Presentations at the 2001 Conference for Chief Academic Officers by Rosemary S. Keller, Academic Dean, Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York
When I was invited, several months ago, to speak on this subject, "Continuing Challenges of Being a Dean", I almost felt that I could sum up my response in one sentence: Yes: I certainly do continue to be challenged, and much more so and more rapidly than I ever expected to be when I first became a dean. I know that I need challenges to continue to be engaged. But, who could ever have imagined all this!!
I don't step back as often as I should to reflect on these challenges. Sometimes, I just feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and unsure about what I can do about them. So, I decided that the invitation was a good opportunity to reflect myself about being a dean, and to put some thoughts together for all of us. So, I thank the leaders of this event for calling me to this time of re-evaluation. I hope our participation this afternoon will help you, also, to reflect on what it means to you to be a dean.
I decided to call fourteen of my dean colleagues in ATS schools throughout the United States and Canada to ask them this question: how do you experience the continuing challenges of being a dean? They represented great diversity: male, female, white, African American, Asian American, in evangelical, mainstream and Roman Catholic schools. I appreciate having Gary Riebe-Estrella, an Hispanic-American dean, as my respondent today. Most, though not all, of the deans whom I called, have been in their offices several years, and some have worked under or with as many as four presidents. These conversations were very helpful in shaping this statement, which comes, in a sense, not just from me but from all of us.
I want to focus on one overarching, continuing challenge of being a dean, and then to address that challenge in terms of four specific points. I believe that the overarching challenge is maintaining a sense of vocation about being a dean, continuing to interpret our work as a calling from God, continuing to experience the spiritual purpose of being a dean.
Many of us entered our positions with that sense of vocation, of calling from God. Whether we entered this position with the possible intent of remaining a dean for several years or for a short rotation period of three to four years within the faculty membership, we had that recognition that the opportunity to fulfill a special purpose and offer a distinct gift of leadership had been given to us. We were challenged, honored, and humbled by it. Others of us may not have felt a sense of vocation when entering the deanship, but began to experience it as their work progressed. Surely all of us would agree that the meaning of our vocations as deans has changed while we have been in this office. Now, the question is: how do we maintain that sense of vocation? Or: for you the question may be: How do you gain it, if you haven't felt it? And how do we all grow and become more fruitful as the work of being a dean continues to change and challenge us?
I have been an academic dean for eight years, three at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, after being on the faculty many years, and now five at Union Theological Seminary, also continuing as a faculty member. At times, I have felt a stronger sense of vocation than at other periods. My frustrations have come out of the same challenges and problems that you experience: pressures of time, pressures of myriad details and meetings, feeling pulled in so many directions at the same time, being emotionally torn by conflicts within my institutions or with particular persons, not taking enough time to get distance from the work, feeling unclear about what I could or should do in a particular situation, feeling I have made a serious mistake, not experiencing the authority I need, wondering if I really should have become a dean or should continue in the office, not keeping a regular spiritual discipline and prayer life.
Let me frame my thoughts about maintaining the sense of vocation into four areas of deaning that stand out to me and that were repeatedly raised by my colleagues as we talked.
I. First, when I became a dean eight years ago, I saw my vocatior first and foremost to be to help build the community of the faculty, both bringing them together in their common purpose and supporting their individual development. The calling here was to build up the faculty as the body of God's people and to enable the unique gifts of each member to flourish.
My colleagues in their own words witnessed that their calling lay in this purpose. One dean spoke of his greatest satisfaction of having a major hand in fostering a process that has resulted in his faculty coming together for two hours each week, led by an outside facilitator, to work on the academic direction and vision of where the seminary needs to go. Another spoke of his efforts to work with the cantankerous, marginalized members of the faculty, to discipline himself to value them more and to find ways that they can contribute more to the body if they are not as effective at normal means, such as committee assignments -- and then of making that redistribution of responsibility known so that it does not appear that a certain one, or ones, is getting off with less assignments than others. One former dean said that she tried to look at every person on the faculty, especially the most difficult ones, and to focus on some sense of worth and value in every one of them.
I believe that faculty development, particularly in working with members individually, is a pastoral ministry. Trying to be alert to opportunities for them to apply for fellowships, many of which come through the ATS, is a very direct way. Some of these grants go wanting, or do not have enough qualified applicants, and we may falter in moving them forward to the front burner because of lack of our own time or because of limited confidence of faculty members as potential applicants. On our faculty, we have some positions that are non-tenurable, and young faculty members must leave after holding these positions for three to six years. Helping to open up other opportunities for them and writing tailored recommendations for them takes considerable time. Helping them find ways to advance vocationally, if it can't be at our school then somewhere else, feels like one of the most important things that I do.
I recognize some success, some effectiveness, in my experience as dean in this area of vocation. Faculty members tell me "we're talking to each other now". We have developed some structures for sharing our work with each other, such as designating a period in each faculty meeting to give one member a significant time to share her or his sabbatical work just completed.
Faculty members tell me that they know I am there for them. On the other hand I know that I have to live with my own sense of personal limitations. I haven't been able to develop positive personal relations with all members of the faculty. I know that I have made some mistakes with particular people, and I wish that I could go back and start over. Short of that impossibility, however, this reflection has spurred me to seek to return and to try harder and possibly to find new ways to reach out to certain people.
Building up the community of the faculty is related to a second function of our vocation: being an advocate for the faculty particularly to the president and to the Board. I still see this as a primary part of my mission, "being there" for my faculty colleagues, and something that will always need to be at the heart of my work. Now I would interpret this part of my vocation as being both an advocate and a liaison between the faculty and the president. Most faculty have a natural suspicion toward the administration, and many presidents have the same feeling toward faculty members. They each fear the encroaching power of the other. They each have different interests to protect. Whether that suspicion or adversarial relationship can be overcome in most cases I do not know, but I do know that we as deans have to be the continual interpreter of both one side to the other. The best thing that we can do may be to help keep the tension healthy -- and, at times, that takes persistence, resilience, and commitment.
II. A second function of our vocation as deans relates directly to the relationship between the president and the dean. At the beginning of my deanship, I saw my relationship with the president to be key, but I think that my awareness and recognition of my whole liaison role has greatly increased over these years. We are truly liaisons with a host of constituencies, some more directly than others: students, faculty, president, Board, arums, churches. Of all the points raised by deans in our conversations, though, the most testy and trying one was that of the president/dean relationship.
One dean with whom I talked spoke of an effective president/dean relationship as comparable to a marriage, one of the deepest partnerships that we have in life. There were cases in which those partnerships just didn't work, and the dean simply had to get a divorce and leave the position or the institution.
I remember being at an ATS meeting once when the question was asked: why is it that when deans get together they always want to talk about presidents, but when presidents get together they don't talk about deans? The relationship seems paramount to us, but are we that important to the president?
In my phone conversations with fellow deans, four relationships between the president and the dean emerged from their experiences. You would easily find yourself, I think, in one, or even two or even three, of these configurations.
The first scenario is that of genuine partnership or complementarity between the dean and the president, a relationship in which there is common vision and a mutual intermeshing of roles in which the president assumes her or his overall authority as the chief executive officer of the institution, wants the dean to genuinely be the chief academic officer, and the two persons share a common vision and experience trust in each other. Some of the deans experienced this relationship with their presidents and felt that it was one of shared and mutual authority and close collaboration, a genuine relationship of working with, not under, the chief executive officer.
The second scenario was one in which the dean experienced the president as not taking his or her due authority. The president was too weak, avoided making decisions and left things dangling within the institution. This condition manifested itself in another way when a president was clear about what a situation was, as the inability financially to hire more faculty members which were needed, but would fail to communicate it to the faculty, leaving that communication to be shouldered by the dean, if it was to be addressed at all.
A third working relationship was one in which the president took too strong a hand sought to assume the primary role as chief academic, as well as chief executive, officer. In one of my phone conversations, a colleague got to the heart of the issue with this question: does the president want you to be the chief academic officer, or does the president want to be the one who carries this mantle? Another stated that when he interviewed for a deanship at a second institution he asked its president the question in his interview: do you want to be president or academic dean? Maybe more of us need a dose of that courage to ask directly.
A final scenario is that of a healthy tension and respect between the president and dean, even if it cannot be one of an ideal and collaborative partnership. Even in the best situations, this relationship of healthy tension must exist at some times, when we both have different interests to express and advocate for in relationship to the institution. Hopefully, this aspect can be a part of all relationships, and one that we can work for when the president may take too much or not enough authority in relationship to us and other areas of the seminary's life.
Related questions came to the surface almost immediately in our conversations from deans who had been at only one institution, and possibly for a short time, and from those who may have served with or under one, two, or three presidents. What are the president's expectations of the dean? What is the level of trust between us? Who made us deans in the first place: the president, the faculty, or some combination of the two? And, does it really make a difference, in the day-to-day working relationship, just who names us to this office? How can we work with people who have such enormously different working styles than ours? Can some good things come from differences of style -- or just frustration?
These concerns about the working relationship of the president and the dean raise two further issues. First is the need for an enormous measure of flexibility in the character of the dean. We cannot be responsible for the flexibility of the president. But, we can seek to develop our own. The other side of this coin, of course, is the fact we cannot simply "be flexible." We can't just see our only role as being the one who "adjusts" at all costs. We have to stand up for things that we believe are important even though the cost may be high.
The second issue growing out of our liaison relationship is: What kind of leadership do we exert when such a major part of our work is to be a liaison? What is the relationship between being a leader and being a liaison? What does it mean for us to bring authority, to carry authority, when we are not, by our office, the authority-bearers in an institution? Are we often seen by faculty, students, outsiders, as persons who bear more authority than we actually have in the day-to-day working situation? Do we need to have more courage to stand up to the president in private consultations? If we are secure within ourselves, we can seek to speak honestly and straightforwardly in addressing personal and institutional tensions -- and hope and pray that our sincere efforts toward good counsel can be received that way by the president. It is also important to acknowledge that when we need that counsel from the president, and he or she seeks to give it, that we can receive in it in good spirit.
III. A third issue directly related to our sense of vocation is the need to be open and receptive to changing kinds and needs of ministry in the churches, structures, and denominations we represent, to the changing cultures of our institutions, and to the changing visions of what we need to be doing curricularly to facilitate the new day. We are constantly being called to attention by the prophets and apostles of both testaments of the Bible to ask what God is doing in this particular day, and how we are being called to be agents of the new vision to which God is calling the people.
One dean of a Roman Catholic school said that when he took this position he knew there would be changes, but he had no conception of how rapidly they would occur. Twenty years ago, 100% of the students in his institution were training for the priesthood. Today, only 15% of the students are candidates for the priesthood and 50 % are women preparing for lay professional roles in churches. The primary calling of his institution now is to prepare lay women for professional ministry. The questions at the heart of the dean's work as leader and as a liaison are monumental: what is called for in terms of curricular changes? In terms of the nature of leadership? in terms of the nature of the church? Can the seminary be at the cutting edge of that change or will it just have to scramble to keep up with what is going on all around it?
A further issue regarding openness to institutional change which I want to raise relates to the advocacy of diversity in bringing in God's new day. The changing demographics in the United States and in our churches make it clear that we must we responsible to all God's people in our midst. Racial, ethnic and gender diversity do not come to our institutions on their own. I believe that the dean must be at the heart of advocating for inclusiveness in our student bodies, faculties, and administrations. We all know that commitment to a more diverse student body cannot be read as authentic unless racial and gender diversity are also at the heart of our faculty and administrative make-up. Deans must advocate for wider diversity among the faculty. I remember several years ago that, when one president said that he just couldn't find persons of racial and gender diversity, a denominational official told him that he just had to go back and try again and try harder. The dean may be the one to keep the pressure on the president to fulfill this commitment.
It is hard for me to stand here before this body of almost all white men and ask you to advocate for greater diversity on senior staffs. The numbers of women and ethnic minorities who serve on senior staffs is still a pittance. Among the over 520 chief executive and chief academic officers ATS schools, only slightly more than thirty of those are female, and the number of racial and ethnic minorities in these positions is drastically less. Presidents and deans are the most visible members of senior staffs in the eyes of persons both inside and outside the institutions. This is an area about which much talk goes on, but so much work remains to be done.
IV. The fourth and final area of living out our vocations amidst the continuing challenges of being a dean that I want to raise is about not being a dean. It is difficult for us to live out of the truth that we all know so well, but we are not called by God only to our work, we are not only to be a dean. As an American church historian, I learned from my Puritan ancestors that we have a particular calling to a certain kind of work, and that we have a general calling to respond to God with the whole of our lives. Our vocation is not just to a particular kind of work or to doing our work in a particular kind of way, but our vocation is to live the whole of our lives as a response to God.
I believe that we are correct in saying that a dean's work is never done, and that the position has become so complex that it is as difficult as that of the president. However, that is all the more reason why we must continually find ways to keep our work as deans in perspective and not let it consume the whole of our lives.
I know that when I became a dean I thought that I could have it all. I thought that I could do everything and keep everything in balance, referring both to the professional components of my life as a dean, teacher and scholar, and to the balance between my professional commitments and my personal commitments of family, church, avocations, personal health and exercise. My expectations have been mercifully scaled down. Now I know that I can't have it all, that I have had to cut back and give up some things, for my own stability and sanity. I think that we have to keep telling ourselves and finding ways to get our priorities straight. This is fundamentally a theological issue: a commitment to keep our general calling, to respond to God with the whole of our life, at the heart of who we are.
The ATS may be able to be of help to us vocationally in a specific way. Last week, the Women in Leadership Committee sponsored a weekend retreat for Women Chief Executive Officers and Chief Academic Officers. One dean suggested that the ATS sponsor such an event annually for deans, particularly focusing on the issue raised in this talk of gaining and maintaining our sense of vocation. I raise this for possible consideration by the new "Society of CAOs" which we are officially forming at this meeting.
I would like to say two further things about the vocational matter of not being a dean. One is that I do not think we should encourage younger faculty members to become deans until they have established themselves as scholars -- if they wish and hope to be scholars. Trying to do the research and writing necessary to become tenured, while at the same time being an academic dean is almost impossible. A president may have good intentions when he or she appoints a younger person to the deanship, but in so doing they are undermining that dean's prospect of gaining tenure and making a scholarly contribution to theological education and to one's field. Or a president may not be so benign in selecting a non-tenured person to be dean. The president's intention may be have someone as dean who does not carry authority in that position that a senior colleague does. Whatever the case may be, I think that we should counsel younger scholars either to put aside considerations of being a dean until they are more established, or to work out a contractual arrangement in becoming dean that enables them to have the needed time also to focus on their academic development.
The second and final issue, vocationally, about not being a dean is our need to contemplate when and how we should exit the position: should we go back to the faculty of our institution, should we go to another school as dean, should we retire, should we do something else? There are many people here who have been deans for several years at one or more institutions. There are many others who are serving on their faculties on a strict rotating timeline of three to five years. In either case, the questions all rotate around the vocational issues: Is it right in light of the vocation of my institution and in light of my own general and particular calling for me to stay in this position or to exit? How do I know, how do I discern a faithful response?
One person who has been a dean for nine years raised this immediately in our conversation. He said that we need to regularly evaluate who we are and what we are doing. We need to ask ourselves the questions on a regular basis: how would I like to exit? Knowing that I cannot accomplish all that I had hoped for when I became dean, and that many of my goals have changed, what are the kinds of outcomes that I would like to accomplish? If I hope to stay in this position, to what extent and how can I negotiate my continuing academic involvement, my need for more adequate support, and other needs? How realistic is it for some changes to be made?
In conclusion, and in light of my primary point that I believe our greatest continuing challenge in being a dean is to maintain a sense of vocation about being a dean and about being a whole person, I want to leave you with words of two persons. The first is from Gandhi: almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it anyway. We sometimes act as if everything God seeks depends upon us and what we are doing as deans. We have to get over that erroneous evaluation of ourselves, and be able to laugh at ourselves for holding it. On the other hand, we must go on giving our very best and our deep commitment to God in the particular moment and particular place in which we are now located - for the time being.
And, the second word comes not from an individual, but from a famous pair: Raggedy Anne and Andy. Several years ago I had a wonderful poster in my office that had a picture of Raggedy Anne and Andy on it with the words underneath, "Don't take yourself too seriously." Let's do our best in this demanding work...but with a certain lightheartedness and largeheartedness, as those who know that they are not ordained forever to the office of dean.