Who Wants to Grow Up to Be the Dean?
We at the faculty council just went ahead and chose a new dean for the Faculty of Arts. We had actually just elected one last winter, but come summer the freshly appointed dean took part in the race for the rectorate and made vice rector of the university. So, here we are again, faced with yet another complicated process of bureaucracy, self-aggrandizing and communal apathy. With all the trouble and work hours that costs, you might wonder why it is that last year’s selection didn’t stick. One potential reason is that being dean is ultimately a deeply strange place to be.
The position of dean exists at the crossroads between discipline-specific research and administrative power. You’re neither free to pursue the advancement of your discipline and the things that presumably made research interesting, nor are you powerful enough to make all the important decisions alone – before you even get to briefly mull over the unattainability of inbox zero in the morning, you’re bombarded by conflicting requirements from the higher-ups and their higher-ups (leading up to the global economy, presumably), and the faculty for which you and your mandate stand. No matter what you do, you’ll find your superiors’ restrictions too limiting, and your subordinates will continually feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. You’re in the trenches, painfully aware that whenever mutiny and revolt loom, yours will be the first door to be greeted by a disgruntled knock.
It would be hard to blame former deans for moving on to greener pastures for this, and in higher positions they may very well even be more helpful to their community’s needs. The faculty, however, needs a sense of continuity to operate well, and the aim should probably be to keep such brief stints to a minimum. With that in mind, is it reasonable to expect anyone to be satisfied with sticking it out as a dean? Would that be where a student sees themselves in a couple of decades?
First of all, to become a dean you must be a researcher — preferably one with honours, accolades, and a nice professorship. That’s already a rough start in the current zeitgeist, where antiscientific attitudes gain international prominence, and systemic cuts to university funding threaten basic research and teaching. Little wonder, then, that these negative societal views on education rub off on students. They come the university to graduate quickly and be more competitive on the job market, only to be met by teachers who stumble over themselves attempting to explain the working life relevance and commercial applicability of their field. The viability of becoming a researcher in the future is not very readily presented to students, perhaps to not scare freshmen away on their first day, or to not cause overt gradu anxiety for those soon leaving the alma mater.
There may very well be wisdom in sparing students from the future hell of grant applications and the grim spectre of a disappointing career in academia. Yet the further away the university moves from being about the science, not marketability, the less inspiration there is for young, up-and-coming researchers to dedicate their lives to the vast amounts of research done within its walls. This is not to say that everyone should or could go for the doctorate and keep at research forever, but that in this hypothetical scenario at least a few of your potential rivals will now have ended up on a different trajectory, turning the numbers in your favour in a few decades’ time when you finally apply for the deanship.
So, if you do somehow survive getting your PhD and eventually get settled on a comfy tenure, becoming a dean still requires you to be an adept administrator — no stranger to academic leadership, budgeting issues, or drinking more than seven cups of coffee in meetings per day. You have to want this level of power and know how to wield it, so if you’ve spent all of your time researching or teaching, you could be in trouble. Again, this might not look like a particularly enticing situation for students still working through the budding romance they’ve developed for their field, now fearfully raising their eyebrows at the prospect of having to talk about something other than Shakespeare ever again. Yet if at this point you’re feeling like an administrative rockstar with decades of varied experience, the next question is: why stop there? Someone with your academic clout could surely set their sights higher and aim for the rectorate, watching over the entire university’s proceedings and enjoying the opportunities that provides.
This is where the two sides of the problematized coin are clearly seen: To become and remain the dean requires both a love for research and administration, and a wistful resignation to not realize either to their fullest potential. Research has to fall to the wayside to attain the position, administration to maintain it. Seen this way, the satisfied dean becomes a mythical creature of altruistic sacrifice, settling down just beneath the summit to focus on helping other people scale the mountain. Perhaps they smile a despondent Sisyphian smile at their journey and the end it will never reach.
Or, as the case may really be, they’re perfectly satisfied with getting to advance both their own field and its neighbours in a more interdisciplinary fashion than would otherwise be possible, moving on once their five-year term is over. From that perspective it seems like a good if demanding place for individual growth, where expertise and understanding can be valued not through their depth, but their breadth. Even so, the tensions from all sides undoubtedly still remain present, and some very specific circumstances appear to be required for someone to really want to do the job. Whatever the case may be, I want to congratulate the new dean, Pirjo Hiidenmaa. I hope she’s genuinely happy with where she is now.