From the early 1950s to the early 1960s, ACAD published its own journal entitled Proceedings of the American Conference of Academic Deans. The following essay was originally published in those Proceedings, 1964 (pp. 9-16) and reprinted in The Academic Deanship in American Colleges and Universities, Arthur J. Dibden, editor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 241-252).
William Clyde DeVane (1898-1965) served as Dean of Yale College from 1938 to 1963. Upon his retirement in 1964, he had served for twenty-five years—the longest serving dean in the institution’s history to that time.
Filled with insights DeVane had gathered over his storied career, the modern reader will nonetheless note his exclusive use of the masculine pronoun. While the editors could have adjusted the text, his language represents more than the widely-accepted grammatical convention of the time: it is a reminder of the male-dominated reality of upper administration throughout much of the twentieth century. It is hoped that the history that DeVane conveys on the role of the Dean is still illuminating in spite of language that is not inclusive of all people.
The swift movement of time has done some strange things to the title of dean. Once, the dean was a clergyman, head of a cathedral, or chapter, by title set over ten monks. As we think of our faculties at home, most of us would have a hard time reckoning ten monks in those secular bodies, or ten who even had the appearance of monks, to say nothing of the monkish habit of obedience. But if it comes to that, not too many of us are clergymen, and our offices have little of the cathedral air about them, nor are we as a profession usually credited with clerical virtues. More often than not, the feature ascribed to us by the faculty is illegitimacy.
With our accession to office—an all purpose office—we almost at once began to take on many of the duties, attributes, and colorations of the president. The old president of the college, who was usually really a clergyman, was often the father of his flock, both of his faculty and of his students. He suffered the pangs of dispensing student discipline and cried aloud about it. Governing the student body, said Ezra Stiles, one of the old breed of presidents, was like trying to control a wildfire, and “the only diadem a president was likely to gain was a crown of thorns.” In his better mood, Stiles taught his senior class a course in moral philosophy, but managed to work in some sessions on the Hebrew language, because, he said, he would not like to have his boys go to heaven and not know the language of the place. To control and discipline the faculty was also his task—often a very painful task as the consequences of the president’s decisions were serious and lasting. Above all, however, the president in the old regime was a mythical figure who attracted legends and stories to himself, and if he was not sufficiently eccentric, his students affectionately created the legends about him. I suppose the modern psychiatrist would say that the old president was an almost perfect father image; and what else they might say about the poor old gentleman will not be suggested here.On our part, I think we do not often remember that deans, in the American use of the title, that is, as connected with a college, are recent creations—perhaps creatures of a day. Our office in this sense is hardly a hundred years old. We are the product of the nineteenth century in America, called into being by the university movement in higher education which burgeoned in the late 1860s. Before the War between the States the college usually got along with a president, a treasurer, and a librarian who was also a teacher. It was the growing size of the colleges late in the nineteenth century, together with the growing complexity of the institutions as they took on university stature and pretensions, that called us into actuality. Before that, we were merely senior tutors, or a hope in the overtaxed presidential heart. But once we were visible, we made ourselves indispensable, and by the end of the nineteenth century every college, no matter how small, had one of us.
But here is the point. The early dean inherited most of the characteristics and attributes of the old president, as well as many of the duties. A recent book has a significant title, and I hope you will ponder every word of it. It is this: God Bless Our Queer Old Dean by William Storrs Lee. There is affection in that title, along with condescension toward a Walter Mitty grown old. That perceptive man, James Thurber, made the dean a hero in his play, The Male Animal. But well beyond sterling qualities, heroic virtues, and innocent moral triumphs, the dean was a mythical character to the students of a later time as the old president had been before him—something to be treasured nostalgically by alumni as a part of one’s college days. I need hardly tell you that the myth had frequently little to do with the reality. The faculty who knew the dean knew this, and often had other terms than those used by the students to describe the dean’s character. In any case, no harmless eccentric could possibly have done what the dean of the college was expected to do in an academic year. Just the same, the dean was, and is, the figure in the complex, modern institution who preserves best the human values of the old college and its president. We modern deans came into a goodly heritage, and we must remember gratefully such men as the magnanimous Dean Briggs of Harvard, the hospitable, wise and kindly Deans Keppel and Hawkes of Columbia, Jones of Yale to whom God deigned to speak, Gauss who left his imprint upon Princeton, Norton of Pomona, and many, many more throughout the land. About these men the stories of innumerable quiet charities, and even more precious understandings, clustered. The office, I think, has a way of inducing benevolence, and sometimes wisdom.
As for the dean’s duties, they were never precisely defined, and often one could only say that a dean is one who performs decanal duties. Generally, the man defined the job by his interests. In most cases he holds his office for a term of years on appointment by the president, and in that sense is the president’s man. At the same time, he is usually drawn from the faculty, and most often remains the faculty representative in the hierarchy of the administration. And it is this ambiguous position that is sometimes the source of his acute distress, as he tries to maintain concord between an impetuous president and a recalcitrant faculty.
In the changing academic scene the office of the dean has evolved in the same way that the presidential office has done. As the institution grew larger and more complex the president receded intellectually and personally from the faculty and the students. Most of the president’s energies went into dealing with the alumni, making speeches, serving on national committees, soliciting money, and performing other such painful and public tasks. The conduct of the college at home has in this way descended upon the dean—and then in the course of events the dean himself has receded from the students in part, and becomes an academic dean, with associates and assistants dealing with the many other phases of the college. This is often only a partial recession; for the dean stays on the campus and is seen daily, and is appealed to by students and faculty as a court of higher authority than the assistant or associate dean. As chief officer of the college, or academic dean, the dean is responsible for the total oversight of the undergraduate phase of the institution’s educational operation—the health, morals, quality and personality of the college and its personnel, its policy, its finances, and its standards, though some of these functions may be delegated. But delegation merely eases the daily burden, and does not relieve the dean’s obligation of responsibility for the welfare and health of the total college.
By all odds, the most important aspect of the academic dean is his relation to the faculty. This is an aspect of the task that he cannot delegate, though if he is wise he will get all the help he can. In dealing with the faculty the dean is least like the myth the students may have created about him. Here the deepest personal characteristics of the dean must come into play. His wide knowledge of the academic world is here invaluable. In recruiting a faculty, which with the help of the departments is his major task, he must know where good physicists are educated, and where good historians, where men are trained who have no time for anything but research, where teachers are bred who will never learn more than they now know and will become less and less effective as teachers. And it is well if the dean knows where to look for that priceless man or woman who is both scholar and teacher, and has the extra virtues of personality and the capability of becoming a loyal member of the college community—loyal not to himself, but to the enterprise. In short, the dean must have antennae and know where to look. Not less, he must know how to look. It is well if the dean shall have had somewhere in his career, the experience of observing or working in a first-rate institution that knows quality and is not willing or compelled to accept the mediocre. He must smell out the future to know what the candidate for appointment will be in fifteen or twenty years, and what the discipline the young man professes will be in the same twenty years. It is perilous to make an important appointment, for example, in a science like physics where the fierce pace of change may make the person under consideration obsolete sooner than his expensive instruments become outmoded. The qualities most valuable to the dean in the appointive process are knowledge, intuition, and sometimes persuasion. This is to ask a very great deal of mortal man, and if the dean can find somewhere a crystal ball which will let him peer into the future a quarter of a century ahead he can sleep better; the mistakes he makes in appointments, or allows to be made under his supervision, will often haunt him that long. Unlike the physician, the dean cannot bury his mistakes.
Now the care and feeding of the faculty in his charge is a different matter and calls for some different qualities. It is still extremely valuable for the dean to know the academic world widely and well. But with the faculty on the campus the prime quality necessary is understanding. The dean must understand his faculty in the mass and deal openly and frankly with them. His integrity must be beyond question. He must understand with sympathy, and yet with firmness, the individual in the faculty, as well, the conditions of the teacher’s life, his imagined necessities and his real ones, his anxieties and his ambitions. In the light of his appraisal of the worth of the man and his value to the college, the dean must do everything he can to see that in justice and under the rules of fair play the best members of the faculty get what they legitimately want in terms of salary, promotions, leaves of absence, teaching schedules, and other such matters. And in doing this, the dean must always keep in the forefront of his mind the good of the institution rather than his own affections. But, as all deans know, the academic world is not an Eden inhabited only by the wise and good. We do not have to look far to see selfishness, malice, and greed in a faculty, and less often more vicious evils, such as cheating and treachery. More often a member of the faculty is guilty of sharp dealing, prejudice, petty hates, or of seeing his own desires and virtues out of all perspective; and occasionally they become manipulators to get offers from other colleges, and threaten to resign. It is sometimes wise to make use of a quotation from a folk jingle that each of us learned in our youth: “If he hollers, let him go.” Kiss him goodbye, if you will, but never take him back! In dealing with the faculty it is frequently better to be admired than loved.
Perhaps I have almost persuaded you that the academic dean is a composite of all virtues, a really magnanimous person. But, I hardly need remind you that the world is of another opinion. I have never fully understood the instinctive animus that many faculty members feel at the mention of the dean, but there must be something to it—it is so universal. The dean, of course, can be drunk with power. He can be high-handed and arbitrary. He can play favorites. He can even be stupid. All these things he does, no doubt, consciously or unconsciously, arrogantly or reluctantly, for he is human and fallible, for he often must be the executioner, the hangman, and seem to the faculty member to be “the smyler with the knife,” as Chaucer phrases it. The dean may be compassionate, but he cannot be queasy, and if he is to last long in his job he must be able to put the painful matter out of his mind at night. But departments and professors can be arbitrary, too, willful and self-seeking. Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have had as dean is in trying to get departments to consider the good of the college as a more important matter than the advancement of the discipline which they represent. Especially in the universities has the loyalty of the department and the professor in the department shifted today from the college to the subject of their teaching and research and its national or international associations. This is most noticeable in the sciences, but has spread to all disciplines. The dean, who is committed to his institution, has to continually seek ways to circumvent this centrifugal loss of loyalty, and this calls for perseverance, patience, and skill. In such a Balkanized faculty it is difficult to preserve the freedom and morale of the college as a whole, and at the same time attain purpose, order, and proportion.
The second great area of direct interest of the academic dean is the area of policy. Here the dean must be an academic statesman of the most skillful kind—a prime minister who holds his leadership by persuasion and votes. Traditionally and properly the control of the curriculum is normally assigned to the faculty, but in actual practice the course of study is guided and managed by a committee responsible to the faculty. The dean is invariably a member of this committee, and frequently its chairman. In any case, he has the immense advantage of continuity. The composition of the committee changes year by year—sometimes the dean sees that it does—but the dean is always there. He thinks about the curriculum steadily, as the members of the committee rarely do. The faculty and even members of the committee on the course of study will normally think of the problem piecemeal, course by course, or the departmental offering. The dean must think of the curriculum in its totality and proportion as well as piecemeal, and must scrutinize the quality and appropriateness of each course, and if possible curb the endless proliferation of courses. If a bold new arrangement in distribution or concentration is proposed, it is usually the dean who has thought of it. If a change is proposed in the honors program or the calendar, or in the terms of financial aid, or admissions, or athletic policy, it is likely that the initiating idea has come from the dean. It is sometimes fortunate if the faculty realizes where the ideas come from only after the vote is taken.
To be effective in this area of college policy the dean must know many things, and exercise some unusual qualities. He must know the general history of higher education in America, where its component parts came from and why, how the college and the university developed, when and why at that particular time. And in that perspective he must know where the college is now in the total educational establishment, what are its prospects, and what its dangers. This is especially important now as the college once again is facing the question of its survival in its traditional form, and under pressure from advanced credit below and early specialization from above, is in danger of becoming a junior college or of being swallowed by the graduate school. The college must now say what it should be and why. I think that wise management of the curriculum may be the key to the situation. Even more intimately the Dean must know the peculiar history of his own college; for colleges, like people, have personalities and special characters; and are made by the conditions of their history.
In the making and control of the curriculum the special qualities the dean must exercise seem to me to be three: imagination, restraint, and persuasion. I have probably said enough about the first, and shall only add that the imagination must be curbed by judgment concerning what is possible, both humanly and politically. When one thinks of restraint in a faculty, one remembers Mark Twain’s comment on honesty: “Honesty,” he said, “is the rarest of virtues. Use it sparingly.” But in the desire of the faculty to expand the course offering of the department, for one reason or another, there is never any restraint. Our bulletins and catalogs aspire to rival the publications of Sears Roebuck. Left to the faculty, or even the committee on the course of study, there is seldom any sense of form in the student’s education, seldom any sense of discrimination between the important and the trivial. I have seen the case where a faculty was offered a general raise in salary if the course offerings were reduced to make a raise financially possible. The faculty would not do it. If there is to be any restraint in the endless proliferation of new courses, it usually must come from the dean.
The third valuable quality that comes into play is persuasion. When an imaginative program of studies has been constructed, having the virtues of form, order, proportion, and discrimination, it is necessary to persuade a faculty, preoccupied by its own studies and vested interests, to accept the plan—possibly with some small sacrifice of sovereignty on the part of the department or the individual for the general good. But mere acceptance is not enough. The faculty has to operate the program, and if there is no enthusiasm for the plan it cannot be a success. To win such enthusiasm will call upon all the statesmanship the dean has, and some other qualities that might be thought more political than statesmanlike. I have sometimes said that the most useful of a dean’s characteristics are patience and low cunning.
In a complex organization like a modern university, the dean needs persistence, ingenuity in stating his case, freedom to maneuver, and good luck when he sits down at the budget table with his rival deans of the graduate and professional schools, the provost, the treasurer, and the comptroller to plan the expenditures for the next year. He must know why it is more important to strengthen the department of English than to provide a new professor for the Law School, why better pension arrangements are more important than an athletic field house, and why the enrollment of the college must not be increased without an equivalent increase in the size of the faculty. These are behind-the-scene matters, seldom immediately visible to the community, but of much consequence. The hardest matter for the dean to learn here is that there are cases and times when he should not win if a wholesome corporate spirit is to be preserved. The good of the university is more important than a victory for the dean or the college.
The third great area of operations for which the academic dean is responsible is the world of the student. This area is usually delegated to an associate or assistant dean, called variously the dean of students, the dean of men or women, and so forth. But the responsibility for the satisfactory conduct of the office, remains with the head dean. And here the dean must exercise tact and judgment in dealing with his associates and also with the faculty, as discipline and standards are applied and rewards and penalties made. The faculty will almost invariably be dissatisfied with the operations of the office. The dean’s office is always too soft with the students, and at the same time unreasonably severe. Here is a useful rule of thumb: when a member of the faculty gets too obstreperously critical, put him on the committee which dispenses discipline. After a little experience, he frequently becomes an ardent special pleader. As for the faculty members who cannot get to their classes on time and are invariably late with grades and reports there is little that can be done except to catch them when they are young and make them think that you are keeping a record of their delinquencies. Here a loud strong voice, a scowling countenance, and a fist that can bang the table are of inestimable value.
By divorcing himself from the intimate association with the students, or being divorced by the sheer business of his office, the academic dean suffers a loss which he does not always appreciate. It is well that the dean should make every effort to keep in touch with the students by teaching a class, having some of them in his home, or meeting frequently with them in their organizations. I confess that some of the happiest recollections I have had in my career as dean have been friendships made with students, or occasions where the innate gaiety and honesty of the student have been suddenly apparent. For example, I remember with delight a conversation I had years ago with a student, the son of a classmate, who came to see me about his academic condition, at his father’s request. During a little preliminary persiflage it became clear to me that he was in danger of being drafted by the Army. I had not then seen his record, so I asked him if he were in the top half of his class. “Oh, no Sir,” he said, “I am one who makes the top half possible.” A better story even longer gone by is the one told about a predecessor of mine, Dean Wright, who was called on at his home by a returning alumnus, whose greeting was, “You don’t remember me.” Leaning forward to see him better in the dark, the Dean responded, “The name escapes me but the breath is familiar.”
But those lighthearted days have gone for the academic dean, and indeed, even for the dean of students, and for the undergraduates, too. We have moved into a grimmer world. But neither years ago nor now was the discourse between the dean and the student always a gay one. There was always the necessity for the dean to find out and listen carefully to the poor earnest student who could not make the grade, the student who was financially destitute and too proud to ask for help, the student who had to be rescued from his opinionated and strong-handed father, and the student who was in desperate need of friendship, and possibly psychiatric care. These things, now cared for by expert counselors, physicians and psychiatrists, wardens and masters, are the very stuff of life. They were painful enough to see and hear at the time, but in escaping from them one loses one’s touch with humanity at its most appealing stage. I wonder, sometimes, if the brisk, competent, modern student who possesses the world, now has escaped those agonies of adolescence, or if behind his glossy assurance he, too, ever is lonely, or knows himself to be small and helpless in this wild and dark world.
A few observations upon the dean’s various relationships and I have done. Between the president and the faculty the dean is between the upper and nether millstones. He has the duty to inform the president of the true state of things in the faculty—things which the president sometimes would rather not hear. He must convey to the faculty, often, things the faculty would prefer not to hear. Above all, he must maintain his own independence and integrity if he is to be of any use. It is often a delicate position he occupies, and he must be prepared to be blamed by both sides. Toward the faculty he must be eminently just, and deal evenly, but yet make distinctions. He had better know the pecking order in the faculty and yet never use it. There is a very imperfectly followed chain of command in most institutions. A few years ago the new captain of the Naval ROTC came into my office and announced, a little belligerently, that he was bewildered by procedures in the university. “What,” he asked me, “is the chain of command here?” Just then one of our most distinguished professors came by the door, and I said to the captain, “See, there is a professor! He is responsible only to God.” It is well if the dean shall be a scholar in order that he may speak on even terms with the faculty, whose highest respect goes to scholarship. But once he has become dean he will seldom have the chance to be a scholar again. The duties that the dean performs daily are antithetical to the scholarly life. His life is harder, more continually demanding, and full of constant crises. His pay is less, in spite of the legend to the contrary, than that of many professors—in some places less than the football coach. He is as likely to be blamed as praised. One may fairly ask why anyone should accept such a job. For myself, I have a point or two in answer. First, there is in some of us qualities of personality that demand to be exercised if we are to be whole men. Next, there is a kind of loyalty which is old-fashioned today and may, I admit, be foolish. But a man needs something beyond himself and his family to give his life to, and a college seems to be of manageable size; and he may better the place by his efforts. I believe I can safely say this: without a dean the president would go mad, the faculty would lapse into anarchy like children at an unsupervised birthday party, the students would be on a continuous holiday, and the college would soon cease to exist as a house of learning. In short, the institution would approach the Hollywood conception of a college.