Of Monks & Millions - The Changed Role of the Academic Dean 

It’s worthwhile remembering that the title “dean” comes from the Old French “dein”, from late Latin “decanus” or “head of a group of ten monks in a monastery,” and from the earlier secular meaning “commander of ten soldiers.” Celibacy has taken a beating across the centuries as the title made its way into academia, and the martial tone attendant to being a commander of anyone in the professoriate would fall flat on the ears of any university insider, most especially the holder of the the title “Dean.”

In one interpretation, the academic dean has evolved to reflect the corporatism of higher education: The incumbent is more akin to a vice president in charge of a particular “line” of goods and services than one among academic equals, a faculty member who teaches little, researches some, and serves on any number of working groups dealing with university and not only school or college concerns. While some within academia might recoil at the notion, deans increasingly appear to be the CEOs of their units, complete with dark suits and shined shoes.

And deans are called upon to be fierce proponents for their units even as they are expected to create interdisciplinary and intercollegiate linkages for research, curricula and degrees, and faculty hires. Some of this came about in recent years as foundations and funding agencies made it clear that grants and gifts would flow primarily to support activities that transcend traditional disciplines and professional fields.

Still another perspective sees in the current role of the dean the inevitable consequence of leadership and management duties “cascading” down the administrative hierarchy. The president is away much of the time serving on everything from NCAA commissions and governors’ task forces and closing deals on seven-, eight- and nine-figure gifts to the institution, many of which were born out of conversations between donors and deans, the latter spending at least 30 and perhaps as much as 60 per cent of her/his time cultivating donors. 

Actual management of the institution thus falls increasingly to executive vice presidents and provosts and the management of the college/school devolves from deans to associate deans and department chairs.

Evidence for this cascading of responsibilities is available in the readiness of faculty members who may rue the changing role of deans but nevertheless make it a priority when setting out requirements of anyone seeking to be a dean through a search process.

Most likely, these two depictions resonate most on large, complex, research universities. But our experience suggests that the role of academic deans has changed in important and lasting ways. Strong management skills remain important, but leadership and vision are increasingly elements sought in new deans. 

Governance and its requirement of deans have diminished as there are fewer tenure-track faculty positions and fewer faculty are willing to invest the considerable time required to serve on governance councils and senates. And some academic policy has become subject to civil and even criminal law – “outsiders” - as litigation of issues is more and more common and involves courts and judicial decisions. Deans thereby become implementers more than arbiters and executors of policy.

These changes appeared first in the professional schools of business, but rare now is the search for a dean of engineering or medicine or, for that matter, arts and sciences or the liberal arts that does not place premiums on leadership over management, vision over fidelity to shared governance, fund-raising proficiency (often demonstrated by work as a department chair) over budget management.

Add to these the more traditional criteria of excellence in teaching, solid and important research and scholarship, and service to one’s institution and it becomes clear that more and different qualifications are sought in academic deans. That makes searches more of a challenge than they were just a decade or so in the past.

The job of dean has become a frenetic competition for the time of incumbents. Recently, we met with the search committee for the dean of a program in sustainability. The chair of the committee was himself a dean who arrived at the meeting of the search committee nearly out of breath, having left a full schedule of meetings and calls and needing to prepare for a succession of events that went well into the evening. The public’s conception of the academic dean working at a leisurely pace attuned to the traditional academic calendar has never been more at odds with reality.

More than once in our work we have heard members of search committees charged with identifying candidates for deanships wax nostalgically of a past dean who taught at least one undergraduate class each semester only to have a colleague refer to the practice as “quaint.” 

The etymology of “dean” is a rich one and one worth remembering even if all it does is startle us at the contrast between then and now.



Nicola D. Fionzo, “The* Academic Dean,” Widener University, 2002 (see http://www.newfoundations.com/OrgTheory/DiFronzo721b.html).

Matt Reed, “Ask the Administrator: What Skill Sets Do Deans Need?” INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION, June 19, 2014.


Recent Harris Search Associates deanship searches include:


Communication Arts & Sciences




Fine & Performing Arts

Graduate Studies






Public Health


Social Sciences

Veterinary Sciences


Sample Median Salaries of Academic Deans, 2015-16*

Arts & Sciences    $152,623

Business              $190,308

Education            $149,641

Engineering         $259,091

Fine Arts             $145,000


*For all institutional types. Source: The Chronicle of Education see http://www.chronicle.com/article/Median-Salaries-of-Senior/235668.


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