The Academic Dean

©2002 Nicola C. DiFronzo
Widener University


edited 11/19/18


The role of the academic dean is often a difficult one to describe. As a leader in higher education the dean has various responsibilities and many challenges to face that tend to evolve with the ever-changing face of higher education. This paper will first present a historical view of the academic dean from the inception of the position to deans in the modern day. The often ambiguous responsibilities of deans will be explored along with the skills and qualities that are necessary for this position. The view of the dean as a leader of an educational institution will also be presented. Finally, a personal perspective will be explored with excerpts from an interview with the now former dean of Thomas Jefferson University's College of Health Professions, Dr. Lawrence Abrams. Dr. Abrams discusses his challenges and accomplishments during his deanship, the future of higher education, and suggestions for college deans of the future.



The role of the academic dean is one that is multifaceted, challenging and often ambiguous. This often results in an inability to truly define a dean's purpose in a college setting (Walker, p.1). It is essential that deans have the required knowledge base, skills and abilities to perform effectively in this demanding role. But what is that role and why is it difficult to describe? There are several reasons. First there is the issue that there are many types of deans who work in many different areas of higher education. There are also various types of higher education institutions in which deans can serve. A college can have many deans at different levels working in assorted areas and in different capacities. This can make defining the single role quite difficult and confusing. Robillard (2000) illustrates a wonderful and humorous example of this ambiguity. He states that in 1966, a newly inaugurated community college president asked a colleague if he would serve as dean of instruction. The colleague asked, "What is a dean of instruction?" The president exclaimed, "I'll be damned if I know, but if you want the position, we'll find out together" (p. 3). Gould (1964) states that in 1930 Dean Herbert Hawkes of Columbia College said, "there is no such thing as a standardized dean. There is a dean of this and that college, but I have never seen any two deans who could exchange places and retain the same duties" (p. 9).

Another reason the role of a dean is difficult to describe is because higher education is ever changing. The roles and responsibilities of the dean have changed over time. The modern college environment has now expanded to include "schools without walls" and a more diverse student population than ever before. As technology continues to expand so needs to does the knowledge base and skills of the dean. The college environment demands it as do the consumers, the students.

While there are deans of all ranks in many different areas of education and in many types of collegiate institutions most people see the dean as having a single trait, the ability to be a leader. Within this leadership role the dean needs to "perform service, be accountable, fulfill a moral role, act as a steward, build diverse communities with trust and collaboration, and promote excellence" (www.

Early Years of the Dean

The growth of administration in higher education, along with the implementation of the position of dean was seen after the Civil War. This growth was a response to an increase in enrollment along with requests for new and additional services (Rudolph, 1990). "Before the Civil War most institutions had managed with a president, a treasurer, and a part-time librarian (Rudolph, 1990, p. 434). After however came into existence the need for many more individuals to manage an educational institution. These included in succession: a secretary of the faculty, a registrar, a vice-president, a dean, a dean of women, the chief business officer, an assistant dean, a dean of men, a director of admissions, and a corps of administrative assistants to the president. (Rudolph, 1990).

All of the new administrators worked with colleagues at other institutions in similar positions to create new standards of procedure, with one exception, the dean (Rudolph, 1990). Gould (1964) illustrates that the role of the dean emerged when college presidents needed an individual to relieve them of record and housekeeping duties. It has also been stated that at this time the deans primary role was to "maintain collegiate and human values in an atmosphere of increasing scholarship and specialization" (Rudolph, 1990, p. 435). The students however viewed the dean somewhat differently. "The American college dean was a first response to the inevitable tendencies of the organization institution: he was the human touch" (Rudolph, 1990, 459).

The dean was a person the students could go to in times of trouble and in times of prosper, and to learn from the dean about life. Incidences of a dean paying off a gambling debt of a student, entertaining students in their homes, and representing to students the ideals of respect, conscience and fairness have been documented (Rudolph, 1990). The deans at this time were humanists while their colleagues who dominated the institutions were empiricists (Barr, Dessler and Associates, 2000). The principal characteristics of humanism are: "a belief in human rationality, confidence in the possibility of human perfectibility, and the recognition of the importance of self-awareness" (Barr, Dessler and Associates, 2000, p. 14 ). It has been argued that if the deans actions at that time were given more merit and viewed as what was truly important, then the form of educational organization would be quite different (Barr, et al 2000).

The Modern Day Dean

While they still may have kept some of their humanist ideals of the past, the academic dean of today is viewed quite differently than in the past. Gould (1964) notes a thirty year progression of the roles of the dean as going from "almost sole concern with students, through a phase when students and curriculum were his largest responsibilities, to a period when curriculum and faculty demanded the greatest part of his energies, and finally to a place where his major concern is the faculty alone" (p. 10). He illustrates a movement that shifted away from students to one that moved towards the faculty.

Wolverton, Gmelch, Montez and Nies (2001) state that a dean's duties have changed over time from being "almost exclusively student focused to include a multifaceted array of roles, such a budgeting and fundraising, personnel and work environment management, program oversight, and external public relations" (p. 6).

Roles and Responsibilities

The problem of a dean's multitudinous responsibilities is apparent in modern day educational settings. Robillard (2000) illustrates this point by showing that within job announcements in The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 1999 there were a plethora of duties listed for individuals striving for positions as deans. One institution noted that the candidate must, "assume leadership responsibility, curriculum planning and development, staffing, evaluation, and budgetary administration" (Robillard, 2000 p. 4) .Another listed duties such as program assessment, development of partnerships among internal and external constituents, and conflict management skills (Robillard, 2000).

Expertise with budgetary matters is extremely important and experience in administration and supervisory skills are essential since the dean is the individual that hires and evaluates the faculty (Robillard, 2000). It does not appear that the list of responsibilities for a dean is exhaustive, nor are these duties always very clear. The individual institution and the needs of those that are a part of the organization often dictate the scope and magnitude of these responsibilities.

Skills Needed to Fulfill the Role of the Dean

Bragg (2002) suggests six core knowledge areas that are essential for a dean. These include; (1) knowledge of the mission, philosophy, and history of the institution, (2) learner-centered orientation, (3) instructional leadership, (4) information and educational technologies, (5) assessment and accountability, and (6) administrative preparation. All of these knowledge areas though cannot remain constant. They need to continue to evolve as an institution evolves. Changes within an institution can encompass not only the institution itself but also changes in faculty, staff, and the student body (Walker, p. 3). The dean as a leader must be equipped to handle such changes.

Bragg (2000) also states that deans should "possess democratic leadership, creative management, and finely tuned human relation skills" (p. 75). It is evident that deans need to be multi skilled as well as possess a plethora of knowledge in many areas. It would be seemingly impossible however for these leaders to know exactly the right answers to all the questions they are asked and how to handle every situation that occurs. Findlen (2000) quotes a graduate instructor named William Parker Riley in stating, "if you don't know something, know where to look it up" (p. 87). He illustrates this point with this statement,

Administrators cannot know everything. If they did they would be experts on legal issues as wide ranging as student rights and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, education access and the Americans with Disabilities Act, management's rights and the Fair Labor Standards Act, and sexual harassment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. They would also be experts on topics as wide ranging as the parameters of free speech and academic freedom, as well as what constitutes teaching excellence and how to evaluate it (Findlen, 2000, p. 87).

Deans are expected to find solutions to the difficult and varied situations that arise each day. They need to keep current with the world of higher education and the changes that are occurring not only at their own institution but at other colleges and universities as well. Findlen (2000) provides a practical reference list for college deans to utilize along with illustrating some pressing issues confronting deans today. Some of the best skills a college dean can possess are the constant thirst for knowledge, commitment to lifelong learning, and the courage to embrace change in the ever-evolving world of higher education.

The Dean as a Leader

As essentially a manager of academic and student affairs, 'the dean as the leader actually creates the stage for future operations while managing day-to- day activities" (Bragg, 2000, p. 75). The dean needs to always be thinking ahead to the future while dealing with the present. Walton (1996) illustrates thoughts on leadership McPherson, the former dean and college president of Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Dr. McPherson states,

When you consider a leadership role for yourself or for someone else, you are contemplating a very complex and unstable relation of one individual to the greater social body-be it a campus community, a neighborhood, a city, a region, a generation, a nation. All of our deepest questions and needs are writ large in the leader, who dramatizes for everyone the shifting and elusive relation of the one to many, the individual to the masses; the relation of the past to the future; and the critical issues of weakness and power. All spheres of leadership overlap ... no small group exists in isolation from the larger groups of which it is part or from which it tries to distinguish itself. This ripple effect ... means that no mantle of leadership is trivial; every task of leadership works toward the largest ends we can imagine-social justice, peace, health and well being (Walton, 1996, p. 156).

Along with exercising the necessary skills to meet the challenges of the position, the dean of an institution must always assume a leadership position. Wolverton, et al. (2001) states that "the leadership linchpin that holds an organization together lies midway between those perceived as leaders and those upon whose work the reputation of the organization rests. In universities today, academic deans fill this role" (p. 5).

A Personal Perspective

Last year I interviewed Dr. Lawrence Abrams, Dean of Thomas Jefferson University's College of Health Professions. Dr. Abrams, who served as Dean for this organization for twenty-three years, shared with me some challenges he faced during his time as dean as well the accomplishments of which he is most proud. Dr. Abrams also shared with me his thoughts on the future of higher education and what qualities he believes are essential for the deans of the future.

Challenges and Accomplishments

One of Dean Abrams main concerns with higher education is in the area of guidance counseling and advising. He feels that academic advising and counseling at the high school and college level is lacking and weak and feels it is one of the top challenges facing higher education today. He feels that within their graduate studies students that wish to become high school guidance counselors are not properly trained to advise students about colleges. This he feels may cause students not to weigh their options properly or not even know about all of the options available to them after graduation. He also feels that college counselors don't know enough about the specific careers to advise students properly. Dean Abrams stated that this is the reason many students are taking at least five years to complete their baccalaureate degree. They may start off in one major and then realize that that field may not be for them at all and then they switch majors. It is also possible that they are not successful in a chosen major and have to choose something else entirely which would also require then to take additional coursework. Poor advising may be the case with some students, but individual motivation and academic preparedness may also play a factor in the students' perplexity.

In Immerwahr's 1999 research study of 601 higher education, government and business administrators he found that the most serious problem facing education was the fact that the students are not sufficiently motivated or academically prepared to take advantage of a college education. "From the perspective of our respondents, the most critical factor in higher education is the responsibility taken by the students themselves. No amount of financial investment in higher education can, in the eyes of these leaders, replace the importance of having students who are motivated to advance their own learning" (Immerwahr, 1999, p. 7).

Dr. Abrams also feels that the colleges themselves are failing students by offering majors and degrees that lead to unemployment or underemployment. Research has supported this idea by suggesting that views about higher education are changing. Aronowitz and Giroux (2000) state that individuals no longer see higher education as a means specifically for higher learning but as a way to obtain a good job. "Colleges and universities are perceived and perceive themselves as training grounds for corporate berths" (Aronowitz & Giroux, 2000, p. 333).

Dean Abrams still sees the value of a liberal arts education in order for one to go onto graduate and professional school, but not if they wish to go out and work without obtaining a second degree. Other colleges and universities seem to be following this way of thinking as they are feeling he pressure to reduce their humanities and social science course offerings to the technical and scientific curriculum (Aronowitz & Giroux, 2000). Immerwahr (1999) also states that business executives profiled in his study "want professors to teach more, focus more on research that is relevant to society, and rely more on technology" (p. 8).

According to Dr. Abrams another challenge facing both public and private institutions of higher education is the exorbitant cost to receive a baccalaureate degree. He states that this is mostly dictated not so much from the education side but from the corporate service side. He states that the cost for university services to support academic programs is much higher than it needs to be. He is not alone in his thinking. According to Immerwahr (1999) "administrators are trapped between escalating costs and limited revenue sources" (p. 6). Duderstadt (1999) cites Dionne and Kean (1997) showing that "since the late 1970s, higher education in America has been caught in a financial vise" (p. 3). There has been declining public support, diminishing state funding, and unclear federal funding (Altbach, Berdahl, & Gumport, 1999).

While the amount of services required of colleges and universities has quickly expanded the costs for these services have multiplied at an even faster rate. (Duderstadt, 1999). "As the demand for educational services grew over the past two decades and operating costs rose, public support for higher education flattened and then declined" (Duderstadt, 1999, p.3). Most colleges have been forced to greatly increase tuition and fees due to this lack of support. State support has fallen and higher education will continue to be vulnerable to state cuts, since it is "one of the few large discretionary items in state budgets other than corrections" (Altbach, Berdahl, & Gumport, 1999, p. 110). As for federal funding, while the federal government continues to support research, the growth has been moderate and may likely decline (Duderstadt, 1999).

At the national conference sponsored by the National Science Board and the National Academy of Sciences some of the major issues raised by the faculty and administrators included fears about the funding of future research, and various management issues such as indirect costs and facilities support (Duderstadt, 1999). These problems are especially pertinent at a school such as the College of Health Professions since the "academic medical center has come under great financial pressure as it has been forced to deal with a highly competitive health care marketplace and the entry of new paradigms such as managed care" (Duderstadt, 1999, p. 5).

Dean Abrams voiced another concern about resources. He explained that both operating budgets and capital budgets are not what they should be. He feels that priority for the college's resources are much different than that of other divisions namely the medical and graduate schools. According to Duderstadt (1999) most colleges and universities are looking for ways to control costs while increasing productivity but are finding resistance from their current organization and governance. As long as that continues Dean Abrams fears that although Jefferson will be able to hold on they will not be able to excel. He understands that almost no college or university has all the resources that they need.

The final challenge to higher education is the lowering or compromising of standards. He sees this as problem stemming from admission requirements to grade inflation. Dean Abrams feels today more than ever it is easier to get into and get through college and educators want to maintain their reputations as good teachers which is generally reflected through the grades that students receive as well as their evaluations of the faculty. This fourth point is one that is very important to Dean Abrams. When asking him about his accomplishments during his time as Dean good standards are what seem to stand out most.

Pushing strong standards at Jefferson is what Dean Abrams sees as one of his biggest accomplishments. He feels that it is essential to have faculty that can teach as well as students who can study, learn and pass their board exams so that they can work at the jobs that they have been training for. Dean Abrams feel that if there were a ranking of the top 127 formal colleges of health professions that Jefferson would be if not first, then easily in the top two or three. He reports that it has taken many years to build up that type of reputation and high standards. Various changes have been implemented and the curriculum for the different programs was innovated years ago.

This type of restructuring has helped Jefferson to be more of a comprehensive college than other schools that have a similar makeup. Dean Abrams also mentioned that Jefferson focuses on teaching excellence. Research and scholarly activity is also brought in where Jefferson leads the nation in external funding but teaching is Jefferson's primary focus.

The Future of Higher Education

When talking about the future of higher education Dean Abrams has a somewhat nostalgic view. He believes we are going to return to the personnel execution, meaning more instruction by people rather than technology. He feels that distance learning can work for some but not for the student in general. He believes there will be a swing back to more teacher instruction rather than technology instruction. Teacher instruction, meeting with professors to talk during office hours, basic one-on-one contact he feels leads to better learning and this interaction with others enhances the learning experience. Technology-based critics would disagree in that they "think our traditional colleges are dinosaurs that will be replaced by commercial vendors of distance learning" (Immerwahr, 1999, p. 6). Duderstadt (1999) would also strongly oppose this view. He states that "those institutions that can step up to this process of change will thrive. Those that bury their heads in the sand, that rigidly defend the status quo or even worse-some idyllic vision of a past that never existed, are at very great risk (p. 1). Duderstadt (1999) feels that institutions that do not change with the current information age will not progress and grow. However this one-to one learning still occurs today largely in the health professions especially in the area of medicine (Duderstadt, 1999). This may be one reason Dean Abrams feels so strongly about this more "personal" method of education.

Dean Abrams also feels that a college education is not for everyone. Historically colleges and universities represented a way for individuals usually males, to develop principles as to become well bred, cultured gentlemen (Rudolph, 1990). For example in the early 1700's William and Mary sought to make youths "piously educated in good Letters and Manners" (Altbach, Berdahl, & Gumport, 1999, p.40). Under the influence of the English model of education at British colleges and universities young men would go not so much to study and learn, but for character development and growth (Rudolph, 1990). Aronowitz and Giroux (2000) cite Hoftstadter (1952) in his recognition of the "threat that corporate values pose to education" (p. 332). He felt that it was essential to support institutions of higher education not for what they provide to the students but for the ideals and values that they stand for (Aronowitz & Giroux, 2000). However today the influence of corporate culture has permeated all areas of education and now trade schools are becoming more attractive because students come out with a skill at which they can make a good living. Dean Abrams feels that these types of school are a viable option for some students. This is reflective of his earlier concern with regards to students getting proper advising and preparation in college for an immediate career.

College Deans for the Future

Dean Abrams feels that college deans for the future should be the gatekeepers of standards. They need to be caring and concerned more about the consumers, namely the students. He also feels that future deans need to have much more sophistication in the area of finance. He explains since most deans don't have a business or finance background and that are at a disadvantage when work with the corporate officers. Wolverton, et al. (2001) states that deans come into their positions "underprepared to deal with strained fiscal resources (p. 6). Lastly, Dean Abrams states communication skills both with public speaking and writing should be improved.


The role of the dean is not one that is easily definable. Academic deans of today have a much wider range of responsibilities than in past and the focus of the position has tended to shift away from the student and move more towards administrative obligations with a focus on the faculty. The skills needed to effectively perform the various duties assigned to a college dean are not exhaustive and continue to change as the academic environment evolves. One commonality and necessity among all deans regardless of institution is the ability to be a leader. Lack of academic preparation and motivation among students and strained budgetary resources are main concerns of deans across institutions. Deans for the future must be prepared to deal with these situations as well as the changes that will continue to occur across campuses both within the institutional structure, as well as with the faculty, staff, and students.


Academy for leadership development. New deans institute.

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