My father, Cesare Emiliani, was a professor and long-time department chair of the geology department at the University of Miami. He was an accomplished scientist (one of Nobel Prize winner  Harold Urey’s graduate students, with future Nobel Prize winner  Willard Libby serving on his Ph.D. thesis committee) and a man whose knowledge spanned biology, chemistry, physics, geology, arts, history, religion, and languages (Italian, Spanish, German, French, Latin, and Greek). He was a true Renaissance man with a brilliant sense of humor.
He began his academic career in 1957 teaching graduate students at a satellite campus in Key Biscayne, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. He then moved to main campus in Coral Gables in the early 1970s to teach undergraduate students. He still had graduate students, but he loved teaching undergraduate students (especially first year students) and getting them excited about the sciences. He did that until 1992, when he retired at the age of 70.
In the mid-1980s I was pursuing my Ph.D. in engineering at Brown University. I came home to Coral Gables on winter break to spend some time with the family. One evening my father was cooking steaks on the barbecue in the backyard. We were drinking a few beers and got into a discussion about teaching and university administration. He quickly pointed out to me the following observation, based on decades of experience in dealing with many deans: “All deans are assholes.” (For an example in the context of deductive thinking, click here and scroll down to the word “deduction,” then click on the speaker icon).
Why did he say this? My father was a tireless advocate for students, working 60 to 70 hours per week to obtain research funding for graduate students, teaching three undergraduate courses per semester (as department chair), creating new courses and programs that would excite students, and administering the affairs of the department. He taught in a energetic and engaging way; students loved him. He would take a couple of students along to lunch a few times a week for a hamburger and meet other students at the campus bar after work for a few beers to discuss science. He was a generous person who fed students minds as well as their bodies.
In contrast, deans often are not student advocates (though some are, and may pay the price). Their role is focused on budgets, meetings, reports, paperwork, internal politics, etc. – bureaucracy and the status quo, not process improvement. The job itself, as traditionally thought of and performed, automatically makes deans less of an advocate for students than faculty, unless certain precautions are taken. Deans’ inattention to students causes friction among professors who believe that teaching, learning, and student success is the core mission of the university. That’s why my father thought, in his experience, that all deans were assholes.
A while after telling me that “All deans are assholes,” my father said: “You’d make an excellent dean.” Hmmm. That seemed like a mixed message if ever there was one: A wonderful, loving father saying I too could be an asshole dean. That puzzled me for quite a number of years, but I think I have figured it out.
When I look at the typical job description for a dean, it is apparent that one must, in most cases, be an asshole. It is an unwritten key job requirement necessary in order to get a job done that cannot actually be done. The typical job description is written in haughty language, encompasses more than can actually be done, is unreasonable in time frame for accomplishments, and is impractical in the myriad capabilities that it seeks. It seeks a singular hero while requiring that one excel at collaborating with others. The term of appointment is short, usually three years, in anticipation of dissention and conflict with faculty. Such job descriptions are sure to attract candidates who interview well but who actually do lousy work. Hence, “All deans are assholes.” Q.E.D.
Many capable faculty members shun the job because they see how the work and decisions reduce student advocacy and disconnects the dean from the core mission of the university. Perhaps one thing that could help reduce the number of asshole deans is a job description that attracts candidates who interview actually do great work but may interview poorly. It would be a job description that is ambitious but realistic, practical yet progressive, and one that propels the school forward in recognizably distinctive ways in the eyes of students, payers, and employers. It should also highlight the need for a dean that sacrifices self for others and who can join the staff and faculty to work together as a team that does good things for students.
Let’s compare a recent dean job description for the College of Business Administration from the University of Rhode Island* (position number 107078, posted 12.10.2014) to a proposed dean job description that I would find appealing, would result in a dean less likely to be an asshole, and align the dean with faculty and staff to the core mission of the university: teaching, learning, and students success (click on image to enlarge. Click here for .pdf version):
Perhaps my father thought I’d be a good dean because I would figure out how not to be an asshole dean. Maybe one day we’ll see if he is right. If he is, then I would need to figure out what to do about that asshole provost.
* Disclosure: I am alumni of the University of Rhode Island , M.S. Chemical Engineering ’84