What Keeps Deans Up at Night

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Thursday, February 21, 2019
By Stephanie Bryant, Linda Hadley
Photo by iStock
Being a business school dean is a challenging job, with many shared pain points among deans.

At AACSB’s 2019 Deans Conference held earlier this month in Vancouver, we held a bonus session titled “What Keeps Deans Up at Night.” While this session was only an hour, it could have easily been a two-hour session, and even then we likely wouldn’t have gotten to all of the questions.

It goes without saying that being a business school dean is a really challenging job, both emotionally and physically. This is especially true in your first deanship. While you may well have been a successful researcher, teacher, and important contributor in service to your department, college, university, and community, being a dean requires a different skill set than one must master to be a successful professor. This session was designed to provide deans an opportunity to hear that they are not alone, and to hear suggested solutions to various challenges from fellow deans. Here we share with you the main issues we heard as well as participant suggestions for how to address some of those issues.

Of the approximately 200 deans present in this session, we received 68 discrete comments, which fall into eight general categories ranked below by how frequently they were mentioned:

  1. Faculty issues, including faculty incivility, uncooperative faculty, faculty “retiring in place,” unethical faculty
  2. Enrollment growth (or lack thereof)
  3. The pace of change and challenges in staying current
  4. Time management, including how to deal with an endless mountain of email
  5. Managing “up”—issues with the president, provost, or others in the university not understanding the value proposition of a great business school
  6. Financial issues, including budget, faculty pay, protecting business school reserves
  7. Recruiting and retaining qualified faculty
  8. AACSB issues, including helping peer review teams understand their unique environment (peer training), assurance of learning, helping upper administration understand the value of AACSB accreditation

Participating deans offered a number of suggestions on how to deal with these challenges:

Addressing Faculty Issues

By far this was the most mentioned issue. How do you motivate faculty who already have tenure to stay current in their field, be a positive force in the department and university, and work with others for the collective good?

Deans offered the following suggestions:

  • Even the most outwardly disengaged faculty member generally has something they care about. If you can identify that one thing and engage the faculty member in that area, you can sometimes create a win-win plan for engaging the faculty member and helping the college at the same time.
  • One experienced dean advised that discretionary funding can be used to incentivize faculty for taking on difficult projects or helping formulate solutions for problems the college may be facing.
  • An interesting suggestion was offered by a dean who said they set a time limit on the amount of grousing on a particular issue; that is, they allowed the issue to be aired, but not allow it to dominate a conversation.

Recruiting and Retaining Faculty

Suggestions included:

  • Remember the importance of the personal touch. One dean always personally picks up candidates at the airport and does a drive-around tour of the community, pointing out the amenities the community has to offer.
  • Recruiting a faculty member often means you are wooing an accompanying family. What does the spouse or partner care about? Can you help a trailing spouse with a job or other connections that matter to them? Is the school system important to the family? Accepting a new position is often a family decision, and considering what matters to the entire family is a smart strategy.
  • While salary is always important, it is sometimes not the most important thing. Do you have a particular program the prospective faculty member might be interested in helping develop? Do you have acclaimed faculty who might be willing to serve as a mentor? Is there a thriving arts scene, outdoor culture, or just about anything that might be of intrinsic interest to your prospective faculty member? Do you have an especially collegial and close faculty? Often these intrinsic incentives will help attract and/or retain faculty.
  Fast Facts About Deans

 • 70% of deans who responded were in their first deanship
 • Average tenure of deans both U.S. and globally was identical at 5.9 years
 • Average age of deans was 56

Source: 2017-18 Triennial AACSB Deans Survey

Managing Time

Deans lamented the constant barrage of emails and relentless demands on their time. Some very thoughtful guidance emerged from this discussion:

  • One of the first comments was that we as deans need to remember that it’s not the end of the world if we do not answer every email as soon as we receive it. In fact, there could be distinct advantages to not doing so, as often what presents itself as an “urgent” matter might actually resolve itself without your intervention, given a day or two of “resting” in your inbox. One dean remarked that they had never seen an “educational emergency,” which made us laugh and helped bring perspective to the pressure to respond immediately.
  • Setting a beginning and ending time to your day is essential. This is about establishing personal boundaries and drawing lines between your personal and professional life.
  • Some deans do not answer emails over the weekend and instead use that time to rejuvenate and spend time with their families. And they don’t apologize for it.
  • While the group didn’t get to a discussion about how deans can maintain publication and scholarly activity, we offer one thought: if remaining active in scholarship is important to you, then prioritize it by making it the very first thing you do every day. Some popular books on productivity advocate getting up an hour earlier for things such as writing, working out, or other activities that would not otherwise get done. Getting in front of the thing you never seem to have time for can be an effective way to start your day.

Making Decisions—About Budgets and Beyond

Decision-related topics are invariably intertwined with a general theme of shrinking pools of money but increasing expectations, along with university and sometimes collective bargaining constraints.

Deans offered the following advice:

  • A seasoned dean revealed that he/she had made the decision to put more of the college’s money into the departments. When budget cuts loomed, the dean invited the departments to be a part of the decision-making process since money resided in their areas.
  • Being transparent with the faculty was another theme. When faculty are provided all of the information and all of the options, they are at least in a position to understand the pros and cons of decisions.
  • Using college-wide budget committees is another way to accomplish the same collective decision-making and ownership of final decisions.

Finally, we talked as a group about the importance of cultivating relationships with peers—that is, fellow deans at your university who understand your unique environment, as well as deans at similar schools. A good relationship with your provost and president is essential. The business school should be seen as a leader on campus in all of these aforementioned issues. Regular meetings with your faculty, your fellow deans at your institution, and your provost can help center you and ensure you are making wise decisions that are in the collective best interest of the college and university.

Stephanie Bryant
Executive Vice President and Global Chief Accreditation Officer, AACSB International
Linda Hadley
Dean, Columbus State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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