How to Apply for a Dean Position (A Guest Post in the form of an interview)

The writer of this post is dean at a public liberal-arts-and-science college in the Midwest. S/he has spent a career in public higher education at comprehensive and baccalaureate campuses in a number of instructional and administrative roles.


Karen:  Sketch for us the Dean’s job.  How do you fill your days?  What skills and aptitudes do you need to display on a daily basis?  How do these differ from those you depended on as a faculty member?

My days are typically a combination of planned work and reaction to what comes to me (usually by e-mail, occasionally by phone or walk-in).  I’m the dean of a small college, which is part of a mid-sized organization.

In terms of planned work, it’s a combination of providing information to my college community, to the main administration (provost’s office, chief business officer’s office, chancellor’s office, etc.), and to the off-campus community, as well as working with those units that report to me to solve problems or plan for future initiatives.

As dean of this college, I have a lot of contact with the community, and so interaction with the community is a large part of my job (formal via service organizations of which I am a member, with elected officials, and with county and municipal employees; and informal through casual/occasional meetings).  Our college has its own library, IT, academic affairs, student affairs, and business offices, which report to me, so oversight of these units’ directors (various titles for each – director, asst. dean, associate dean, manager, etc.) leads to both planned and unplanned work.

Karen:  What are the most important qualities sought in an Academic Dean candidate?  How do these differ from faculty searches?

The most important qualities are really not so different for an academic dean than they are for a successful faculty member.  That is, the dean needs to be an effective communicator, needs to be an analytical thinker, needs to be diplomatic in working with a variety of colleagues, students, and community members.  Each of these qualities should define a successful faculty member (I realize I’m not referring to expertise in a particular academic field, which is a given for a faculty-position candidate).

The differences occur in areas such as budget management (most faculty candidates are not judged on this), personnel management (again, most faculty positions do not come with personnel management), and ability to raise money for the college (deans did not used to be fund raisers; in the last 15 – 20 years, though, this has become an expectation).  In each of these areas, however, the qualities I mention above are critical.

Karen:  Who reviews Dean applications and makes the final decisions?  Can you share any stories or generalizations about the politics and practices of these searches (i.e., insider knowledge)?

There will be a search committee, of course.  Some colleges and universities are now employing search firms at dean-level searches, though this is not yet as common as at the provost or president level.  In any event, the search committee or search firm will typically be the first level of review of applications (I say “typically,” because there may be cases where an HR department has a level of initial review).  Whether the committee, firm, or HR department does the initial review, the search committee will do subsequent reviews, interviews (usually first by phone or off-campus for semi-finalists – i.e., the “airport interview” – and then on campus for finalists); there will usually be anywhere from 3 to 5 finalists, though 3 is most typical.  The committee will make recommendations to the provost or president, depending on the hiring authority.  The provost or president will make the final decision.

DISCLAIMER: the above is how the institutions I’ve worked with and applied to have operated.  I can’t generalize for all, of course.

I’m going to decline to give anecdotal information.  Every institution is a bit different.  My inclination is to take at face value what is put in position notices such as seeking candidates from across ethnic, racial, and gender categories and from disciplines represented in the college doing the search.

Karen:  When search committees discuss Dean candidates, what kinds of things do they talk about?  What do they admire?  What do they dismiss or ignore?  What do they see as red flags?  What do they reject out of hand?

Search committees are looking for candidates who have strong academic and experiential credentials.  Regarding the former, a terminal degree is nearly always a necessity, as well as a record of teaching and scholarship that is comparable to a successful faculty member.  Regarding the latter, the candidate should have administrative experience that prepares him or her for a full-time administrative role in which collaboration is essential (the successful dean is more of a facilitator than a leader).  Most often, this is a term or two as department chair.  It can also be experience with administering large grants, serving as an asst. or assoc. dean, etc.  In each of these examples, the candidate will have had budget experience, personnel decision-making experience (of some kind), and – especially for chairs and asst./assoc. deans – experience working with the public and with administrators further up the organizational ladder.  It’s not a given that a committee will ignore applicants without some administrative experience, but it’s very likely to happen.

Red flags are most likely to go up if a candidate has moved from position to position in relatively short periods.  There may be good reason for this (rapid turnover in positions above, family circumstances, etc.), and so the candidate’s letter should address anything on their CV that could raise such questions.  I discuss letters more below.

For an academic dean’s position – unless there’s explicitly a decision to consider non-academics, or the college is highly specialized – it is very likely that an application from a non-academic will not go far.  There are certainly exceptions to this, however.  If the college has a specific focus (fine arts, business, health sciences, for example), it would be less likely for immediate rejection to happen.  If the college is multi-disciplinary or not a professional school (humanities, liberal arts and science, social sciences, etc.), an application from a non-academic will not go far.

An application with a poorly-written letter will not get past the first cut.  I address this below.

Karen:  How long should a Dean application cover letter be, and what should it include?  Can you give us a suggested paragraph breakdown, akin to the ones Karen provides for tenure track cover letters (her 9-paragraph model)?

Length is subjective.  Don’t try to second-guess the committee, unless the announcement is explicit (e.g., “a cover letter of no more than two pages”).  Say what you need to say, don’t be repetitive, don’t waste space with extraneous information (hobbies, for example, are irrelevant in an application letter; that’s something to mention during an interview, if it comes up).  Personally, I am put off by brief letters that say little more than “I’m applying for your position, find my vita enclosed.”  I’m exaggerating, of course, but a letter of only two or three paragraphs will simply not introduce the applicant to the committee.

I haven’t thought about the number of paragraphs, but 9 or 10 are probably about right.  Most important is to A) demonstrate why you are a good “fit” with the college; B) that you are qualified for a dean’s position – credentials and experience – and C) you fully understand the institution to which you are applying.

Somewhere in the letter, either in the introductory or summary paragraph or paragraphs, explain why you are interested in and qualified for this particular institution.  If the only reason is because you (the applicant) want to leave where you are, then you probably shouldn’t be applying for the position.

Do a thorough investigation of the institution, and especially the college within the institution before writing the letter.  After this investigation, use the position description to design the outline of the letter, focusing on how the applicant’s abilities and experience align with the requirements of the job.  If an expectation of the job will be new – in the sense of not having much or any experience; fundraising, for example – say so, but focus on analogous experience that may lead to success with the expectation.  If there’s something about your career track that you suspect will raise a “red flag,” address it.  It’s better to be proactive than to have to be explaining something later.

Finally, edit, edit, edit; proofread, proofread, proofread.  Consider that many on the search committee are likely to be faculty sensitive to spelling errors, incorrect grammar, and repetition.  Lengthy letters are not off-putting if they are informative; they are off-putting if they are filled with extraneous information, repetitive statements, etc.

Karen:  What should a Dean CV include, and (how) should it differ from a faculty CV?

A CV for an academic dean’s position need not differ greatly from a faculty CV.  I’ll admit that this is subjective.  Personally, I find resumes off-putting (goals statements like “find a leadership position in which I can inspire others to succeed” are not useful to a search committee).  The academic CV can serve to establish the candidate’s academic bona fides, which reduces the need to expand greatly on teaching and research in the cover letter.

A caveat I would add is that a faculty CV may or may not include much information on community interaction/outreach.  If the candidate has been active in his or her community through service organizations, church/mosque/synagogue activity, occasional volunteer work, this should be listed.  It will show the search committee that the candidate is ready to take on the public, off-campus work that most deans need to do today.

Karen:  What mistakes do you see Dean candidates making?  Can you identify the places where candidates routinely THINK they need to show xxx, but in fact, they should really be showing yyyy?

The biggest mistake is not really knowing the institution to which candidates are applying.  I think this can happen most commonly if applicants are using a scatter-shot approach to applying.  Being selective, limiting applications to a handful of institutions each hiring “season” will give candidates the time needed to investigate fully the colleges they choose to pursue.  This investigation will also likely bring to light aspects of the searching institution that may result in an applicant not applying or at least result in the applicant being able to show that he or she knows the state of the institution (enrollment declines or spikes, budget shortfalls or recent large gifts, etc.)

Karen:  What experiences are the most valuable for Dean candidates?  What should they highlight in their application materials, what should be minimized?

It’s very important that the candidate demonstrate that he or she understands the academic culture of the institution to which he or she is applying (is there tenure or not; what level of shared governance is there, etc.).  Being able to show experience that provides this understanding is important.  Administrative experience, as I have described above, is equally important, especially experience that emphasizes collaboration with colleagues to reach a goal.

Karen:  Do Dean search committees want to know about research and teaching?

For an academic dean position (as opposed to dean of students, for example), a brief paragraph about teaching and research is OK.  The members of the search committee, many of whom will be faculty members, want to see that their incoming dean knows about their professional lives.  However, the committee members are not looking for a discussion of teaching philosophy or method or a discussion of the candidate’s research agenda (past or present).  If a letter were to dwell on these areas, it may lead some on the committee to wonder if the candidate was really interested in long-term administration, as opposed to a means to gain a faculty position (most deans’ positions come with tenure).

Karen:  Any tips for Dean interviews?  Good examples?  Bad examples?

Be a good listener, really focus on what the committee members are asking and what they are saying.  Despite all of the research I did prior to my interviews for my current position, I found that I learned more about the college from listening to committee members’ questions and comments than I did from all of my reading.  For example, during the course of my on-campus interview I was able to refer during the afternoon to information I had learned at breakfast that morning.

Regarding bad examples, also related to listening, be sure to answer the questions asked.  That is, don’t come to the interview with answers to anticipated questions so well-rehearsed that you end up answering questions that were not asked, while ignoring the question.  Also, don’t bloviate.  The committee – and the rest of the college community during the on-campus interview – wants to know of your experience and successes, but don’t go on ad nauseam and don’t appear to brag (too much of “I did this” and “I did that” may cause committee and college faculty and staff to conclude that you are not collaborative).

Karen:  Anything else you want to share?

What is also important to get across in the letter, without being blatant about it, is that the applicant is a hard worker.  He or she knows that being a dean is a 7-day-a-week job (I’m always the dean, no matter where I am in town).  This means being available to everyone, on campus and off, early in the morning and late at night.  Being an administrator means you don’t get to come and go as you please anymore.  It means giving up a lot of what used to be flexible time.  The letter obviously doesn’t state all of this, but it needs to be clear from the letter and during the interview process that the applicant knows that being a “leader” means being on the job all of the time.

Finally, above I referred to successful deans being those who are collaborative and facilitate solutions to problems.  Ultimately, there will come a time when the dean has to make the final decision (usually on budget or personnel or a student issue).  However to the extent that this decision can be made after thorough consultation and discussion, the more acceptable the outcome will be.  Dean candidates need to demonstrate that they have this collaborative and consultative approach.  If they are perceived as a “top-down” or “my-way-or-the-highway” style of administrator, they will either not get an offer or, having received the appointment, will not last long.


How to Apply for a Dean Position (A Guest Post in the form of an interview) — 6 Comments

  1. I’m curious why the dean wanted this to be anonymous? From my quick reading nothing in it looks like particularly sensitive or incriminating information.

  2. I just discovered this web page today and found this post, which addresses several questions I have about transitioning from a community college faculty position to an administrative position at a community college. (Thank you.) However, I am not currently working at a community college, but working at a RI university in instructional development and as a researcher exploring organizational learning around changes to teaching practice. How might I play up this hiatus from the community college context to engage in research that informs many of the issues facing community colleges when applying for a cc leadership position?

    • You’d need to deftly combine your previous CC experience (ie, knowledge of the student body, admin structure) with your wider knowledge derived from research, to make a case for yourself.

  3. I have a cover letter and CV for a Dean’s position. Can you recommend a good resource for reviewing the cover letter and CV?

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