Chronicle Careers
Friday, November 10, 2006

Exiting the Deanship

By Craig Cameron

First Person

Personal experiences on the job market

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a character who relives the same day again and again. The events and characters seem to be not just repetitious, but immutable, locking him into what computer programmers call an "infinite loop." Eventually Murray escapes by finding true love and pledging fealty to a fair maiden. It's not quite that easy for an academic dean seeking to return to the faculty.

My journey into deaning followed the usual path. After serving as a department chairman at a major research university for 10 years, I moved to a somewhat smaller university as an academic dean in the health sciences.

Being dean was never part of my career plan. Achieving competence as a teacher and researcher seemed an ample challenge to my talents. But search committees have a way of disrupting the lives of otherwise contented people, and so, in a brief telephone conversation I moved from entrenched scholar to candidate for a deanship. And people I trusted assured me this was a "good move."

In fact it was an almost perfect move. My life as a dean was filled with new experiences, new opportunities, and superb colleagues. My skills as a department chairman were directly transferable, and my previous university (a highly competitive research environment) had prepared me well to lead an expansion in research and graduate education at my new campus.

My advisers proved correct -- this was a job I could do. Each day I could see the program growing in scope and quality, and the faculty increasing in confidence. The pride I felt was that of a parent seeing his child grow in ability and stature.

And then things started to unravel. In rapid succession a perfect storm of administrative chaos struck: a controversial governor, a failed tax-reform plan, an economic recession, a troubled university president, three years of crippling budget cuts, and a flight of excellent scholars and administrators.

More quickly than I could have imagined, I was faced with a demoralized faculty, a university without leadership, and no relief in sight. Taking stock of the situation, I realized I could stay and rebuild the program over the long term, or join the other rats fleeing the ship. I joined the rats.

Sometimes opportunity and disappointment are cloaked in the same garment. One of the nation's great public universities had initiated a search for a dean in my field, and I again found myself speaking to a persuasive search committee. The academic unit in question had a strong reputation, but had fallen upon hard times. Faculty infighting, conflict between the dean and the professors, and benign neglect by the central administration had frozen the program in time.

Still, it was a program with great potential in an already excellent university: a perfect situation for change.

The first five years were a blur of rebuilding trust, developing a common direction, revamping curricula, elevating standards, mending fences (internal and external), and expanding resources. Most difficult of all was "motivating" people whose continued presence was deleterious to themselves and their colleagues to leave.

Such escorted walks off the academic gangplank are what make the years you spend as a dean similar to dog years, and so, when I was reappointed to a second five-year term, it was clear in my mind that it would be a terminal appointment. I started to work on an exit plan.

I spent those five years solidifying the changes we had made in our program -- recruiting new blood, serving as a mentor for department chairs, and reinforcing our mission. On the personal level, I labored to resurrect my teaching and research activities, successfully competing for extramural support and setting the stage for what I hoped would be a soft landing from dean back to full professor.

Most important, I wanted a smooth transition to my successor. I wanted to create an environment where, upon returning to the faculty, I could be supportive without being intrusive, and where I could settle into the role of productive elder statesman of the faculty. I didn't want the term "deadwood" attached to me.

In planning my model transition, I believed that because I had voluntarily retired from the deanship, the new dean would see me not as competition but as a valuable source of information and advice. I would be able to explain the nuances of our program, the history that had dictated complex decisions, and the pitfalls to be avoided.

The recruitment process went smoothly; a new dean was selected and soon moved into "my" office. Our new dean proved to be a talented person with good ideas. My own research and teaching were suddenly in vogue and expanding at a rapid pace. It was all working the way I had planned.

And yet it wasn't. The new dean was restructuring some administrative units and dissolving others. He was reviewing various activities and making decisions to withdraw financial and other types of support. Some people I had recruited and considered indispensable were given clear signals that their departure would be welcomed.

He was, in short, being a dean. And like the Maytag repairman in the old television commercial, I waited fruitlessly for my phone to ring.

It soon became apparent that my goal of a "soft landing" was only partially successful. My new life as a full professor at a great university was more satisfying than I could have hoped. But my life as an ex-dean watching my program being dismantled without consultation was more painful than I could have imagined.

I do not believe that situation was the result of enmity toward me by the new dean but simply a personal style. He just didn't see me as a valuable resource. As my children would say, "Get over it, Dad." I could either be satisfied with the role of full professor and forget about being an ex-dean confidant, or leave.

It took me two years to make the decision to go, but my new position as a foundation executive has proved to be immensely enjoyable. Having spent a good deal of my life on the receiving end of foundations, it's gratifying to know it truly is more fun (if not blessed) to give than to receive.

And as I consider my failed dean-to-dean transition strategy (for some reason the notion of an organ-transplant rejection comes to mind here), a couple of thoughts are worth considering:

As the curtain falls on my academic career, the last act remains unsatisfying. Having never witnessed an exemplary dean-to-dean transition, I wanted to demonstrate how an old dean could contribute to a new dean's success. It didn't work out, despite the best intentions of all concerned.

Is it because academic units are best served by periodic reinvention rather than incremental advance? Is it because academic evolution requires a "gene cleansing" to maximize the concentration of new administrative DNA in an organization? Is it because we simply do not value "succession management" in academe, something private industry has found essential?

Or was it a successful transition, and I was the problem?

Craig Cameron is the pseudonym of a former academic dean at a Southeastern university, who is now affiliated with a biomedical research foundation.

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: Careers
Page: C2
November 10, 2006