Chris Uggen's Blog: a good dean

Friday, August 24, 2007

a good dean

steven rosenstone, my college's dean for the past decade, recently announced that he was resigning to take a new position in the minnversity. during such transitions, it is absolutely critical for a good department chair to immediately forget the old boss and start sucking up to the new boss.

aah, i'll start sucking up tomorrow. today, i feel compelled to offer a few words about the dean who shepherded me from assistant professor to department chair. i have a very short window to express such appreciation, however, as it must follow the resignation (so it won't appear that i'm trying to curry favor) but prior to the naming of a successor (when it might appear that i was drawing some invidious comparison).

what qualities of this dean did i appreciate? a quick list:

1. intellectual horsepower. whenever people came to interview in my department, their twenty minutes with steven gave me a big comparative advantage. simply put, he was smarter than deans from other institutions. he could seriously engage the work of an astounding variety of scholars while at the same time offering a compelling vision for the future of his college.

2. risk tolerance. he encouraged faculty to take big intellectual risks -- and he had our backs when some of those risks went bust. as a junior faculty member, his ideal of high-impact scholarship (and that of my provost as well, i should add) was precisely the message i needed to hear. as a department chair, he empowered me to preach the same message to junior faculty.

3. ed cred. before becoming dean, steven published the sort of major scholarly works that confer legitimacy among workers here at the brain mill. when i started writing on voting behavior, for example, it was pretty much impossible not to cite at least one rosenstone piece.

4. straight-up honesty. when we disagreed, he came straight at me.

5. an investment orientation. a good dean understands the difference between spending and investing. steven hated to see people "hoarding" resources when they could put them to work productively. he encouraged faculty to put bold projects together and he rewarded their "sweat equity" with tangible support.

6. an ideas orientation. he was far more concerned with how a scholar's work had shifted thinking in a field than with the number or placement of her publications. the basic unit of analysis was the idea rather than the book or the article.

7. leadership. he nurtured leaders by setting an example that encouraged others to lead, myself included.

8. responsiveness. steven was a decisive and responsive dean, rarely letting issues fester for more than 48 hours. even on more complex matters, he would typically come back with a response that was timely as well as thoughtful.

9. an understanding of externalities. he measured projects by their total effects rather than their basic output in grants or publications. what are the broader impacts of the work on our students or communities?

10. a sucker for quality. when pitched with the opportunity to hire or reward a great scholar, he could often put a deal together.

11. a true believer in the public research mission. he understood and took pride in the mission of a great land-grant public research university, even when that mission conflicted with his immediate interests. for example, all deans know two things: (1) that college rankings are based, in part, on four-year completion rates; and, (2) that kids from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to finish on this timetable. he made sure that his college didn't cream students from the ranks of the privileged, even though it might have helped him in the rankings.

12. heart and soul. even steven's adversaries -- and, trust me, he had a few -- would acknowledge his all-in commitment to his college. in my experience, the average dean lasts about as long as the average nfl running back. in both positions, the constant pummeling takes a quick toll, breaking down most mortals within five years. steven put his heart and soul into the job for a full decade. for that alone, we should be grateful.

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