Dinosaurs are getting younger (and six other things I learned as dean)
Keeping abreast of trends and technologies was one of the toughest challenges I faced, writes Martin Binks, former Dean of Nottingham University Business School.
Anyone who clocks up a few years in academia develops a decent idea of what universities do well, and what they do less well. Inevitably, though, the loftier your perch, the more revealing the view.
I was appointed dean of Nottingham University Business School in 2010. The role gave me responsibility for about 2,000 students, 145 academics and 60 administrative staff in the UK, as well as oversight of a further 3,200 students, 140 academics and 50 administrators at the university’s business schools in China and Malaysia.
My spell in the hot seat provided me with insights into successes and shortcomings alike. At first I was inclined to treat the latter as personal failings, but attending conferences soon brought the perverse reassurance that these difficulties are familiar to deans the world over.
Having recently stepped down at the end of five enjoyable years, I thought I should practice what I preach and indulge in a little reflective learning. So here are the seven lessons I learned from being a dean:
1. Leadership is a privilege – and a challenge
Ascending the university management ladder is both liberating and daunting. Years of offering sage advice from the safety of the sidelines cannot truly prepare you for life as a captain-cum-referee. With some experience as deputy dean, I like to think I achieved the transition with a veneer of calm. Beneath the surface, though, I was often paddling furiously.
2. Priorities are built on ever-shifting sands
A dean has to balance myriad priorities and concerns. There is a very real risk of upsetting people who may feel their needs should be higher up the pecking order.
I found myself quite unprepared for the diversity of stakeholders with whom I was immediately required to engage. As well as students and staff, there were multiple tiers of authority, businesses, local and wider communities, other disciplines, and local, regional, national and even international layers of government.
Understandably, any of the above might be oblivious to the others’ determination to beat a path to my door. Keeping everyone happy was impossible.
3. Leaders need to be challenged
A dean is required to make difficult decisions. Given that everyone makes mistakes, the best means of maintaining a decent batting average is to surround yourself with people whose opinions you trust.
Although I made authoritative confidence a cornerstone of my leadership approach, I didn’t regard myself as “bomb-proof”. This was because the gap between my perceptions and those of the people I was trying to support sometimes seemed so far apart as to beggar belief.
The members of my close team proved invaluable, providing me – and each other – with regular reality checks.
4. Teaching is a duty, not an option
Many universities have a long-established tradition that all academics should be involved in teaching unless specifically appointed to a dedicated research role. This tradition must be enforced.
I was dismayed to find some senior staff felt their research eminence somehow absolved them from teaching in general, or undergraduate teaching specifically. I made clear that I believed quite the opposite to be the case. Most staff concerned were fine after discussions, but some had obviously either lost confidence in their teaching abilities or lost sight of the enormous importance of this central part of an academic’s role.
5. Administrative staff are not second-class citizens
Some academics appear to doubt the contribution that administrative staff make to overall efficiency. This attitude is both mistaken and deplorable. I was appalled that a small minority of our faculty treated administrative staff as second-class citizens. That same minority duly greeted with incredulity my observation that the members of the team they routinely denigrated were more important to the smooth running of the school than many of the academics.
6. Dinosaurs are getting younger
Given the extraordinary pace of change in today’s world, we are all at risk of quickly becoming out of date. Most of us eventually find ourselves distanced from the cutting edge of technology and development.
I knew when I became dean that the vast majority of my students would regard me as Jurassic. Undergraduates, by and large, are in their late teens – whereas I, let’s be frank, am not. Yet many students discover that by their mid-twenties even they are somewhat removed from new realities that confront those who come after them.
Rapid social and technological change presents an unprecedented challenge to senior academics tasked with shaping a curriculum to suit student needs, and universities face a constant struggle to stay relevant.
7. Freedom is relative
Deans and the schools they oversee enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy. But they are nevertheless required to negotiate various permissions with regard to appointments and expenditure.
The notion that management responsibility should rest principally with academics is under ever greater threat from the encroachment of professional administrators and the culture of centralism. This represents a growing and potentially insurmountable obstacle to universities’ meaningful progress.
This article was first published in The Guardian on November 12 2015.
Posted on Friday 13th November 2015