Why deans of universities need help to become better leaders

University deans must wear many hats while they try to act as a pivot between academics and management. Shutterstock

University deans may be “the least studied and most misunderstood position anywhere in the world”, according to educationalist Walter Gmelch. Our research confirms this – and suggests that far more ought to be known about this critical academic leadership role.

Deans tend to be former academics who come from a traditional teaching or research space. More often than not they are “catapulted” into academic leadership and executive management roles, which is what this position has evolved into at most South African universities. They must also wear multiple hats within a complex, changing, 21st-century university domain.

Deans must be amicable, intellectual leaders. They also need to be fiscal and human resource experts, fundraisers, politicians and diplomats. Frankly, many in South Africa are not coping.

Could the solution lie with targeted, specific leadership development? There is a great deal of evidence globally to suggest that leadership development is extremely valuable for deans. We explored whether this is true in the South African context.

Deans’ own experiences

South African universities are criticised for being too expensive and inaccessible to poor students. More and more people want to pursue a university degree, and universities simply don’t have the resources to support so many students.

These complaints and challenges are echoing in university corridors all over the world. But we and many others argue that South African universities operate in a unique context because of the country’s peculiar colonial and apartheid legacy. This makes managing and leading such institutions particularly complex.

We interviewed 26 deans from 11 disciplines at six universities in South Africa’s Gauteng province about their experiences of leadership.

Most did not feel they had been adequately prepared for deanship. There were huge differences between their expectations of the role versus their lived realities. The majority did not feel they were getting the leadership and management development support required from their institutions.

… the job (of a dean) is hotter, more complex and much more strategic than I expected. If you simply want to be a dean that administers the faculty in traditional terms it’s a much simpler space. Certainly at our university it’s very clear now people are looking for more than that. – A dean from the University of Pretoria.

They are dealing with institutional restructuring and the hot button issue of transformation. On top of this, they must deal with student access, graduation rates and academic quality issues in their faculties.

As academic leaders, deans play a pivotal role in advancing universities’ strategic objectives and operational requirements for success. They may be credible scholars in their fields, but not all have the management knowledge or experience required by deans. It is here that support is especially necessary. Many of the deans we interviewed also struggled with the ambiguity of their roles – straddling the academe and university management as they do.

Universities are also becoming increasingly corporate spaces, as evidenced by the introduction of “executive deanships” at the universities in Gauteng. The emphasis here is more on executive management, sometimes at the cost of academic leadership.

The consequences of not supporting deans are extensive: mismanagement, managerial conflict, problematic governance and authoritarian leadership by deans. A dearth of support for deans also compromises scholarship and the advancement of knowledge, when there’s a disproportionate focus on management requirements, particularly at a time when stronger academic leadership is required.

Potential for improvement

There appears to be no coherent or strategic understanding of leadership development for deans at the institutions we examined. What is more worrying is that existing approaches are inadequate and inappropriate.

In keeping with the idea of universities as increasingly corporate spaces, leadership development for deans tends to be generic, devoid of context and businesslike. Most universities have imported methodologies and content from the business sector, which are not appropriate for the academe.

It doesn’t address the unique institutional challenges and the pivotal bridging role deans play, between the academe and administration.

Leadership development for deans at South African universities ought to be contextual and must address the challenges of working in a changing environment. It should allow for reflection and advance lifelong learning, in which deans are always exploring opportunities to grow and develop. It should also incorporate performance management and help deans to plan for career advancement.

If these kinds of interventions are correctly conceptualised, planned and managed, and if universities create an enabling environment, leadership development can be valuable for South African deans – and for the universities which rely so much on their pivotal role in the institutional structure.