Academic deans play an essential role in the ongoing success of their academic units, yet regrettably, they tend to serve terms of five years or less on average (Butin, 2016; Greicar, 2009; Robbins & Schmitt, 1994). This high turnover rate, combined with the various challenges of recruiting and developing new leaders from less-than-robust candidate pools (Appadurai, 2009; Bornstein, 2010; DeZure, Shaw, & Rojewski, 2014; Luna, 2012; Mead-Fox, 2009; Reichert, 2016), makes the longevity of deans a vital matter for higher education. To better understand deans’ perceptions about their own longevity, we sought to identify the factors that they believe are most influential in determining whether to remain in or depart from their positions.
Addressing this question takes on special significance given that: (1) resilience in the role of dean can often be a barometer of effectiveness, (2) certain elements and demands of the job can be overwhelming enough to limit longevity, and (3) institutions might realize better retention of effective deans if they know what contributes most to their interest and willingness to stay in their positions, or conversely, what predisposes them to exiting.
With these considerations in mind, a national survey of standing academic deans was conducted in partnership with ACAD and CCAS (the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences). The current survey grew out of a prior qualitative investigation of education deans’ perceptions of factors that would influence their longevity. Specifically, we wanted to ascertain the relative impact of a range of 26 factors identified in the qualitative study as contributing to either staying or exiting the dean’s role among a greater range of academic deans. We also were curious to see if these factors might differentially affect perceptions about staying or exiting the position if the same factor was stated to support or not support longevity (e.g., You still have goals to accomplish; Realistically you have accomplished all that you can).
Of special import, we sought to test whether the presumed superordinate factor, job satisfaction (which emerged as the principal influence in the qualitative study), and its converse, job dissatisfaction, held up when studied empirically using exploratory factor analytic techniques. Finally, we were curious to see if there were other factors that should have been considered or if the data collection may have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our instrument, known as the Academic Leadership Longevity Survey, included a series of demographic probes and 52 Likert style target items, split evenly between the 26 factors associated with deans remaining in or vacating their positions. Two additional open-ended items asked for input on possible factors that were not addressed, and one Likert item queried respondents about COVID-19’s impact on their responses.
With the assistance of ACAD and CCAS, some 272 deans drawn from a notable range of different academic disciplines completed the electronic survey. Some 55% of the respondents identified as female, and 45% identified as male. Eighty percent of the respondents were 50 years or older, and 31% were 65 years or older. Ninety percent of the respondents identified as White, 4% as Black, 3% as Hispanic, 2% as Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% as Other.
Because nearly three quarters of the participating deans (N=200) represented arts and sciences, analyses were done that compared how these deans responded to the target longevity items compared to the group consisting of all remaining deans (N=72). Linear regression techniques revealed no significant differences (p > .05) in the way the two sets of deans responded to any of the items, suggesting that deans broadly defined would likely answer the items in the same way.
For the basic analyses, percentages were calculated for each of the personal demographic prompts and means and standard deviations were computed for the 52 target items. Visual inspections were made of the item means for the purposes of comparing their magnitude and detecting any noteworthy trends. Exploratory factor analysis procedures were conducted for the Stay scale separately, for the Exit scale separately, and for both scales combined. Open coding was used for the qualitative data.
Job Satisfaction (and its converse, Job Dissatisfaction) emerged as the multifaceted, overarching factor that influenced deans’ reasoning about continuing their service. Two reasons that appeared especially critical for deans both to stay in or exit from their positions were support from upper administration and support from faculty and staff. Other elements that appeared to be vital for deans’ job satisfaction, and for staying in their positions, were the ability to make a noteworthy difference, finding joy and satisfaction in the role, and effective work with faculty and staff. In contrast, elements that would contribute to a dean’s decision to exit the position were a belief that one’s leadership is no longer trusted, ineffective work with faculty and staff, and diminished confidence in the institution.
Two items that were not rated as important for either staying or exiting were: contentment to stay at the current level of position and personal financial needs being met. The deans appeared to be satisfied with their current positions and their earnings for the work that they were expected to do.
The differences in means between staying and exiting the dean’s role indicated that two reasons were more important for staying than exiting: still having goals to accomplish and remaining able to make a difference. Conversely, two reasons influenced exiting more so than staying: ongoing service not benefiting one’s academic unit and having an unmanageable workload. The deans seemed to believe that as long as they still had a purpose, they should stay, but as soon as they determined that their service, especially with an unmanageable workload, was not making a difference, it would be time to exit their positions.
It is worth noting that some differential effects occurred for deans with previous experience in the role, female deans, deans of color, and older deans. Those with previous academic dean experience rated “Stay” items about joy and satisfaction, faculty and staff support, accomplishing goals, and a manageable workload higher than those deans without previous academic dean experience. In addition, female academic deans rated both the “Stay” and “Exit” item about trust in one’s leadership and “Exit” items about upper administration support and resources to do their job effectively higher than male academic deans. Deans of color, albeit very few in number, rated “Exit” items about accomplishing goals, service, and confidence in one’s institution higher than white academic deans. As would be expected, older academic deans were more concerned than younger deans about age, retirement, and relevance in relation to their staying power.
Interestingly, the deans reported that the pandemic did not exert a noticeable impact on their longevity perceptions. In fact, some respondents mentioned that the need for continuous leadership in difficult times like a pandemic represented a reason to stay as dean and continue to make a difference.
A major takeaway from the study as it pertains to the retention of deans is that support from upper administration is essential (Merrion, 2003). If a provost or academic vice president does not support and empower deans, while providing the necessary capacity to do their jobs suitably, they will apparently be apt to leave. Given the limited terms of deans, the relative dearth of qualified candidates, and the challenges institutions have in growing their own leaders, central administrators should recognize the importance of empowering their deans so that they can do their jobs.
Likewise, faculty and staff need to understand that the longevity of their dean could likely be affected by the level of cooperation they provide. When deans feel as though they are not getting the support from those who report to them, they will be more disposed to step out of their positions and either return to faculty, seek employment elsewhere, or retire if that is an option. If deans feel satisfied with their positions because of support from both directions, which is likely to be a reflection of their own leadership acumen, they will endure in being effective leaders for their schools and colleges (Williams, 2017). The bottom line is that academic units and institutions should actively endeavor to retain effective deans.
The leadership that deans bring is vital to the success of their schools and colleges (Gabbe et al., 2008; King & Hampel 2018). They must navigate both up and down by engaging regularly with senior officials, faculty, staff, and students so that they have the necessary resources and support to sustain current initiatives and cultivate new opportunities (Gabbe et al., 2008; June, 2014).
Looking to the future, it is fitting for the higher education community to continue to study ways to support and retain effective academic deans. Those in the position to influence effective deans’ tenures in their roles, e.g., upper-level administrators, faculty, and administrative staff, should take to heart that it is worth the effort to contribute to deans’ job satisfaction because of the unnecessary disruption that occurs when having to search for and mentor new deans.
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