The posting below looks at and interesting aspect of the dean/department chair relationship. It is from Chapter 5, Building Relationships, in Effective Leadership Communication: A Guide for Department Chairs and Deans for Managing Difficult Situations and People by Mary Lou Higgerson, Baldwin-Wallace College and Teddi A. Joyce The University of South Dakota. Copyright © 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved., ISBN 978-1-933371-19-1, Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 563 Main Street, P.O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA, [www.ankerpub.com] Reprinted with permission.
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The Dilemma of the Friendly Dean
Consider the dean who is extremely gregarious and charming with everyone on campus. The dean is adored and perceived as someone who is 150% supportive of every individual program or initiative. The dean has the rare ability to recall specific details about every faculty member's individual effort at the institution, so casual meetings become opportunities to inquire about a project or activity. Consequently, each and every faculty member perceived that he or she has the full support of the dean. From the dean's perspective, his conversations with faculty members about their projects and interests are one important personal way that he can demonstrate his interest and appreciation for the individual work being done by all the faculty members.
The dynamic between the dean and faculty poses a problem for department chairs responsible for prioritizing initiatives and allocating department resources. The same dean who is personally interested in individual faculty projects and activities holds the chairs accountable for investing finite resources in programs that best serve the institutional mission and/or help grow student enrollment. Fiscal constraints make it impossible for department chairs to provide all the funding support requested by individual faculty, and prioritizing requests has produces significant animosity between the chair and several of the faculty members in each department.
The growing tension between the chair and the faculty is inevitable and has no easy remedy because the chair and the faculty hold very different perceptions of the situation. The chair's view is that a prioritization of activities for resource allocation is not only expected by the dean, it is also the only logical course of action since the budget will not support all projects. The faculty not receiving the level of support requested believe the chair is out of the loop in terms of what is important and worthy of funding because they believe the dean values their particular program activity and would want them to receive the funding requested.
Assuming that budget remains finite, the situation will likely deteriorate for the department chair without some constructive intervention, and a solution can only be effective if the analysis of the situation is accurate. Can you analyze the dynamic in terms of what you know about professional and social relationships? For example, would you define the dean's relationship with individual faculty as professional or social or both? How might the dean perceive his relationship with individual faculty? You might consider if faculty members perceive their relationship with the dean the same way. Assume for the moment that the dean believes his interactions with individual faculty are primarily social and that he references their work on campus as a way of demonstrating his appreciation for their good work. Do you believe, however, that faculty members are confusing a social relationship for a professional one? How might the chair clarify the confusion?
Assume the faculty perceive their informal chats with the dean as evidence of the priority the dean places on their work relative to other work underway in the department and at the institution. Because these conversations tend to be one-on-one interactions, there is no way for individual faculty to relate or interpret comments made by the dean about their work in a larger context. Assume the role of department chair in this situation and think how you would manage the escalating conflict. Would you discuss the problem with the dean and ask him to alter his interactions with faculty? If so, how would you frame the issue? Would you work with the faculty to help them more accurately interpret their interactions with the dean? If so, how would you frame the issue? What other options do you have for managing the tension? If a series of one-on-one conversations contributes to the conflict, the chair needs some mechanism for building a context from which the faculty can more accurately and realistically assess the dean's comments.
Let's assume that as a chair your gently broach the topic with the dean and find significant resistance to your suggestion that his conversations with individual faculty could possibly contribute to the escalating tension that you experience with some of the faculty. The dean insists that such conversation is integral to the campus culture and his personal leadership style, which is based on relationships. The dean suggests that if tension exists between you and some of the faculty, it may be because you have not build effective relationships with the faculty. You leave the conversation thinking it is time to move to Plan B, but what is Plan B? How realistic is the dean's suggestion that you ease the conflict by improving your relationship with the faculty? How might you do this and how might it help the existing tension? If it will not resolve the existing tension, what else might you do? Depending on the degree of tension you experience with the faculty and the intensity of the dean's resistance to your suggestion that he contributes to the escalating tension, you might conclude that the best possible Plan B is to update your curriculum vitae and seek other employment. However, for the purposes of gaining the most from this chapter, please persist in finding alternatives for managing the situation in your present position.