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The Successful Dean: Thoughtful Strategies and Savvy Tips for Today’s Evolving Leadership

reviewed by Kitty Fortner - February 01, 2021

coverTitle: The Successful Dean: Thoughtful Strategies and Savvy Tips for Today’s Evolving Leadership
Author(s): Mari Koerner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807763926, Pages: 160, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

In The Successful Dean: Thoughtful strategies and savvy tips for today’s evolving leadership, author Mari Koerner shares a reflective narrative of her journey as a university dean, intertwining it with the journey of others seated in the dean’s chair. It is evident from the beginning that the book is written for a specific audience—those who are interested in or connected to the position of the university dean, specifically newly seated or those aspiring to be deans. The author states her premise of the role of the dean as a forward-moving reflective practice. Additionally, she states that seated deans should understand the role and use of power, the nature of ever-changing academia, and the central importance of humor.  

In addition to the introduction, written by the author, the book’s 142 pages are divided into five sections containing a total of 15 chapters. Each section of the book contains several chapters addressing leadership in the context of the position of the university dean. The sections are titled the following: “Seeing Clearly” (Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4), “Operating from an Ethical Stance” (Chapters 5, 6, and 7),  “Practicing Self-Care” (Chapters 8, 9, and 10), “Working for a Common Good” (Chapter 11, 12, and 13),  and “Having the Courage to Act in Spite of Mistakes and Missteps” (Chapters 14 and 15). Each chapter concludes with a section called “Musing, Meditations, and Actions. In these end-of-chapter ponderings, the author provides the reader with reflective questions and action steps to assist them in better understanding the role of the dean. Chapters are connected through the development of three theme: 1) There is power in effective leadership, 2) The nature and perception of the university is changing, 3) There is a central importance of humor and a good old rock ‘n’ roll attitude.

The introduction lays out the intent and the philosophical foundation of the author. Koerner states that through a series of self-examinations and reflection, her intent is to offer new and aspiring deans insight into the unspoken/hidden aspects of working as a dean. She shares lessons learned in hopes of offering assistance in maneuvering successfully the position of dean. Through the collection of reflections and experiences of people currently and previously seated as deans, Koerner weaves a descriptive narrative of the job of “The Successful Dean.”  She accomplishes her intent by telling her story in the voice of a mentor or coach walking alongside a new dean, clarifying the role, responsibilities, and disposition they will need to be successful.

In Part One, titled “Seeing Clearly,” Koerner emphasized the understanding that deans need to prioritize their understanding that students must be at the center of their thinking. She makes it clear that, of all the responsibilities that a dean has, centering students is first and foremost in all decision making. She encourages a culture of respect towards students, whereby decisions on course offering, mentoring, advising, support structures, and student services must place students at the center. This section also spoke about how deans need to draw lines and set professional boundaries, with the understanding that maneuvering change is paramount to the job of a dean. She provides a list of tools that can be used to handle changes in staff, institutional policies, and personal changes. Part Two, titled “Operating from an Ethical Stance,” covers three chapters. It highlights the understanding that deans need to be optimistic and intentional about knowing what is happening in the university, and to build and not burn bridges. In this part, Koerner reflects on how as a dean, she found it important to build community and make decisions from an ethical stance. In Part Three, titled “Practicing Self-Care,” she reflects on the dean’s needs to carefully avoid stress and anxiety by deliberately focusing on their emotional, physical, and mental health. A need for authenticity in leadership surfaces in this chapter as a priority for deans. She encourages deans to maintain a sense of humor as well as to check their bias continually. She addresses the various types of communication that the dean is involved in like public speaking, emails, and one-on-one with staff, faculty, or other university leadership. She went as far as to provide some helpful strategies for creating email communications.  

“Working for a Common Good,” Part Four of the book, puts forth the idea that the dean, their associates, and students should all be treated with dignity and given respect. In this part of the book, the author reflects on advice received, decisions made, and their interplay with power. She talks about how communication skills become key when working with so many different character types. She admonishes the dean to not only know the content but also the context in which they may find themselves. Having contacts in the field at other universities assists deans in balancing their understanding of what the common good is. In the final section, Part Five, “Having the Courage to Act in Spite of Mistakes and Missteps,” Koerner reflects on the weight that comes with the dean’s position. She reflects the fact that not all decisions are the right decisions. She clarifies that decision making is tough and that knowing who you are is important, as sometimes the dean is not the most popular person because of decisions that need to be made. In this section, Koerner soberly reflects on “confidence, overconfidence, a chip on someone shoulder, strong backbone, humiliating submissiveness, toadyism, and sycophancy” (p. 123).  She says that no matter what side your end up on, respect of yourself and others is what is important.  

The strength of this book lies in the reflective thought process used by the author, which allows the reader interested in being a dean access to a detailed lived experience. The language is simple and easy to follow. As a part of the reflective process, at times the author weaves through the topic in ways that may seem random or repetitious; however, this does align with the genre of reflection and reflective writing. Additionally, the guiding questions at the end of each chapter gives the reader a thought process, whereby they revisit the reading, think deeper about the position of the dean and why they are choosing or have chosen this position. The questions also direct them to seek advice from other deans, which is one of the strategies put forward by the author.  

I believe that the author has captured the complex and ever-changing role of the dean. She illuminates her story, clarifying that the work can be accomplished successfully. She invites the reader into an intimate and detailed discussion of the relevant issues, challenging situations, and lived experience that she found herself in. The book has the potential to be used in a variety of ways. I can see it being used as a companion reading to a mentor–mentee relationship between a new dean and an experienced dean, where they discuss sections weekly or monthly using the question to gain deeper understanding of the position, dispositions, skills, and knowledge that deans should consider. The author offers strategies and encouragement as well as insights from her own experiences, assisting the reader in seeing what she considers important when seated in the dean’s chair.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 01, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23587, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 4:29:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Kitty Fortner
    California State University Dominguez Hills
    E-mail Author
    KITTY FORTNER, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor in the Graduate Education Department School Leadership Program at California State University Dominguez Hills. Her recent publications focus on the dispositions of school leaders working in urban communities, non-traditional school leadership, women of color, and their challenges in their doctoral programs. She is researching leaders of color and how they navigate oppression.
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