My Deanship: A Year in Review

My Deanship: A Year in Review

One year ago, I accepted the role of Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies. I did not act on a whim. Throughout my academic career, spanning a baker’s dozen, I’ve held many management roles from Director of Postgraduate Studies to Director of Internationalisation and plenty of others in between. A deanship was the natural—and, frankly, desirable—next step. 

Over the course of the year, I’ve learned much about university management and faculty leadership. It’s perhaps a truism that academia feels both familiar and foreign when sitting in the dean’s chair. I completed a few articles, though not many, and delivered some lectures, though far fewer than I’m accustomed to. Mostly, I learned and have a greyer beard to prove it.

Building upon the essay I published some months into my stint (From Law Prof to Law Dean: Curse or Blessing?), I detail below five additional lessons I’ve gained from the experience. You’ll note that the tone is more subdued and the tips less romantic, perhaps because of the gulf between dating and marriage. Still, as the butterflies wither, the ballast expands and each of these lessons provides me with greater stability as a scholar and leader.

Lesson 1- What is a Faculty?

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I hadn’t reflected deeply about this before taking up the role. As often happens with the familiar, I thought my presumptions sufficient. Once in post, the meaning and mission(s) of the faculty became primordial. 

Is a faculty a place, an institution, a community, or a network? It’s too easy to proclaim all of the above. But, of course, it is all of the above. It’s a place where a community of scholars and students join hands and minds in intellectual communion. Ideally, we network across fields and disciplines, across constituencies and ideas, and are guided by a shared fascination with knowledge.

Yet, I’ve come to realise that this definition is contentious. To some colleagues, a faculty (like a university) is foremost an institution. When viewed through this prism alone, procedures become sacrosanct. This is a risky approach for it obscures the people who constitute the faculty as well as their mission. By elevating an abstract institution above physical people, we risk taking the latter for granted, exacerbating disaffection and draining the lifeblood that is essential to a socially driven endeavour.

To guard against this bureaucratic trap, I ask myself not what our faculty is but what our faculty can be. This phrasing reminds me that aspiration is vital to research, teaching, and social renewal. Just as aspiration informs education, it must also guide a university’s leadership. What is a faculty? It is a collection of aspirations that a dean is entrusted to nurture but, fortuitously, they do not bear this burden alone. 

Lesson 2- To Govern Well, Involve Others

A dean governs their faculty and must study governance if they are to do this well. Governance is a simple concept but one that is often poorly performed. At its core, it consists of communication, control, and accountability. Each element ensures that an organisation’s many moving parts unite to produce a soothing symphony. The alternative, of course, is an ear-splitting cacophony. If your campus sounds like Axl Rose instead of Billie Holiday, you’ve got a governance problem. 

Upon arrival, I was sensitive to governance as I’d been cautioned that the faculty suffered disharmony in the preceding years. To chart a rhythmic future, I decided to double-down on good governance principles. I recognise there are others, but the set below chimes with my ethic and it’s sensible to preach principles you actually practise.

Participation is a cornerstone of my approach. I consult colleagues in decisions that shape the faculty. Should we develop a new postgraduate programme? How can we improve student satisfaction scores? Should our journal remain behind a paywall or do we adopt an open-access model? By establishing a participatory environment, we stimulate feelings of belonging and camaraderie, both of which elicit commitment to a faculty’s strategic direction. 

Transparency is a no-brainer. I assure you that in a room full of academics (and sometimes students as well), you are not the smartest person. A transparent approach conveys to your colleagues that you trust and value their viewpoints, which you should. It also improves communication across disparate parts, enhancing cohesion.

Due process is a malleable concept. I see it as an indispensable bulwark against abuses of power. With responsibility for strategy, finance, staff, students, operations, and overall performance, deans shoulder substantial responsibility and it’s reasonable to afford them sufficient control to meet the faculty’s targets. In other words, they wield a lot of power. Due process adumbrates this power, fencing it within boundaries that preserve accountability. Leaders should swaddle themselves in due process, keeping the temptations of command in check. Where due process is neglected, institutions are vulnerable to poor leadership and abuses of power, both of which usually precede legal action and reputational damage. 

Accountability naturally flows from due process. As a faculty, we hold ourselves accountable for our actions and responsibilities not for punitive purposes, but to build trust across the team. Crucially, wise leaders know that accountability should flow upwards. For example, responsibility for a poorly performing lecturer rests not with them alone but with me. The same is true for deans. I am responsible for my actions but so too are the Principal and Vice-Chancellor. By committing to this principle, a university improves communication both horizontally and vertically. Those higher on the governance matrix have every reason to communicate with those further down. In institutions with downward accountability, impunity and fear fester, threatening individual and collective performance.

Innovation is not commonly referred to as a good governance principle, or at least not in orthodox circles. I wrote about innovation as imperative in my previous post. Institutions are entropic. Doing things as they’ve always been done inevitably undermines a faculty’s mission; we list when we cease to develop new ideas. Faculties must innovate to counter an institution’s susceptibility to decay. Innovation is also stimulating, breathing excitement into scholars and students. A word of warning: while this seems counterintuitive, innovation ruffles feathers. Anachronism and the status quo have their champions too. 

To successfully lead a faculty, a dean must facilitate participation and stimulate innovation, operate transparently, apply due process, and, most of all, take responsibility for their actions and the actions of those under them. These are building blocks for good governance and a climate of trust, both of which help faculties thrive. 

Lesson 3: Develop a Problem-Solving Strategy

Much of a dean’s day is dedicated to solving problems (and dodging new ones). A colleague accuses another of racism, evaluation scores decline, research productivity ebbs, the office of human resources forgets to send adjuncts their contracts, the website needs upgrading, your budget needs trimming, your university is battered in the papers, etc. The variety is dizzying, and deans should develop a problem-solving strategy. I rely on root cause analysis. It’s a simple model that forces you to look past the problem and toward the underlying system and processes.

Before investigating a solution, I classify problems in one of three categories: physical, human, or organisational.

  • Physical problems are the easiest: the photocopier stopped working. Can we repair it, or must we replace it? Do I have the budget? The latter question is my favourite as the answer is invariably no, prompting some provocative thinking: do we even need photocopiers
  • Human problems are more complex. We make mistakes; we are forgetful; some of us are prideful; and some of us are incompetent. Still, solving human problems produces the greatest gains. Most individuals will remain at a faculty for a prolonged period, or you hope they do. Resolving a human problem has the potential to yield exponential benefits. 
  • Organisational problems are the thorniest of all. As dean, you quickly discover that many of your faculty’s problems originate beyond it, a space over which you have no jurisdiction. Think of the human resources example above. If HR forgets to send the contract, you have little recourse (which again underscores the importance of upward-facing accountability).

Each problem-type demands a unique solution. How do you determine what that is? Enter the two stages of root cause analysis. Begin by defining the problem. I use symptoms to classify it according to my taxonomy. Next, collect associated data to home in on a suitable way forward. Is this a novel or recurring problem? Who’s involved? How wide is the impact? Do you have what you need to resolve it? 

Problems have solutions. To avoid only using hammers on the ones you face, develop a problem-solving strategy.

Lesson 4: Walk the Line

Integrity is a key leadership trait. This applies across sectors and higher education is no exception. Students, scholars, and stakeholders look to the dean for ethical leadership. Faculties with ethical leadership inculcate a culture of integrity, itself a platform for attracting and retaining talented professionals. It also shapes a supportive work environment and greater productivity.

A dean should know that colleagues will listen to their words, observe their actions, and evaluate their decisions with an eye for integrity. They do so because of the strong relationship between integrity and trust. Leaders who operate with integrity are trustworthy; less so for those who don’t. 

I’ve learned that ethical conundrums abound when in a position of leadership. To illustrate, my deputy deans and I get along like a house on fire. We spend ample time together revisiting strategy and implementing initiatives. My deanship would be a lonely endeavour were it not for them. While being part of my executive leadership team, they are also lecturers in the faculty, making me their line manager. How do I avoid letting my positive feelings toward them colour (or compromise) my evaluation of their performance?

In other situations, I’ve observed financial oversights, violations of due process, and even dubious hiring practices. When does a dean challenge the conduct and confront the individuals? Confrontation is easy when individuals are lower on the governance matrix but risky when they are higher, as many including me have learned.

Answers to these questions are personal and I encourage anyone in leadership or weighing a leadership role to reflect on such situations before they arise. I settled on a series of principles to assist me in practising, displaying, and maintaining my integrity. 

1- Be honest. Exaggerating successes and denying mistakes undermines your authority. Colleagues see through this and begin to wonder what else you’re hiding. It goes without saying that you should not deceive your colleagues under any circumstances.

2- Treat people well. You never know when the shoe will be on the other foot. By not succumbing to dirty games, you nurture an honourable reputation. And, frankly, it just feels better. 

3- Talk to colleagues, whoever they are. Some leaders only gaze upwards. This is unfortunate and, for a dean, damaging. You’ll appear elitist and out-of-touch and, in truth, you are. An individual’s standing in a faculty is not indicative of their merit as a person. 

4- Solicit feedback about your performance. You should do this with your secretary, leadership team, lecturers, and stakeholders. While also learning about your qualities and shortcomings, you communicate to others that they matter.

5- Trust. To earn trust, trust others. You’re taking a chance, of course, and some will exploit this. Happily, duplicity says everything about them and nothing about you. Your team will go from strength to strength when you cultivate a culture of trust.

Lesson 5: Be Ambitious, Be Humble

Like institutions, leaders vary and are better suited to some institutions than to others. For example, an institution with an authoritarian leadership is prone to groupthink. Here, a bureaucratic leader can thrive as the focus is on operations. Of course, this is highly problematic for a faculty for the reasons outlined above. 

For my part, I am what the literature terms a transformational leader. Transformational leaders are ambitious. We like to strategise, innovate, and grow. We are also demanding and can become pugnacious in places with unrequited potential. Indeed, we have no truck with complacency, which can prove problematic in institutions committed to the status quo.

To illustrate types transformation, at Auckland, I trialled new teaching methodologies including the democratic use of virtual learning environments (before it became fashionable); at QUB, I was tasked with developing new postgraduate programmes; and at Warwick, I developed the law school’s internationalisation strategy. 

I suspect this record is the reason the UWI appointed me. Scanning my first year at Cave Hill, I note that I’ve launched a legal journal (the Caribbean Law Review), inaugurated a Law & Health research unit (supported by a sizeable grant from the O’Neill Institute), and laid the groundwork for a faculty endowment (we welcome donations). I’ve also established a legal advocacy training programme for early career practitioners (with revenue dedicated to funding student scholarships) and am putting the finishing touches on a tax academy for personnel at the Barbados Revenue Authority to build capacity across the agency. Last, I’m in the early stage of developing a police prosecution certificate to counter some of the indiscretions that manifest within our justice system and a tax certificate to enhance a viable sector in a region that’s been battered by the fallout of Covid-19, the eruption of La Soufrière, and an incessant brain and youth drain.

It’s a lot and I am delighted with what we’ve achieved, bringing me to my final point: deans must be humble. I may have spearheaded these initiatives but each has progressed because others have helped and I name them below.* An ambitious dean will not achieve anything without the support of a strong team. Acknowledge your colleagues, praise them, and reward them for your faculty will not succeed without them. Be careful not to conflate the faculty’s success with your own. If you play your part well, others will reward you by playing theirs better. 

In Lieu of A Conclusion

To tackle the countless challenges our societies face, we need faculties and universities to develop robust research agendas and innovative learning environments. In support of this laudable aim, faculties and deans must cultivate conditions for this to happen. How?

Despite some of the hardships that come with a deanship, my time has taught me that trust, honesty, camaraderie, integrity, and humility matter most of all. Every dean in every faculty in every university should model these qualities if they wish to lead their faculty well.

Will you look at that: I’m still a romantic after all. 

***

* In no particular order, I wish to recognise the support of:

  • Rashad Brathwaite with the Caribbean Law Review
  • Nicole Foster with the Law & Health Research Unit
  • Oliver Jordan, Julia Hope, and other members of the Dean’s Council with the endowment
  • Jason Haynes with the Legal Advocacy Programme 
  • Jason Haynes (again) and Justin Phillips with the Speaker Series
  • Jivaan Bennett with the Tax Academy and Tax Certificate
  • Janeille Matthews with the Police Prosecution Certificate

I also mention administrative colleagues who facilitated each of these activities including Beal, Shakita, Joyce, Karen, and Lorna. I’ve omitted their surnames as some of my colleagues shy away from the limelight. (Academics, of course, can’t get enough of it.)

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash.

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