Bienen: Dean turnover rate not cause for alarm

Sarah Warning

Although eight of Northwestern’s 11 deans have decided to leavetheir positions in the past four years, current long-standing deansand administrators say the turnover rate shouldn’t be a cause foralarm.

The changing face of the position is making it harder for formerfaculty members to adapt to and keep pace with the responsibilitiesthat go along with the deanship, they said, in light of McCormickSchool of Science and Engineering Dean John Birge’s recent decisionto step down from his next year.

But University President Henry Bienen said he doesn’t think therecent turnover has been a problem, and he also doesn’t expectdeans to begin staying for longer terms.

“These are really hard jobs … the complexity of a modernuniversity is much greater (now),” Bienen said in a April 29interview. “Budget issues are big, the kind of tasks are much morecomplex and that filters down to the deans. These are hard jobs andthese are burnout jobs for a lot of people.”

Eric Sundquist, former dean of Weinberg College of Arts andSciences who now teaches at the University of California at LosAngeles, said there’s nothing unusual about the recent turnover ofdeans at NU.

“My guess is that it’s just a coincidence that this number ofdeans have stepped down at NU in recent years, and this is probablynot an abnormal pattern since some, in fact, had served longterms,” he wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

Even though three of the deans who resigned recently had servedmore than 10 years, the average tenure of those who stepped down isabout five and a half years.

David Van Zandt, dean of the Law School for the past eightyears, said he thinks deans resign after a few years because thejob has become less like being a faculty member with someadministrative duties and more like running a small business.

“(Being a dean is) like running a division of a company whereyou are responsible for the educational product, the people, thefinancial matters,” Van Zandt said. “So it’s like being a CEO of asmaller enterprise.”

Deans who were originally trained to be professors can get wornout with administrative responsibilities, said Roger Boye,assistant dean of Medill School of Journalism.

“Deans do a myriad of behind the scenes tasks, such as writingreports and memos, developing budgets, devising long-term plans,raising money, dealing with accrediting agencies — all essentialaspects to the job, but also things that eventually tend to wearpeople down,” Boye wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

But other deans said managing a school doesn’t have to bedraining.

Penelope Peterson, who has served as dean of the School ofEducation and Social Policy for more than six years, said hertenure has been enjoyable because the school’s small size minimizedadministrative conflicts. She oversees 23 faculty members and 650students.

Despite the difficulties of managing a large, complex school,some deans agreed administrators should continue to promote facultymembers rather than bring in business people for the posts.

“Deans don’t sit around talking about management — when we gettogether, we talk about ideas, we talk about the guts of ourprofession,” said outgoing School of Music Dean Bernard Dobroski,who is stepping down from the position at the end of this academicyear after holding it for 13 years. “I think that’s good, to havepeople outside the administrative side to keep the wheelsmoving.”