Reflections of a Failed Dean

Brian Taylor

October 07, 2009

"They say they can't work with you." With those words from the president, my life as chief academic officer ceased. Oh, I stayed on the job for a long time after that, but my value as a dean was effectively derailed. My career at, let's call it Hogwarts College, had ended.

I'm a failed dean. There are a lot of us out here, but since many of us want to continue working for a living, we don't reveal ourselves, and we don't say much.

There's a great deal of advice given to chief academic officers, and ever since my failure, I've read it assiduously to get a sense of what I did wrong. Like many progressive educators, I believe in the power of learning from mistakes and in reflection as a path to greater understanding. I have been reflecting up a storm and talking with many mentors, but I still don't understand what I did that led to this end.

The advice from people who know me and from experts in the field serves only to muddy the water. Their responses come in distinct categories:

It's the system. This theory is particularly appealing to many because it assigns no responsibility to a person or an institution. The gist is that higher education is built around hierarchy, order, and stability. My role—as someone whose job it was to get people to be more aggressive in serving students and to propose changes that shake up the status quo—naturally intruded on the system.

Many academic vice presidents have been effective in doing the kinds of things that cost me so much in my former position. Part of the job is making the hard decisions that no one in his or her right mind would want to make. You solicit opinions, you try to lay the groundwork for what might happen, but in the end, you have to make the decision within certain principles of fairness and a focus on student learning. So blaming the system for my ouster seems patently irrational, since other deans make tough decisions every day and manage to keep their jobs.

It's the institution. One outside consultant said to me, "That's just the way things are at Hogwarts College. No one could have succeeded." The focus here is mainly on the specific culture that the college has built up around itself; actually, it's a range of often-clashing cultures.

My advisers have a point here. Walking into a complex environment as a newcomer can be difficult. If the college itself doesn't fully understand its cultures, how can a lone outsider who is trying to feel a part of the institution understand all the undercurrents in a timely fashion?

This theory, too, appeals because it doesn't require anyone to take responsibility. At my college, I saw a culture of passive aggression, at war with a culture of desire to help "deserving" students (who always ended up being a very small percentage of the whole), and at war with a culture of overestimation of the professionalism and credibility of the learning enterprise. Everyone, including me, remained busy pointing out other people's cultural flaws, ignoring the enormous hand we all had in building those cultures.

It's the faculty. I remember driving home after a particularly touchy faculty meeting and talking on the phone with another administrator. He said to me, "You know, from my days as a faculty member, I always hated the old guys at meetings who would disparage faculty as the ones who stand in the way of education. But I'm becoming one of those old guys."

One would think that a blame-the-faculty assessment would come mostly from administrators and staff members (and certainly many of them, having a good working relationship with me, saw that as an inherent issue). But I heard that sentiment just as often from faculty members as well: "It's other faculty, not me."

While I tried to understand that they thought they were being supportive, I also felt frustration. Weren't they part of the faculty? If they thought that the majority of the faculty felt differently from the most vocal naysayers, didn't the majority have a certain responsibility to speak up?

I had won teaching awards throughout my career, kept active in my discipline, been elected a faculty leader, and kept in touch with faculty members and students from early in my career. It's not as though I didn't have faculty credentials as good as or better than the Hogwarts faculty regarding the things in which they took the most pride. But it was as though, once I entered the dean's office, I lost those credentials.

Ultimately, blaming the faculty, while tempting, leads nowhere. The nature of the dean's job is to cajole, lead, nurture, and enable a highly trained group of people with often difficult personalities. Other deans have done so successfully and will do so in the future.

It's the president. College and university presidents tend to be egocentric, demanding, and forceful. It's the nature of the job. You couldn't survive the constant barrage on all sides if you didn't have a strong core from which to work. For each president, those qualities manifest themselves differently, depending on the background, personality, and capability of the individual.

The president of Hogwarts had all of those qualities. A strong-minded guy, he felt and freely expressed frustration when he thought that people were standing in the way of what needed to be done. His critics often tried to make him into some kind of monster for that. Occasionally I would put him in the same box myself, but that didn't do the college, the president, or me any good.

As things started to unravel for me, he tried to maintain support of what I was doing and how I was doing it. Eventually, though, the pressures of the board, the faculty, and his own ego made him realize that the only path to survival was to take care of the problem—most easily represented by me.

When he spoke the words at the beginning of this essay, we both knew he was firing me. I never received a positive review from him again. He claimed to be supporting my job search, but when I was unable to land a position as quickly as he thought I should, he would berate me on my lack of effort and my inability to move on with my life.

While I don't think he behaved as kindly to me as he could have, I also think he was doing the only thing he could think of to do. His own depression at the situation—after it became clear that things were not going to improve even after I left—caused him to miss work, avoid interactions with faculty members, and stay away from public functions where he felt exposed. I withdrew from him to avoid more attacks on my abilities during an already shaky time for my self-esteem.

My life partner blames the president for all that happened. I merely see the two of us stuck in an untenable situation that tended to bring out the worst in both of us. Our only saving grace is that we tried to keep our strained relationship from the rest of the institution. Given the nature of the jobs of presidents and chief academic officers, a certain creative tension is inevitable. In this case, something inserted itself into the situation that went beyond the normal tensions.

It's you. You're a much better person than I am if you haven't already reached this conclusion.

With everything else out of the way, I'm the only constant in the whole equation. Now I have to figure out what it is in me that caused this outcome. I was a first-choice candidate, the kind of person who was often a leader when I was a faculty member, known for my resiliency, humor, and tact. In terms of what I might have done wrong, I have been told varying and contradictory things: I was too assertive, I was not assertive enough. I was too friendly, I was too distant. I was too consensus-oriented, I was too dictatorial. None of those explanations hits home in the way that a real truth about yourself tends to.

So what do I think are the things in me that didn't work?

I know the rules of essay writing. Now is the time for the twist, the turn, the revelation, the epiphany. Sorry.

I just don't know.

I've moved on. I work in a higher education-related position, often interacting with those who were in the same position I was in. These deans exhibit the normal range of personalities, none startlingly different than me, none startlingly consistent.

I enjoy my work. The people who work for and with me have expressed their satisfaction with what I do. I rarely talk about the details of my most recent past, because frankly, I don't know what to say.

I just don't know.

M.K. Ellis is the pseudonym of a former dean and chief academic officer at a small college.