PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education

The Good Dean

J.J. Thompson

Successful educators offer sage advice on what it takes to lead.

When putting together an engineering school budget or allocating resources, never, never base decisions on equity. After all, who's going to agree on a formula for equity? Sound like good, solid advice? It was, and it still is, says Earl Dowell, who recently retired after 16 years as Duke University's engineering dean.

illustration by Robert A. Goldberg
"The best deans aren't content to jump on opportunities. They make them happen."
Dowell explains that just after he became dean in 1983, he called several deans around the country at institutions that he thought were outstanding to get tips on effective deaning. That budgetary hint, stated above, was the bit of knowledge that served him best through the years, he says. He has never used words such as good, just, or equitable when presenting his yearly budget decisions. Reasonable, yes. Pursuant to a goal, by all means. But never equitable.

Talk to deans today, as Prism did for this article, and they'll offer similarly specific pearls of what it takes to be, well, a good dean. Good as in an advocate for the faculty, a steward for the university, and a beacon for engineering education and, in fact, for all of higher education. No small feat.

As in most aspects of life, all of the deans interviewed agreed, clear communication is key.

Open Dialogue

    "I found that the best way to tackle [communication] was openness, to try to build trust," says Ernest Smerdon, who was the University of Arizona's engineering dean from 1988 though 1997. Smerdon says that during his tenure, the elected chair of the faculty was invited to his twice-monthly meetings—including executive sessions—to ensure a direct line from his office to professors.

    Denice Denton, the University of Washington's engineering dean, agrees that open lines of communication are crucial. She stays in direct contact with faculty members, students, and staff via e-mail and frequent meetings. "In the past, there was an executive hierarchy with too much emphasis on the faculty and little communication with the students and staff," she says. "There is a need to integrate everyone's voices in daily decisions and actions."

    But misunderstandings occur even under the best of circumstances, Smerdon says, so "it is important not to make decisions as knee-jerk reactions. If I was irritated about something, before sending a communique, I would usually sleep on it so as not to say something that was the result of an emotional reaction."

Know Your Business

    Having an academic background, as deans most often do, was a commonly mentioned attribute that enhances the ability to communicate and even empathize with faculty.

    "I think it has stood me in very good stead that I was a very active and dedicated teacher, as well as an involved researcher," says Lyle Feisel, dean of SUNY-Binghamton's Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering & Applied Science. "Having the experience of the people working for you is very important."

    The typical career path to an engineering deanship involves holding both faculty and administrative positions, such as department chair or head of a research center. Even so, the move to the dean's office often demands a whole new approach to the business of engineering education.

    "Most faculty [members] went into teaching because they like teaching and they like doing research," Feisel explains, but "if you're really invested in deaning, it's hard to be doing any teaching or research."

    C. Sidney Burrus, who this year became dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University after 30 years on the faculty there, agrees. "My advice is that it's only vaguely connected to being a teacher and researcher and it's a whole lot harder than you might imagine," Burrus says.

Deanly Duties

    So what does a dean do on a daily basis? "There are a lot of meetings, a lot of mail, a lot of e-mail, and there's a lot of paperwork," says Gerald Jakubowski, Loyola Marymount University's dean of the College of Science and Engineering.

    In the broader view, though, he says an effective dean also must be a good manager, an inspiring leader, a thorough planner and "have a vision of where they would like to take the college."

    Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Johns Hopkins University's engineering dean, agrees. "In general, I view it as vital that the dean articulate a clear vision for the unit and ensure that decisions are made logically and in timely fashion."

    She adds that good deans take advantage of opportunities to leverage their strengths with others, either inside or outside of their institution. "The best deans aren't content to jump on opportunities," she says. "They make them happen."

Faculty and Finances

    Dowell boils the role of a dean down to two main functions: hiring and raising money. Luckily, "I think they're both fun," he says. "I think most deans would say recruiting faculty is more fun. But nothing is more satisfying than having a balanced budget and the money to do the things you want to do."

    "If you do both of those well, all the other comes a lot easier, but if you're not able to do those, it's a lot harder," he explains.

    While deans may not agree on which task they enjoy more, they agree both are imperative.

    "In some ways [hiring faculty] may be the most important thing a dean or department chair does, because they are literally creating the future of the institution," Burrus says. In addition to finding the best, deans must be committed to helping them become even better—which doesn't necessarily come naturally.

    Feisel adds, "It's a fact of doctoral life, of faculty life, that you're sort of a lone ranger," doing research, getting grants, and earning recognition for teaching. But when you become a dean, "all of a sudden you go to spending a great deal of your time helping other people." Therefore, it's important for deans to develop the "ability to draw your satisfaction from the achievements of other people," he says.

    Other "soft skills" can also come in handy. Jakubowski has found the willingness to "meet and greet" beneficial to his deanship, while Burrus finds he enjoys "trying to articulate things I believe in. I find it interesting to explain why engineering is important in the grand scheme of things."

    While raising philanthropic funds was once solely the domain of private school deans, that's not so anymore. SUNY-Binghamton depends mainly on student tuition and state dollars (as do many other state schools), but also needs external funding sources, such as research contracts, grants, and charitable funding, Feisel says.

    The money raised can make a big difference, Dowell says. During his tenure at Duke, philanthropic dollars made up 15 percent of the yearly budget.

    "If you have two schools that are otherwise identical and one has 15 percent more money, that's a big difference," he says. The additional dollars come in handy when worrying about another common headache deans face: acquiring laboratory and instructional space and facilities.

Patience and Humor

    Such woes are best faced with a sense of humor, advises Jakubowski. "Things can get crazy," he says, so "you have to keep things in perspective. It helps to laugh." Patience helps, too, Feisel says. "Things do not happen overnight," he explains, and "the larger the organization, the slower things happen."

    If one's not careful, the busy demands of a dean's job all too easily consume every ounce of energy, every minute of time, many deans say, so it's important to maintain some sense of balance between professional duties and personal enjoyments. "Read a book, exercise," Jakubowski recommends.

    Most of all, Dowell says, "you need to take each day as it comes and enjoy that day. If you're not enjoying each day, it's unlikely you'll enjoy the total process."

J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Maryam Miller also contributed to this article.

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