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.)

An end-of-year message from the outgoing SJMC Director

Dear students of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication:

As I bring my five-year term as Director of the School to a close this month, I am so proud of the progress that our faculty, our staff, and you, our students, have made together. These were some of the worst budget years for the nation, as well as an unprecedented period of disruptive technological change for the whole mass communication industry. But thanks to all of our efforts, our School is stronger than ever before.

SJMC capConsider just a few comparisons with where we were in Spring 2009 when I first became Director. Today, we count a hundred more majors (and we admit more students each semester); we distribute more scholarship money (including new funds supporting student internships); we engage in more community partnerships (including our award-winning collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism); and we employ more faculty and staff than at any time since I was hired back in 2001 (with one more new professor, specializing in global media ethics, joining us next fall).

I want to thank you all for your hard work, your support, and your creativity through these challenging years. And … I’d like to ask you for one more thing.

Over the past week we’ve been running a social media campaign across the web and mobile media — including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and our own UW-Madison site — around the theme #SJMCGaveMe. Our goal has been to solicit stories about the difference that SJMC has made in the lives and careers of our many colleagues, alumni, friends and supporters around the world. In just one week we have heard so many great things and reconnected with so many important stakeholders — so far, the campaign has been a huge success! Check out some of the stories on Twitter by searching the hashtag #SJMCGaveMe, or just visit http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu

Our #SJMCGaveMe campaign is still going on for one more week, and I’d like to personally invite you to participate as well. Nothing pleases our alumni more than to hear from the current generation of students who are following in their footsteps. Please, visit http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu/shareyourstory/ today, and share a story of your own. Especially for our graduating seniors, not only do we want to hear from you now, before you leave campus, but also we want to keep in contact with you as you move into your lives and careers beyond UW-Madison.

Finally, if you are so inclined, I’d also like to invite you to make a small gift to our Annual Fund — the same fund we use to keep our iPads up to date, to pay student hourly workers for special projects, and to make sure that our faculty and staff receive the best professional training so that they may pass along the latest techniques to all of you in the classroom. You can find our donation page at http://bit.ly/donatesjmcgaveme

No donation is too small! For graduating seniors, for example, a donation of $20.14 might be a nice symbolic gesture. Plus, for the next week, every donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by our Alumni Board of Visitors. If you’ve benefited from our technology resources, our scholarships, or our intensive classroom experiences like Curb magazine, you know what kinds of great things these donations can do for the next generation of students. You can start giving back today at http://bit.ly/donatesjmcgaveme

OK, that’s the end of the sales pitch. Let me just close by saying that it has been an honor and a privilege to serve all of you as SJMC Director, and I wish all of you the very best in all that you do. And remember, whether you’re graduating this year or not, don’t ever stop learning — and leading. You’re Badgers — and you’re J-Schoolers — and we hope you’ll always call our campus, and our School, your home.



Gregory J. Downey
Evjue-Bascom Professor
School of Journalism & Mass Communication (Director)
School of Library & Information Studies (Professor)
Center for the History of Print & Digital Culture (Director)
Internships in the Liberal Arts & Sciences (Director)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5112 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706 USA
(608) 695-4310


A new job where I will be wearing more ties

So, invisible blog audience, I have some news.  As UW-Madison College of Letters and Science Dean John Karl Scholz emailed out today,

I am pleased to announce that Greg Downey, Evjue-Bascom Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) and the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), has been appointed the new Associate Dean for the Social Sciences in the College of Letters & Science beginning May 26.

I’m humbled and delighted to have been chosen by Karl for this job, and I look forward to learning more about all of the departments and units that will soon be under my stewardship as an Associate Dean.  For the next two months I’ll be working closely with our current Associate Dean for Social Sciences, Maria Cancian, to make my transition into South Hall a smooth one.  (For those of you who don’t know her, Maria is the official dictionary definition of “a hard act to follow” in this role, but I will do my best.)

I wouldn’t have been a candidate for this job without the five years of intensive administrative and leadership training that my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication have so graciously (if perhaps unknowingly) provided for me during my time as SJMC Director.  And I am relieved that even as Associate Dean, I will continue to be able to teach my undergraduate course on The Information Society with my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Library & Information Studies.

Downey G - cowboyThis summer, if you’re the chair or director of an L&S social sciences unit, please expect that I’ll come calling with some coffee for a nice long conversation about how we can best work together to support your research, teaching, and service mission.  For everyone else, don’t be shocked if you see me bicycling past you toward South Hall wearing a tie and jacket.  (But probably not the cowboy hat.)

Not just “Discovery to Product” (D2P), but also “Knowledge to Action” (K2A)

About a month ago, UW-Madison announced a new initiative: “Discovery to Product,” shorthanded as “D2P”.  From the official web site:

The initiative is intended to provide UW–Madison faculty and students with an easy-to-access gateway to a comprehensive suite of resources to help transform ideas and discovery into companies and products to bolster Wisconsin’s economy.

This kind of effort, understood both here and at other universities as falling under the broad concept of “technology transfer,” sets the public research university in a particular relationship with both its sponsoring state government and its private market environment.  The idea is that the innovations that emerge from the public research university — whose people and infrastructure are financed by a $2.8 billion mix of funds from citizen tax dollars (17%), individual tuition payments (16%), competitive grant awards (31%), philanthropic gifts (18%), and revenue-generating enterprises (13%), among other sources — should have both public impacts and private benefits beyond the reach of the campus.  Bringing these innovations to market is supposed to generate three positive results:

  1. For innovations that can be moved to the private sector — as a new startup company delivering a particular service, or as a new bit of intellectual property licensed as a temporary patent, say — the assumption is that the market is the most efficient way for the innovation to have a quick and profound impact on society.  In the case of medical devices or new drug therapies, for example, speeding interventions to vulnerable populations is an important public health goal.  (Incidentally, this is the mission of the non-profit Morgridge Institute for Research, a formal partner with the UW-Madison Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.)
  2. State sponsors of higher education hope that through the participation of private capital, there will be spin-off benefits of economic growth in the form of new firms, new jobs, new development, new revenue to shareholders, and — from the state’s point of view — new sources of tax revenue and community stability.  So as a public research university sponsored by a particular state and situated in a particular city and county, UW-Madison is obliged to do what it can to help nurture the economic environment upon which it depends and from which it benefits.
  3. And finally, it is usually expected that some portion of the resulting private profit will return to the university itself, through licensing arrangements, to fund further research in the future — even providing a “cross-subsidy” to forms of research that aren’t as economically lucrative, such as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  (And the sponsoring state may hope that the resulting surplus can reduce its own funding burden even more.)

Here at UW-Madison, this “discovery to product” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has long been mediated by a particular actor, the non-profit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.  WARF was founded in the 1920s to bring UW-Madison professor Harry Steenbock’s Vitamin D process to market.  But as UW-Madison professor Rima Apple has shown in her history of WARF’s founding, the motivation for creating this outside organization was not only to capture licensing revenues for future UW research, but also to ensure that Vitamin D was produced responsibly and safely (and in a way that protected the Wisconsin dairy industry).  Along these lines, here at UW-Madison, the “D2P” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has been guided by a particular normative ideal, which we call the Wisconsin Idea, or “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.”  So today our D2P efforts are being coordinated through WARF and branded under the Wisconsin Idea.

Such a D2P initiative is exciting and well-intentioned.  But I have a concern about it that comes from my own experience as both a faculty member and a department chair here at UW-Madison — and from recent conversations with campus colleagues in places as diverse as the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, the Madison Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America, and the Center for Nonprofits.  I believe it takes nothing away from the importance and urgency of this new “Discovery to Product” effort to realize that, at the same time, not all discoveries result in products, and not all impacts of the public research university can (or should) flow through the market.  What’s more, the very political-economic environment which makes the D2P route so attractive to university, state, and market actors may at the same time be making it harder for knowledge innovations to get “out in the wild” through a different but equally important channel: the non-profit sector.

I argue that besides “Discovery to Product” in the for-profit sector, UW-Madison and its many stakeholders need to support “Knowledge to Action” in the non-profit sector.

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Making Media Work within Knowledge Infrastructures

Two summers ago I was flattered and fortunate to be an invited guest to a research workshop on “Knowledge Infrastructures” at the University of Michigan School of Information.  Sponsored by both the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, I found this event to be a highly interdisciplinary, refreshingly speculative, and entirely energizing exercise.  (Plus, I met a lot of really smart and very kind people.)  Over two dozen of us hailing from a bunch of different disciplines — history and sociology, computer science and information science, technology studies and digital humanities — spent several days together in a state-of-the-art workshop space to discuss and debate how “knowledge infrastructures” might best be understood, studied, and evaluated.

This week I received the formal result of that conference: a freely-downloadable 32-page report entitled Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research Challenges, written by the eight principal scholars behind the project: Paul N. Edwards, Steven J. Jackson, Melissa K. Chalmers, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Christine L. Borgman, David Ribes, Matt Burton, and Scout Calvert. In the words of the authors (p. iii):

This document reports the outcomes, organized around three central questions: How are knowledge infrastructures changing? How do changes in knowledge infrastructures reinforce or redistribute authority, influence, and power? And how can we best study, know, and imagine knowledge infrastructures moving forward?

(You can see a candid snapshot from the workshop session below … and although I appear to be scowling in the middle of the photo, I was really having a great time!)


Although the conference organizers specifically tried to defer pinning down the definition of “knowledge infrastructures” too tightly, to avoid deterring interesting lines of imaginative contribution from the participants, Edwards usefully defined knowledge infrastructures as (p. 5):

[R]obust networks of people, artifacts, and institutions that generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds.

I like this definition of a knowledge infrastructure because it is flexible enough to encompass phenomena as diverse as the US public school system, the interlocking joint financing, production, and distribution arrangements among major global entertainment media firms, or the hardware, software, data and marketing activities of Google.

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Evjue-Bascom Professorship: Many thanks

Friends, if I may, I have a happy professional announcement to post on my weblog today.  I have just learned that I have been formally awarded an Evjue-Bascom Professorship, through the recommendation of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the College of Letters & Science here at UW-Madison.  Through the generous donations of alumni and friends of the University, this professorship provides the faculty member with a research fund of $12,000 each year.  Such resources are crucially important to sustain our research excellence, especially in this time of federal budget sequestration and shrinking state percentage appropriations to higher education.

As any faculty member will tell you, to be honored with a named professorship is a fantastic moment in one’s career.  But this particular professorship holds special meaning for me, for three reasons.

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