Within some university cultures it is the dean who actually makes hiring decisions and formally presents offers to the selected candidate. Deans also have the power to veto a department’s hiring decision before an offer is made if they see a quality in the candidate that raises a red flag. Deans, because they are in charge of a college’s budget, decide when a department does or does not get to make a hire. In recent years, with state budgets in disarray, this has also meant that deans decide when to cancel a search for a faculty position. If you are offered a position, when you negotiate your salary and other benefits, you are essentially negotiating with the dean, even if you’re dealing with the department head, because dean’s typically have to sign off on salary numbers.
In preparation for your interview meeting with the dean, it’s important to have done your research and to have some grasp of the mission of the university where you’re interviewing, particularly if you are interviewing at a smaller or regional institution where research is unlikely to be the be-all, end-all. You’ll need to sell yourself a bit in this meeting. It is essential also to come prepared with questions, and not softball questions. It would show awareness and savvy, for example, to ask a dean how he or she plans to handle an impending budget cut. It might be difficult to discover what a dean’s priorities for the college are before you arrive, but an awareness of those priorities and an ability to speak to them might help your candidacy in the dean’s eyes. Deans want to know that their faculty members are aware of the bigger picture within which the college operates, in part because they set and help to carry out the priorities of the college. Faculty members with awareness of the situation and who buy into the vision are the only way that a plan will be implemented.
Junior faculty members should also understand that a dean’s responsibilities reach down to the departments and faculty members below the dean’s office, as well as up to the layers of administration above the dean, such as the provost and the chancellor. Deans represent the interests of their colleges and the department’s within their colleges to higher levels of administration, advocating for resources and institutional priorities that match the needs of the faculty members and students within the array of departments that they represent. The deans of a university’s various colleges will meet, under the leadership of the provost, to address larger picture issues.
The best deans — and I’ve had more of them than most people with my level of relative inexperience, two of them excellent and one of them not — have the backing of the faculty members that they represent, and make themselves available both to those faculty members and to students. They are also transparent, whenever appropriate, in their decision-making. They are not unnecessarily adversarial.
A few simple practices can help you to stay abreast of university politics and policies, and aware of administrative priorities. Pay attention to strategic initiatives announced at the college or university level. This are often ignored by faculty as hot air, but such announcements and forums indicate the future direction of your university, something you’ll want to be aware of and perhaps even weigh in on. Relatedly, pay attention to college and university policy discussions. It’s generally a good idea for junior faculty to avoid day-to-day university politics, but you can still have your position represented by relaying it through a trusted senior colleague, department chair, or faculty senator. When an administrator comes to speak to your department or college, attend. Such events are regarded by the cynical as dog-and-pony shows. Personally, I like attending the meetings of my entire college faculty. They’re infrequent, usually informative, sometimes there’s even a little drama, and if nothing else I get to see friends and colleagues from other departments who I don’t usually get to see on a daily basis.
Finally, a word of caution. One thing that all administrators and leaders of people do is manage conflict. It is essential though that if a conflict arises that you are involved in that you follow proper procedures and channels. If you have a conflict with another faculty member that the two of you can’t resolve on your own, don’t run straight to the dean. Go through your department. Proceed slowly, deliberately, and unemotionally through precisely the avenues described in faculty governance documents, which should be readily available. No matter how righteous your position, moving outside of proper channels will undermine it, and could do much worse for your career in the process.
When you are first hired and attend an orientation you will likely receive a faculty handbook. It will be thick. It will not be a piece of reading that calls out to you. But reading the appropriate sections covering university governance is the fastest way to get a grasp on how leadership and governance at your university are structured, as well as the appropriate procedures for handling various types of conflicts.
You will hear plenty of horror stories about administrators, about a notoriously capricious dean, or an ineffectual such-and-such. Many of those stories are true, but faculty love to embellish them, and they are the exception rather than the norm. At any rate, you’ll have to work with administrators, and understanding their responsibilities might make those tasks a bit easier for you and temper some of the cynicism.