Confidence in Deans
By Mark Rahdert, Charles Klein Professor of Law and Government, and Vice President of Faculty Senate
Many years ago, I attended a banquet to honor one of Yale Law School’s legendary deans, Guido Calabresi. The principal speaker at the event was Yale’s then-President Bart Giamatti (whom non-Yalies may know better in his later role as the Commissioner of Baseball who banned Pete Rose from the game). Playing on the English language’s penchant for giving colorful names to collections of creatures (such as a “murder” of crows, a “gaggle” or “skein” of geese, an “exaltation” of larks, a “crash” of rhinoceros, etc.) Giamatti mused about what term to apply to a collection of deans. He suggested the term “confidence,” which allowed him to extol the many ways that Dean Calabresi’s skillful leadership of Yale Law School had earned the confidence of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the university at large.
Giamatti’s remark catches something important about deans. They occupy a pivotal role between central administration and faculty. They must be effective team players at the central level, and effective enforcers of central university policy, but they must also be leaders and advocates for their individual schools and colleges (and centers and/or divisions), good bosses for their staff, and great motivators of their faculty. These roles can at times conflict, and to do them all well requires both a delicate sense of balance and a lot of good judgment. To be effective representatives of the center, deans must enjoy the confidence of president, provost, their fellow deans, and other senior officers. To be effective in the school or college they must enjoy the confidence of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. For deans, confidence is what it’s all about. With it, they go far. Without it, they often end up going nowhere.
How do we know if our deans inspire that kind of confidence? For too long at Temple (at least as long as my 28 + years here) we have been content simply to guess. Deans have held their job at the pleasure of the president, but the president has had little more to assess the quality of a dean’s performance than the president’s subjective opinion, aided by equally subjective input from other senior officers, and occasionally supplemented by anecdote, rumor, innuendo and backdoor politicking. All too often, the prevailing attitude toward deans has been, “unless it is so broke you could see it from outer space, don’t fix it.” During the first years of President Hart’s tenure, Provost Lisa Staiano-Coico took some early steps toward instituting a more systematic approach to evaluating deans, but those efforts were very limited, and as far as I know they stalled when she left to become president of CCNY.
It doesn’t have to be like that. In this era of increased emphasis on assessment at all levels in higher education, we ought to have a more systematic approach for assessment of deans. Indeed, there is something amiss in having deans rigorously assessing their faculty when the deans themselves are not subject to meaningful performance review.
Other universities have an answer that we ought to explore. Their approach is to utilize what is called a “360” form of performance review for deans. Systems vary, of course, in their particulars, but they seem to involve these basics:
● The review period is set in advance. Usually it occurs on something like a 3-5 year cycle.
● It is conducted according to a pre-set and consistent set of evaluative criteria. The criteria are developed through a collaborative process that takes input from various sources, including especially faculty and staff.
● The performance review of a particular dean is coordinated by a team composed of faculty, administrators, staff, and in some cases students. At least some team members are individuals (including faculty) who do not report to the dean in question, and to whom the dean does not report. The team should be small enough to work quickly and confidentially.
● The team seeks information on the dean’s performance, according to the established criteria, from faculty, administrators, and staff at levels “above,” “below,” and “parallel” to the dean on the institutional hierarchy – whence the “360” designation. The team also seeks input from students and alumni/ae.
● The team also seeks information and personal self-reflection from the dean.
● Some of the information developed by the team may be quantitative (e.g., success at raising external funds, enrollment changes, graduation rates, or the like), but much of it is necessarily qualitative, since it involves things which cannot be measured numerically, like fairness, candor, prudence, motivational skill, and vision.
● To ensure candor, there must be strict rules against any kind of retaliatory action by the dean, especially in response to perceived criticism from below.
● Also in the interest of candor, there must be opportunity for both anonymous and identified assessment. Anonymous assessment allows those who might otherwise self-censor to register their concerns. Identified assessment enables the reviewing team to follow up on problems or issues that need further exploration; but those who do sign their names should be secure in the knowledge that their specific comments and their participation will be kept confidential. Surveys may be used, but there should also be opportunities for both written and spoken input.
● There should also be some opportunity for the reviewing team to engage in additional follow-up with individuals who are willing to elaborate on their views. This allows the team to identify and develop (or qualify, or dispel) apparent themes in the information they receive.
● Ideally, the review process should aim at both “formative” and “summative” assessment – formative to help good deans get better, and both formative and summative to identify struggling deans and reflect on what needs to change if they are to continue in that role. Formative and summative aspects of the review are sometimes separated from one another, coming at different time frames in the process.
● Finally, there should be an opportunity for the reviewing team to report its findings confidentially to the provost and president, along with opportunities for interaction with the dean regarding the team’s findings. There may also be some – usually quite limited – reporting of the team’s general findings to affected constituencies, although care must be taken to preserve the overall confidentiality of the process.
As we enter a new era at Temple, I’d like it to be an era in which we institute a method for ascertaining, building, and maintaining our “confidence of deans.” Our old approach has been hit-or-miss, with some magnificent (but I suspect fortuitous) successes, and (as those of us who have been around a long time know) some miserable and abject failures. I don’t think we should blindly adopt some other institution’s process. Rather, I would prefer for us to engage in a collaborative undertaking involving the central administration, the council of deans, and the faculty senate, to custom-design a 360 decanal review process that is dovetailed to Temple’s circumstances. Personally, I’d love to see Temple’s decanal success rate improve in the future. Developing our own brand of 360 review, aimed at producing a true “confidence” of deans, would be a great help toward building a positive future for Temple. •