Dean tenures shorten as roles change

Sheila Burt

Dean. The word means a lot more than a title when it comes to education.

Students might not know it, but academic deans are the driving force behind Northwestern’s 11 schools. From fund raising to academic program building, deans oversee it all.

At the end of this year, nine of NU’s 11 deans will have left their positions within the past five years, breaking a trend of the mid-1980s and ’90s where deans remained in their position for more then 10 years. Many students don’t notice the change, as top university officials must search for the best replacements.

When a new dean takes over, a sense of continuity might be lost in the schools. The futures of favorite programs are uncertain. Someone familiar with a school’s issues is gone. But with this uncertainty, a new dean also can bring innovative ideas.

A new dean — either a person from another institution or someone from NU — can begin a tenure with plans to move the school beyond where the last dean left it. Different programs can be established. Previously neglected programs could receive more attention or funding. And some programs could even be cut.

Richard Morimoto and John Birge are the most recent deans leaving NU to return to teaching. Morimoto of the Graduate School and Birge of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science will step down from their positions at the end of the year to return to their professorships. Both Morimoto and Birge said they feel they have accomplished their goals in fewer than seven years.

Each of these departures leaves officials searching for deans more frequently than in past years, with an uncertain impact on NU’s graduate and undergraduate schools.


For many students a change in deans only means a new name to learn, but every time a new dean enters the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Classics Prof. Daniel Garrison said it’s like a nest of young birds struggling for the mother bird to give them a worm to eat.

“When a dean changes,” Garrison said, “every department wants to be placed in the priority schemes of the new dean.”

Garrison, who has been at NU since 1966, has witnessed more than four dean changes in Weinberg. He said departments such as classics and philosophy will not experience growth when the economy is weak, so it’s important for these smaller departments to show they have more than “solely decorative value.”

“If a dean comes out of the sciences, he or she may not have a very elevated view of what happens in the humanities,” said Garrison, who also serves as secretary of the University Senate.

Weinberg senior Elizabeth Venell said she has only vague memories of the change from Weinberg Dean Eric Sundquist in 2002 to current Dean Daniel Linzer. As she puts it, the change did not have “any dire effects” on her life.

But as a Student Advisory Board member for the gender studies program, Venell said she learned more about the complexities of the position and realized the direct effect a dean has on students.

“There’s a lot more to the university as a system than just the interaction with a student and a teacher,” she said. “There’s so much more. (For example) who hires the professors?”

But the majority of students do not interact with deans because they don’t serve on academic advising committees. As a result the school might not seem any different after a new dean steps in, because it often takes several years for the dean’s initiatives to develop.

James Webster, senior associate dean for the School of Communication, said new deans must experience “a very steep learning curve” when they enter their position. Webster came to NU as a faculty member in 1986 and has been an associate dean for 14 years, witnessing two shifts in head deans.

“I don’t think you should expect new, well-formed initiatives to spring forth from the dean’s office until the dean has his or her bearings,” he said.

Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the School of Music and NU’s first black female dean, began her term at the start of the academic year. Unlike many deans, Montgomery came to NU as an outsider, from a similar post at the University of Kansas. She said she has spent her year looking at the Music school to understand where it needs improvement.

“It’s also making decisions on perhaps letting some things go,” she added. “Although we are a comprehensive music school, we can’t do everything well.”

Montgomery, who spent three years at Kansas, said she believes one of the unique aspects of being a dean at NU is the chance to accomplish goals with less financial restriction, compared with state-assisted schools.

“I can actually dream,” she said. “I can dream about a school that will have this program and that program. I’m also being realistic with the dream.”


During the mid-1980s and ’90s, NU’s 11 schools were under the leadership of deans who stayed in their positions more than 10 years.

The most notable examples were Donald Jacobs, who lead the Kellogg School of Management for 26 years, until 2001; and David Zarefsky, who lead the School of Communication for 12 years, from 1988-2000.

But sometime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, several established deans left positions to return to professorships. Although some who started in the ’90s continue to serve as deans, other schools have witnessed a much faster turnover rate — deans are leaving after just five or six years.

“It’s not like the good old days when deans, provosts and presidents stayed around forever and the job was a reasonably paced one and allowed lots of time for other things,” University Provost Lawrence Dumas said. “There are very high expectations for people who serve in these jobs these days, so the national average for serving in these kinds of roles is roughly five years.

“If we can get five to 10 years out of someone, we think we’re doing quite well.”

Zarefsky first came to NU as an undergraduate 40 years ago. He said the university has seen a more rapid turnover rate in deans, but he thinks NU remains above the national average.

“There’s no magic number for people when they feel like they’ve done what they can,” he said.

Magic or not, the number seems to be getting smaller and smaller.

Both Morimoto and Birge said they want to return to teaching because they were satisfied with how many of their initiatives they accomplished in the past few years.

Morimoto, who will have spent six years as dean at the end of this year, told The Daily in October he wants to resume his lab research after leading the Graduate School. Although Morimoto continued his lab research while he was dean, he believes he has completed as much as he could in the position.

“I don’t feel I can be away from my research anymore,” he said. “There’s no past to being a scientist.”

Birge, who came in 1999 after serving as chairman of the industrial and engineering department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said serving five years has created a foundation for the next dean.

But five years isn’t enough for some deans.

David Van Zandt, dean of the Law School for the past nine years, is NU’s most senior dean. He said he will continue as dean as long as he keeps getting new ideas.

“I think that’s very key,” he said. “If it gets into a rut and you feel like you’re doing the same thing, you’re treading water.”


Although the duties and focus of each dean at NU’s 11 undergraduate and graduate schools differ, the deans at these schools all say one thing: Their job is multifaceted and often stressful, involving everything from fund raising to faculty evaluations.

Bernard Dobroski, who was Music dean for 13 years and had been NU’s most senior dean before retiring in 2003, remembers traveling almost 90,000 miles domestically in one year as only one part of his job.

“You have to wear so many hats and at the highest level,” Dobroski said.

Although he was familiar with NU from serv
ing as assistant music dean from 1972 to 1985, Dobroski still recalls the uncertainty of each day.

“Within the day you never know what to expect,” he said. “You have to work (with people) who are very happy or very upset. I had to convince them that I’m on their side.”

Linzer of Weinberg said his position requires understanding and evaluating the needs of the school’s 50 departments and interdepartmental programs — a constantly evolving challenge.

Elaine Hairston, senior consultant at Academic Search Consultant Service in Washington, said a dean’s job has changed from one focused only on academics to one of growing complexity.

“More and more deans are drawn into fund raising and then drawn to bringing resources in the colleges as well,” said Hairston, a former chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

Hairston has completed three university searches for deans, most recently at the University of Toledo. She said stability remains an important factor for universities. But at the same time, a highly qualified dean who stays a small number of years may accomplish more than a less qualified dean who stays longer.


A search committee of faculty members and alumni is compiling a list of potential candidates to fill Birge and Morimoto’s positions. The list for Birge’s spot could go to someone inside or outside NU, although the search for a Graduate School dean will be internal.

Officials said they will continue to hire deans without regard to tenure, even though the time one spends as dean can affect a school’s path.

“We try to hire … a person who is ready to offer some significant academic leadership without trying to to decide up front how long that person might stay and what that person might want to do next,” Dumas said. “That’s up to that individual.”