Published: Sept. 28, 2015 By

Humanist BlogAbout vision and governance

Reading around a bit, I discovered that most people feel that associate deans (“deanlets” in the current jargon) are beholden to the dean of their colleges and, therefore, do not or should not have a vision of their own. This might be true in the general sense, since the administrative elements of a college should be working together to achieve overarching goals that benefit the college as a whole. It is not true, however, in a more specific sense, because without a vision of her/his own, the associate dean becomes a paper-pusher whose only tangible effect is to approve the hires of permanent or temporary staff, endorse or deny requests for funding, and deal with unexpected shortfalls (all rigorously endorsed by the dean and other higher ups); or simply present one’s division with decisions and announcements from above. If that were what I thought I would be doing every day, I would not have been interested in the job.

So: is there a place for an associate dean’s vision in the running of the college? I believe there is if two conditions are met: 1) The dean allows the associate deans to have a say in the short and long term strategic planning of the college; 2) The chairs and directors in the division are willing participants in the discussion and implementation of ideas and plans, whether they are proposed from the administrative side of thing, or they emanate from the faculty, and chairs and directors themselves. Without a collaborative, discursive spirit on both ends of spectrum, the associate dean can have the greatest ideas in the world, but the vision remains mired in nothingness.

I pose these questions because, as a chair, I always wondered what was my role in implementing a ‘vision’ of the college, and often wondered whether there was a college vision to begin with. My feeling often was that departments and programs (and their chairs and directors) almost expected the dean and the associate deans to have a vision and a strategic plan for how the college and the divisions should perform, but that, when anything akin to a vision was proposed, the reaction often was based on whether the individual department or program might benefit from that vision. And it often elicited a negative reaction, because it was felt that the vision had become an imposition from above.

Part of the problem, in my view, was (and still is) that there was/is not enough time spent as a division in face-to-face time to discuss vision changes that elicit collaborative responses and, at times, acceptance of these changes as a group. Indeed, every time someone proposes to meet to discuss change, one can almost hear the collective groans and whispers of “do we need to have another meeting?,” and “why meet again, when nothing gets done at these meetings.” This in itself is problematic because, if the point of departure for people to participate in a series of vision/strategic meetings is to think that nothing gets done, the self-fulfilling prophecy is that nothing gets done. I remember that, last year, the chairs and directors in my division began meeting first on their own, then with the previous associate dean, to discuss how to counter the perception that we are a division in crisis (a defensive vision maybe, but a vision nonetheless). Though everybody was invited, half the members participated, some wondering if the additional meetings would achieve anything, others wanting to vent specific frustrations tied to their programs and departments. Gradually, however, some consensus was created (we met at least once a month for the entirety of the academic year), and in the end there were at least two positive outcomes from the meetings: we decided that the dean should be invited to a divisional meeting to hear us out; and we compiled a list of recommendations to discuss with the dean. Significantly, when the dean did respond to our invitation, he readily accepted one of our most pressing recommendations—that as representatives of the division we be allowed to rank our proposals for tenure-track hires. In the meeting, the dean also decided to push forward with the admissions’ office for a new scholarship for incoming arts and humanities freshmen that would not be based on quantitative scores (implemented this year!); and was equally responsive to our suggestion that his public support of the division be positive and not veering toward a “narrative of crisis.”

Were these achievements, even if modest, part of a vision that anyone in particular can claim as her/his own? Probably not. But they suggest that, if someone has a vision, and this vision is then passed through the sieve of collaborative participation, there can be collective buy-in that allows everybody a say in how things move forward. In the above-mentioned case, the vision came from a few chairs and directors. It was then expanded to others in the division, then to the associate dean, and finally to the dean. At each stage, discussion, readjustment, and compromises followed, but a small amount of progress was enacted. This is what shared governance is all about, and it takes communication and participation to move forward.

Back to the question that opened this post: do I, as associate dean, have a vision? Yes, I do. I made it quite explicit during the interviews for this position. I want to be an advocate for the Arts and Humanities, but I think the Arts and Humanities in the college have to do a better job of presenting themselves in accessible ways. We also have to do a better job of showing that what we do benefits our students internally, and the public externally. I want to promote and push forward the public Arts and Humanities, and I believe we need to do a better job of practicing being an inclusive university that promotes excellence at all levels of its organization. Finally, we need to generate more enthusiasm for the essential values that we promote in students and public through our advocacy and teaching in our fields of knowledge. The goal is to find practical ways to ensure that this happens, and that’s where the division needs to work collaboratively with the dean.

Since taking over the position, I have realized that there are some very basic addenda to these ideals that need to be considered even as I advocate for what we do. They have to do with quantitative realities that need tending to, as well as some ethical questions we need to ask ourselves. But maybe that’s for a different entry (maybe titled “the moral conundrums of the associate dean).


Valerio Ferme
Sept. 28, 2015