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The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership


reviewed by Joni Mina - April 10, 2008

coverTitle: The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership
Author(s): Jeffrey L. Buller
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0470180862, Pages: 431, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com


It was with some trepidation that I approached reviewing Jeffrey Buller’s Essential Academic Dean; anything that touted itself as a “practical guide to college leadership” surely could not make any sense of that middleness within which deans must exist or prescribe a balm to that seeming chaos within which they must operate. The deanship has existed since ecclesiastic colleges and has been honed to a special place in academe, one that brings special issues and often requires special resolution. Indeed, it is the academic administrative position that exists in a seemingly indefinable limbo, one characterized only by the specific circumstances and the personnel who must function under them.   


How-to books are invaluable; how else could we build a fence around our back yards? Or replicate that wonderful crème brûlée that was whipped up on one of the food networks? But a “how-to” for such a complex position? All too often, they are too pat, pedestrian, and “not really.” In some cases, there may be an example of a scenario that the author may have experienced that the reader will completely miss, underscoring its inevitable failure.  


In the professional realm, a how-to book must strike a balance between its audacity of presuming the reader’s lack of knowledge and the knowledge the reader really possesses. A dean must possess expertise not only in the discipline that she heads but as well in the psychology of relationships, all forms of communication, accounting, management, leadership, and the dynamic tenor of the higher education system. It seems impossible that a “practical guide” could begin to broach the scope of one’s knowledge, much less enhance it. After all, we’re building acumen here, not fences!  


In The Essential Academic Dean, Buller dispels that impossibility and he does it with clarity, sagacity, a brilliant insight borne only of learning through years of experience; he does it with an obvious passion for the work that he has put into developing himself as a dean and for sharing his insights with others. His expertise as an educator heavily infuses the process by which he structures his guide—Buller provides details on what can happen on a daily basis, but then introduces other possibilities in the form of questions which the reader can answer, extrapolate from, and then spin off her own conclusions.  


Relevant topical discussions are incorporated into sections containing “essential principles.” The reader is then invited to put her point of view into practice by way of a scenario analysis. Each scenario presents an issue and then, depending upon the situation, raises questions that spur further discourse to solve the problem or some other iteration of it. He gives pointers at the end that help but, again, encourages the reader to apply her own sensible solutions to the unique situation. The scenarios are realistic, relevant, and take into consideration all different aspects of deaning. I was reminded of a leadership course I took in graduate school, one to which the professor brought all kinds of exercises. One such exercise was a “lunar landing” leadership scenario that, while a fun experience that would give us an advantage on the moon, left me wondering about what kind of tools we would need to survive the onslaught of daily chaos in academe. Despite the fun, we were not prepared for what happens in academe with as much reality and relevance as Buller’s scenarios provide. Indeed, I think courses in educational leadership should require this text for its realistic treatment of everyday issues that arise for deans and other administrators.  


The concept of visioning, for example, is something in which leadership courses require an incredible amount of reading, but readers sometimes come away from these courses with the thought that vision is the forte of a chosen few. Buller’s visioning exercise dismisses the notion that it can’t be developed; instead, it is encouraged. He says that visionaries are not dreamers; rather, they are the ones “who can find . . . the most practical way to unite their faculty and manage their college well [as well as] establish an inspiring image of what their shared future can be . . . ” (p. 30).  He does not identify a step-by-step outline for the visioning process but, instead, plies the reader with thought-provoking questions from which he attempts to elicit unconventional answers. For example, he asks the reader to provide a list of “things that are distinctive about my college,” then provides a litany of common responses. He then quips “if you find statements like these on your list, cross them off . . . [they] are not distinctive enough to produce a vision for the future; continue looking” (p. 25). He counsels visioning through various criteria, such as the institution’s mission statement, or through teaching/scholarship/service, or through national recognition, depending on one’s area of interest. He then tells the reader to expand the process by seeing how it applies to other relevant areas of the college or division.  


In other words, Buller “draws” the picture of the tree, describes possibilities for its growth, byproducts, symbiotic relationships, encourages you to think of others, then completes the discussion by drawing the forest—the big picture—that invariably incorporates the likes of the “others” in the university—the faculty, the staff, the administration, the regents, and the students. (Indeed, his emphasis on the three Cs of dealing with administrators—candor, collegiality, and confidentiality—rings true for most of the relationships that a dean must maintain.) Again, the reader must bring to the process her own independent situation (“what kind of trees?”) and an appreciation for the uniqueness of the relationships within her academic environment (“how large a forest?”).  


The holistic approach that Buller describes is grounded in common sense. On sensitive issues such as launching ventures or effectuating reform, he says to be cautionary about their purpose (“never seek change merely for the sake of change,” p. 37). In effecting change, he counsels the reader to be realistic with respect to timing of goals and the amount of energy to be expended. To round out the process, he strongly advocates for celebrating success. You are left with the sense of knowing that you could effectively avoid professional myopia by making a difference for your college while building faculty and staff morale and giving all a positive sense of the college’s direction.  


The book is well organized. Buller begins with discussions of the dean’s role (part I) and the people in whose company he must perform—constituents and staff (parts II and III). He then moves to budgetary and documentary issues (parts IV and V). Perhaps the most relevant and best treatment he accords the deanship are his discussions on leadership, challenges and opportunities (parts VI, VII, and VIII) and, finally, advice for when it’s time to go (part IX). Each part is divided into several chapters that are succinctly written; a chapter may contain up to five or six subdivisions titled by axiomatic pearls of wisdom (e.g., on dealing with boards and trustees: “be sure to listen at the same time that you explain your needs or position,” or on building an administrative team: “hire on the basis of the qualities that you can’t teach someone; then teach them everything else”).    


Buller encourages the reader to use the book to become informed initially and then for later use as a reference. But it is not for novices only. Indeed, the breadth of literature today on academic deans indicates the multiple challenges that they face now and in the coming years. Buller has managed to address many of these issues based on his expertise as a dean, his passion as an educator, and his resourcefulness as a researcher. He has also drawn on the work of many people who have lent their time to bringing others along in academic administration (each chapter contains a list of useful resources and references).  


This book will go a long way in providing its readers with comprehensive coverage of an already complex position while at the same time encouraging them to leave their own handprint on the work of their own deanship. This is certainly a must-have.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 10, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15205, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:21:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Joni Mina
    Lewis-Clark State College
    E-mail Author
    JONI MINA (formerly Montez) is a professor in Legal Support Programs at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. She holds a B.A. in humanities and a Ph.D. in education from Washington State University. More relevant, however, is the fact that she spent almost 30 years as a litigation paralegal and law firm administrator, "doing" what she teaches. She connects her students to the work world by emphasizing competence, professionalism, critical thinking, and relevance to practice; by providing them with stimulating and challenging curricula; and by encouraging balance in their professional and personal lives.
 
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