Ten Things to Ponder after you are Appointed as an Associate Dean

Back in spring 2013, after I had served for about four years as a department chair for the School of Journalism & Mass Communication here at UW-Madison, I posted a blog entry entitled “Ten Things to Ponder after you are Elected Department Chair” that I hoped would “provide current and future colleagues in the same spot with some useful starting points for thinking through their own goals and responsibilities as they shift from a life of ‘research, teaching and service’ to the equally complicated and contradictory world of ‘administration.’”

Well, two years ago I was appointed as the associate dean for social sciences in the College of Letters & Science here at UW-Madison.  I thought it might be interesting to go through the same top-ten exercise with my current job, in light of two tumultuous years of post-recession budget cuts, partisan politics around tenure and the Wisconsin Idea, and public debates over the purpose and value of a college degree in the twenty-first century.  So here is my gently updated list:

Ten Things to Ponder after you are Appointed as an Associate Dean.

10. Remember to refer to yourself as having been “appointed” as an associate dean, to remind yourself (and your colleagues) that you serve at the pleasure of the dean and are subject to dismissal from this position at any time if you fail to do your job with accuracy, professionalism, and integrity — or if you decide that you can no longer support your dean’s vision for your college.

9. Be clear that your administrative role is not simply to allocate resources among the departments and programs in your division, but also to mitigate the inevitable effects of differing levels of power and resources among those units — especially recognizing that there is no single and universal metric of productivity or impact that can be applied to all of your diverse units fairly and consistently.  (This is all the more important to remember in tight budget years when there are precious few resources to allocate — or when resources are being eliminated.)

8. Be prepared to work collaboratively across your departments and programs, across your college’s broad divisions, and even across other schools and colleges in your university, in partnership with your fellow associate deans, assistant deans, and other mid-level administrators of all sorts.  (After all, most of what a top public research university ends up doing is not easily divided into arbitrary disciplinary or organizational boxes.)

7. Be content with not knowing the answer to every question; instead, cultivate the trust and cooperation of your fellow administrative staff across the university so that you are able to quickly find the answers or assemble the expertise to deal with whatever issues may arise.  (Knowing how to do an effective Google search of your university’s policy documents helps too.)

6. Understand that nobody else in your college sees the same broad range of departmental and program practices from your division as you do, and take every opportunity to promote and share the best of those practices widely to allow for organizational learning and collaboration.  (And if you never learn a better way of doing something from one of your units, you’re probably not paying close enough attention.)

5. Though you will be pained by both, keep in mind the profound difference between making a mistake — after which you should admit your error, express regret, and ask forgiveness — and suffering a defeat — after which you should understand the reasons for your setback, reaffirm your principles, and find a way to do better next time.  (And if you never push the boundaries of your authority and expertise as a mid-level manager, even at the risk of a gentle rebuke from your dean, you are probably being a bit too careful.)

4. Be aware that while your department chairs or directors must constantly perform “on stage” to communicate their units’ activities, missions, and values to a broad a range of stakeholders like faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, employers, and politicians, an associate dean’s communication takes place largely “backstage” to a narrower set of professional peers. (In other words, expect to let your social media accounts lie fallow for awhile.)

3. Consider that your job as an associate dean is not simply to make your departments and programs happy — nor is it to make your dean and fellow administrators happy.  Rather, your job is to provide your most careful, experienced, and evidence-based advice and assistance on a wide range of issues — with respect to both long-term strategic goals and short-term crisis intervention — to balance the often competing interests of all of those stakeholders in service of the broad institutional mission.  (This will inevitably involve saying “No” sometimes to your department chairs and program directors, and even to your dean, so always be ready to defend and explain your arguments and decisions.)

2. Remember to seek out your fellow associate and assistant deans and talk with them regularly (especially in informal settings over stimulating beverages) because you will unfortunately find it difficult to talk with your own faculty colleagues, as well as the department chairs and program directors under your stewardship, in a way that allows them (and you) to even momentarily forget about your distinctive administrative, personnel, fiduciary, and leadership roles.

1. Never forget that not only did you willingly agree to do this job, but also that you are undoubtedly learning a great deal about your state, your university, your college, your division, your departments, and yourself with every day that you survive it.  (And, with any luck, you are doing some good.)