For some, a new dean’s former position will best decide fit

by Charles Rafkin | 5/22/14 7:19pm

As Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson prepares to pack up her Parkhurst Hall corner office, the College must choose a new administrator to oversee undergraduate academic and campus life. While the future dean could come from a corporate, legal or academic background, faculty and higher education experts interviewed said someone with strong academic distinction could best fit into the position.

Further details on the interim dean and search for Johnson’s permanent replacement will be released in the coming weeks.

Before she entered the field of higher education, Johnson earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. Previous administrators in the position, however, have not come from legal backgrounds. Sylvia Spears, acting Dean of the College from 2009-11, held a Ph.D. in education and her predecessor, Tom Crady, held a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies.

Keith Kulper, president of executive search consulting firm Kulper and Company, which has worked with universities to fill senior positions, said a lawyer or business professional could bring balanced approaches to the challenges a dean faces.

Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and a senior scholar at Brown University’s leadership alliance, said a Ph.D. would help the Dean of the College both understand student and faculty concerns and gain credibility when crafting policy with other administrators. Even an experienced businessperson, he said, could not fill the role without academic experience.

Since the Dean of the College may weigh in on complex student life issues or discriminatory practices, a legal eye could help, Kulper said.

English and women’s and gender studies professor Ivy Schweitzer said lawyers and those coming from backgrounds in business might not appropriately emphasize the academic aspects of the position.

A candidate with a legal background may not strike a firm ethical stand on student life issues, Schweitzer said. For lawyers, she said, it’s often not about right or wrong but about winning or losing.

Schweitzer also noted that some candidates with exclusively legal or corporate backgrounds might prioritize Dartmouth’s finances or image.

The Dean of the College’s foremost responsibility should be guiding Dartmouth’s educational goals, Schweitzer said. Marvin Lee Pelton, the Dean of the College in the 1990s and a former professor, could serve as a model for the incoming dean, Schweitzer said, citing Pelton’s empathy in connecting with student demonstrators.

English professor Donald Pease said that the new Dean of the College should boast strong academic credentials, as he or she must lead the College’s push for experiential learning.

Since the Dean of the College and academic deans will work closely in the future, Pease said, the next Dean of the College must appreciate academia in addition to his or her administrative experience.

“If the Dean of the College cannot set the tone and establish the rationale for bringing about greater interdependence between faculty outside the classroom and students inside as well as outside the classroom, then the [Dean of the College] is going to lose one of her or his major mandates,” Pease said.

David Evans, an administrator at Buena Vista University who writes about academic hiring for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said it would be difficult to decipher faculty culture without some postgraduate academic experience. He added, however, that an ideal Dean of the College will be an astute manager, a trait not necessarily linked with academic success.

“Scholarship is solitary. It involves a lot of thinking in quiet places,” Evans said, adding that managers must deal with unexpected conflict and external complaints. These skills, he said, do not overlap with being a good scholar.

Student Assembly vice president Frank Cunningham ’16 said the Dean of the College’s role should remain separate from business strategy. Instead, he said he believed that he or she should be an academic, as they have experience working with students and understand the challenges of navigating a rigorous academic environment.

Cunningham, who has worked closely with Johnson in the past, said her legal experience has helped her on the job.

“She takes in everything, she looks at all of the facts,” he said. “And she’s not quick to make a decision.”