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Beyond Something Called the Deanship: A Story About a Memorable Academic Leader

by Arthur Blumberg - 1988

Using faculty recollections of Burton Blatt's tenure as Dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University, this article considers how Blatt was able to have such a powerful impact on his faculty, and what can be learned about the concept of leadership of academic organizations from his legacy. (Source: ERIC)

It may be recalled that in Exodus XVIII the story is told that Jethro, observing his son-in-law Moses acting as the single leader of the Children of Israel in the desert, said to him, “The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou will surely wear away, both thou; and this people that is with thee” (v. 17, 18). Jethro then went on to advise Moses that he ought to organize things and appoint “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (v. 21). Further (v. 22), Jethro advised Moses that he need only deal with “great” matters and let his leadership cadre deal with “every small matter.”

The Bible story continues and we are told that Moses heeded Jethro. Judging by the results—a successful passage through the desert and the eventual entrance of the wanderers into the Promised Land (although without Moses)—the advice was well taken. More important for our purposes is the thought that though Jethro may well have solved Moses’ leadership problem, he certainly did not have the same impact on the rest of us. In the three or four thousand years since Exodus is supposed to have been written, there are probably few topics that have received as much scholarly attention as the matter of leadership of whatever stripe. Tales abound of good leaders, bad leaders, warrior leaders, statesmen (or women) leaders, autocrats, democrats, and on and on in a seemingly endless path. It is almost as though an irresistible attraction exists that draws people to think about, to study, and to tell stories about leaders and the way they exercise their office.

What follows is another leadership story. It is a tale of what I and numbers of my colleagues believe to be an example of extraordinary academic leadership in the person of a dean. What will come out of it, I am sure, will not be a list of functions to be performed or competencies to be attained if one would be an excellent dean. Rather, I think that what might eventuate will be a sense of heightened mystery and curiosity concerning the ability of one person to make an impact on another or on an organization. This is another way of saying that the title of this article, “Beyond Something Called the Deanship,” is meant to convey a sense that there is a bit of mystery to it all.

I do not apologize for my use of the narrative motif in an academic article. I believe, regardless of the highly sophisticated research technology available to them, that the social sciences are inadequate to the task of either presenting or comprehending the leadership mystery. A much more powerful tool for understanding the human experience of leading and being led is to listen to the stories people tell of how they perceived and understood that experience. Or, more succinctly, to quote Lewis Lapham, editor of Harpers, as he wrote about the editorial viewpoint that he thought made the magazine unique, “It isn’t a question of how one votes but of what kinds of stories one tells.“1 This is another way of saying that the core of life—perhaps its very spirit—is more readily observed in the stories we tell about what happens to us than through any other mode.

Here, then, is the story.

On January 20, 1985, Burton Blatt, dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University, died. He was fifty-seven. He had been dean for eight years, prior to which time he had served (also for eight years) as director of the Division of Special Education and Rehabilitation in the School of Education. An interim dean was appointed who served about a year. A search was conducted and a new dean took office on January 1, 1986.

Shortly after Burt’s death, the school under its interim leadership commissioned a portrait of him (this, too, is part of the story), painted from a photograph. It hangs in the hall outside the dean’s office on the second floor of our building. The artist was very skilled, because regardless of the angle from which one views the portrait, Burt seems to be looking you in the eye.

On October 20, 1986, I was chatting with a colleague about nothing in particular when he said, “You know, it’s just getting to the point where I don’t think about Burt every day.” I remember saying, mostly to myself, “Oh my, what have we here?” Our former dean, Burt Blatt, had been dead for almost two years and my colleague, who had not been a close friend of Burt’s as I had been, had just told me that over the last twenty-one months he had had almost daily occasion to think about him. That rather matched my own experience and it also suggested to me that I might have stumbled onto the opening paragraph of a story, even a slightly mysterious one. For example, was the “think about Burt everyday” idea fairly widely shared and, if so, how might it be accounted for? Would it be the fact that he had simply been a very attractive person or did these lingering memories, if they existed among numbers of people, reflect the way he had played out the office of dean? Or, more likely, was it a combination of the two? Further, what might studying the situation lead me to understand about academic leadership? I was not in interested, that is, in investigating the memories that professors held about Burt in order to beatify him- not interested at all.

A little checking had to be done. First, and most important, I needed to find out whether what I had encountered with my colleague was fairly widespread among the faculty or rather limited. If it was the latter, then that would be the end of that.

As I walked back to my office I met another professor. I related my experience and asked him if it struck a responsive chord in him. Indeed it did and, as a matter of fact, “I try not to come in on the second floor,” said he. “I don’t want to look at his picture. It makes me think about what might have been.” I talked briefly with another colleague and told him about the two discussions I had had. His response was confirmatory of both, except he said, “I go and look at the portrait every chance I get. It makes me feel comfortable.”

I continued to check around, raising the same question, ultimately, with about twenty professors on our school faculty plus a university administrator with whom Burt had worked closely. Of the people to whom I talked, two told me that they did not think frequently of him. I am sure there were others (our faculty numbered over ninety professors) but it seemed to me that I had enough data to suggest that something unusual had gone on and that indeed, it might be worthwhile to inquire into it.

Before I started to make appointments with my colleagues for interviews, though, I had another thought. Perhaps the issue was that merely being in our School of Education building was enough to remind us of the loss of our dean. The portrait, for example, was a constant reminder. Perhaps professors who had left our school over the last few years would be different. I called two who were working at large universities quite some distance from Syracuse. In each case, the response was the same—very frequent remembering and thinking about Burton Blatt. I made arrangements to call them at another time for a telephone interview.

Over a period of about four months I held interviews with nineteen of my colleagues, including two over the telephone. The thrust of each one was similar with the lead-in question being something like, “How do you account for the fact that, two years after Burt died, your thoughts go to him on more than just an occasional basis?” It became quite apparent, after just a few interviews, that I had a problem on my hands. I was running into comments such as “I had a love affair with Burton Blatt” and “He was simply the best person I ever knew” and “His decency was simply awesome.” Those were nice things to hear because, indeed, I loved him, too, but they were not too helpful to me as I tried to understand what had happened insofar as a concept of academic leadership was concerned. Further, as I noted earlier, I had no interest in beatifying him. Nor do I think that if I did it would be much help to anyone.

So, for a period of three or four months, whenever I was asked what I was doing with the interviews my response was that I really did not know. As a matter of fact, I did not know if I would be able to do anything—to write anything that would go beyond “He was a very unusual person,” which he was.

When I encounter situations like this in my work—feeling checkmated is perhaps the best way to describe them—It is usually a pretty good message to me that I had better turn to something else for a while. After a bit of time I am able to return and, so it seems, let the words speak to me in a different language. I suppose this is another way of saying that I am somehow enabled to see what I have with a fresh outlook. Most of us have had experiences like that. On my return to the transcripts of my interviews, then, their words did, indeed, start to speak to me in a different language. It was a language that spoke to the unteachable in the sense that it talked about the character of a focal person but did so in a way that led me to understand more about what I think is the incredibly amorphous concept of academic leadership. That is, it is a concept that takes on a unique meaning through the behavior of each incumbent in office. Yet, as we shall see, there will be generalizations through uniqueness, an idea with which some of my colleagues may have a bit of difficulty.

Two things need to be said at the outset. First, though Burt Blatt had no formal training in academic administration he was very good at performing administrative functions. He knew how to develop budgets. He could be very tough-minded in making decisions about less than productive professors. He was relentless in his pursuit of information about people who were candidates for positions. He could make decisions quickly—and he had a sense of when to let the decision-making process slow down.

All this is not to say that he did not make mistakes. Being quite human, of course he did, but as one interviewee told me, Burt was fond of saying, “I never worry about a mistake because I know I can fix it tomorrow.” An unbounded optimism was his, that is. He was, indeed, also fond of saying something like, “As you look at things, it’s always important to think about whether you see your cup as half empty or half full.”

So perhaps the place to begin is with the notion of unbounded optimism about which many of my interviewees spoke. This was quite possibly the ground on which the memorableness of Burt’s deanship was built. It was particularly important, given what has happened to university schools of education in the last dozen or fifteen years. So when Burt Blatt became dean it seems clear that his optimism would not permit him to think in terms of presiding over an institution that was “on the way out.” The idea was to build for the future, and he had a vision of what that future should be—a wiser and more compassionate world.

“Pure pap,” many a reader might think—but not so. Listen to what a prestigious and, at times, cynical professor had to say: “He had the capacity not only to talk about his image of the future but to live it.” Burt himself was fond of saying, “If you want to change the world you have to start with yourself.” In connection with the idea of an optimistic vision, another professor recalls that in Burt’s presentation to the faculty during the search for a dean he said, “There’s just one thing I want to do and that’s make Syracuse a beautiful place.” And I thought, you know, “My God, that’s got to be the strangest thing any one could ever say.” In fact, I recall a colleague commenting to me later with a kind of frown and grimace on his face, “How in the hell does that recommend anyone, you know, who wants to make this a beautiful place!” Still, that is what I most recall. That is what he mostly did.

Perhaps, then, things start to emerge and make a bit of sense, and in almost an elegant fashion, if subtle. Imagine a dean stating publicly that he wanted to make his or her college a “beautiful place”! Imagine the smothered guffaws of sardonic professors. Yet, that is what happened. Talk, of course, was not enough, and so we must recall the earlier comment that besides being able to talk his image of what should be he had the capacity to live it.

In one sense, of course, all of us have the capacity to live our image of the future. In fact, by our daily behavior, particularly if we are administrators, we do precisely that. If our image is that of a well-managed, tightly controlled, cost-effective organization our behavior if not our words will communicate that. Or, if that image is one of a smooth-running, computerized, technological organization (Burt’s was not, by the way; he and I used to argue playfully about which one of us would be the last to use a word processor), our daily activities will communicate that.

These two examples are not hard to visualize. What do you do, however, about the goal of making an organization “beautiful”? The answer is that you don’t try to, at least not in any deliberate manner. Leading and working with a school or college is not the same thing as planning and developing a formal garden that has precise dimensions and carefully selected, planted, and cultivated flowers and shrubs all arranged to produce a desired and beautiful effect. A beautiful organization is not an end product; it is an ongoing and developmental experience of membership that is sensed, reacted to, defined, and described by the people who work in it. I suspect it has to do with the extent to which one’s membership is a source of joy.

Needless to say, one who wishes to build a beautiful organization has little direct control over whether this will happen. I am led to think that, at a minimum, in order to build that kind of an organization one has, first of all, to imagine and then speak that idea and that, in itself, is a rarity. For sure, it is undoubtedly true that few if any people who may read this have ever thought or spoken on that level. It is simply not part of our lexicon when we think about leading an organization.

(Many stories make use of “flashbacks.” One is appropriate here. Some months before he died, Burt was interviewed by a graduate student about his notions of leadership. The student thought I would like to have the tape of that conversation, so he gave it to me. At one point in the interview, reflecting the au courant term of the time, the student asked Burt what vision he had for the School of Education. His response was, “That’s an idea that I don’t think people should announce but, rather, should reveal. Whatever vision one has only becomes important as others see and understand it.” So, although he did “announce” a vision of making Syracuse a “beautiful place,” he was wise enough to know that words alone would not do that, and that people would have to understand what a beautiful place meant before the idea would have any meaning. I am not at all sure that he had any well-articulated notion of what that strange beautiful place would look like. My hunch, though, is that it would be marked by the ability of its faculty to be publicly compassionate, courageous, and virtuous-not ways of behaving that typically mark the professoriate, I think, particularly when the professoriate “goes public.“)

Although the focus of this article is not a discourse on the ingredients of a beautiful academic organization, that idea becomes important as we (1) try to understand how a particular dean was able to have, or so it seems, such a powerful impact on his faculty, and (2) through this understanding, if it can be gotten, learn more about the whole concept of leadership of academic organizations. That is, we can assume, first, that Burt Blatt was being honest when he spoke about making Syracuse a beautiful place, even if he did not know precisely what this meant nor how to go about it (and thank heaven for that). Creating beauty does not happen by the numbers, as it were. Second, despite this “not knowing,” I think we can also assume that this vague idea of a beautiful college was always in the back of his mind, though I am pretty sure he rarely if ever thought in those terms. As I indicated earlier, he never sat down and deliberately thought about steps that should be taken to make his School of Education beautiful. In some curious way, if we are to judge by the reactions of a goodly number of professors two years after his death, that vision, that goal, so to speak, had moved into some tentative state of being—or so it seems. In effect, it became apparent to these professors in retrospect, as they spoke about what it was in the behavior of their former dean that continually brought him to mind. The key word in this last sentence is behavior, since it is through our behavior that we announce what we are about. Put another way, if you want to know where an individual or an organization is heading, pay attention to that individual’s or organization’s behavior. It speaks much louder than the words of goal or mission statements.

Three themes emerged in the interviews I held and it is to these that I now turn on the notion that their repetition suggests behavioral modalities that were memorable and also defined the leadership of Burt Blatt. These themes were (1) that Burt conveyed a feeling of caring for anyone with whom he talked, (2) that he was without guile, and (3) that he modeled for his faculty a sense of the professoriate as a vocation, a calling.


One thing that the faculty would joke about was the speed with which Burt would respond to memos. It was almost as though, the joke was, you received an answer to your memo before you sent it. Or, if a professor sent Burt a reprint of an article or a book that she or he had published, it was rarely more than a few days before a response came back, usually full of praise. Then, of course, the joke became that you would write a memo thanking him for his reaction to your work and very shortly would receive a note thanking you for your “thank you.”

There was, however, much more to it than an exchange of memos. What was deeply involved (at least this was the way faculty members saw it) was a deep sense of caring. It was no act, that is. To the contrary, though there would at times be smiles at the hyperbolic heaping of praise on one’s work, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Burt absolutely felt that his faculty, even though it had a couple of warts, was the best School of Education faculty anywhere in the world.

More specifically, on the theme of caring, here are a few representative comments:

It was this sense of caring. A lot of people who answer their mail don’t really care. But the way he responded conveyed a sense of absolute dedication. Or, you could look at the fact that you could never get here so early in the morning that his car was already here. It made me feel cared for.

There was always this reaching out. There was always a handshake. If he had seen you fifteen minutes before, and you ran into him, it was like he hadn’t seen you for a while and another handshake. And this warmth—It was all in a context of giving, physical and intellectual. It made me want to give in return, give my best work.

I almost had the feeling at times that he was in my skin.

I always felt like I was someone he cared about. Whenever I went to see him I had his full attention. I felt very listened to. It was like I was at the center of things.

In writing this kind of material, I risk the possibility of a reader reacting with, “That’s so much silliness. Caring? A buzz-word for softness and mushiness!” In some cases, I have no doubt that that is precisely the case, but note a couple of things. First, there is the comment of the professor who talked about Burt’s warmth in a context of giving, which made him want to reciprocate with his best work—and this from a person whose teaching and writing had gained international repute. Or, take the following remark from another professor, also internationally known. He, too, had talked about feeling cared for, and then went on to say,

We felt we had worldwide leverage because we knew we had a world class act here in the person of Burt Blatt as dean. His connections were just mind-boggling throughout the real leaders of the educational world.

So the sense of caring that the faculty seemed to feel from their dean did not create, as a by-product, a soft and mushy attitude toward what the work of professors was all about. They were to be scholars and do what scholars are supposed to do. What seemed to have developed was the type of organization that is the dream of organization-development consultants and trainers—an organization, that is, that combined a high concern for both task and human relationships. More than one professor referred to the school during that time as Camelot.


Universities and the various schools and colleges that make them up are, of course, political organizations in many ways. As in any political situation, one is frequently well advised to “play things close to your vest” or to “save your trump cards till last.” Burt understood university politics very well. He knew how things worked: whose feathers it was important not to ruffle, where the political pressure points were, and so forth. He had, people would agree, an exquisite sense of timing. Further, on those occasions when his political savvy failed him, he was able to laugh at himself, though I am sure the laugh covered up a bit of embarrassment, perhaps, at having misjudged a particular situation. Regardless, the close-to-the-vest and trump-card maxims clearly imply that a certain amount of guile is necessary if one would survive and prosper in any political system. There is no doubt in my mind that Burt could muster all the political skills necessary to play at university politics as a situation demanded. He may even have enjoyed the game, though I believe he would have considered other subjects more important.

When the situation did not require political thinking and action, though, something else was operating. Again, we have a sampling of comments. First, from an administrative colleague:

He was so self-assured, in the good sense of the word, that he never felt any need to have any guile in dealings with me. He was just open and above board. I just found it refreshing to have someone with his intellectual acumen and liveliness who never seemed to feel the need to posture about anything. I never felt I had to waste or use time and energy figuring out how I could tell him what I believed about some matter that he would bring up. I felt I could tell him exactly the way I reacted, exactly how I felt about it without offending him or misleading him by feeding his enthusiasm. It was a nice feeling.

From a couple of professors:

There was nothing fake about him. Nothing phony at all. He was a real person—all there all the time. No masks. My encounters with him were such that I didn’t want to leave the room.

There was this enormous self-confidence that he had. And he had a very clear sense of what he felt was important and the values he felt were important. He was able to distinguish between the important and the trivial, and because he was so secure in what he believed he didn’t have to pretend.

In another brief conversation I had with this last person he said that as he sensed that Burt did not have to pretend, neither did he.

To be guileless in a position and in an organizational type where to be guileful is usually taken to be a wise attitude is certainly a memorable condition, but of course Burt must have had some guile that he reserved for use in particular situations. He was much too intelligent and prudent a person not to have a reserve of moves or strategies to call into play at particular moments in time. The point is that his modal attitude about relating to his colleagues was one that appeared to focus on developing a relationship based on honesty. Now, to say that one is in favor of dishonesty in our society is like voting in favor of sin. Yet most of the work of education takes place in organizations—universities, colleges, other educational bureaucracies—where the modal attitude of honesty, of guilelessness, is probably honored more in the breach than any other way. This is not to say that we are all liars as much as it is to suggest that our perception of self-interest dictates that we be less than frank in many situations. Thus, though we may not lie, we may, indeed, omit the whole story if to do so is, or so we think, in our own self-interest.

I am utterly sure that there were times when Burt did this, not out of concern for personal self-interest as much as for that of his school. Nonetheless, it does seem somewhat remarkable that one memory held of him by many associates focuses on the absence of guile. Note the appearance of the reciprocation idea again. Recall, that is, that one of our professors as he spoke of feeling cared for also said that the context of the warmth he felt was so giving that he wanted to give in return—somehow to reciprocate, that is.

A reciprocal condition also seemed to have developed with regard to the matter of relating to people in a guileless way. By being open and behaving with candor—though he hated to be the bearer of bad news-Burt enabled others to be that way with him. People seemed to respond in kind. This is a freeing, even liberating, experience for one person to have with another, which may be the reason it was so memorable. That is, the constraints that most of us feel in the bureaucracies within which we work tend to be mostly in the direction of not being honest. For sure, untenured assistant professors are unlikely to level with their department heads or deans about how they see them, for example, creating a negative organizational climate. Too much is at stake, or so they perceive. Even full professors with tenure, as they see negative conditions developing, are apt to pull in their horns hoping, perhaps, that the storm will blow over.

A price is paid for this withdrawal, of course. Feelings of anger or of disappointment remain bottled up, creating a not-so-happy condition that frequently finds its outlet in “closed office door” situations in which professors “unload” on each other about their unhappiness. So the opposite experience, as we have noted, may be so relatively rare in university life that people mark it and cherish it. In any event, that seems to have happened in this case.


In these days of input, output, strategic planning, “positioning ourselves,” and so on, the idea of a university administrator communicating a sense of vocation about his or her work is an odd one. Most certainly, that sense is out of rhythm with the marketing orientation recently assumed by many institutions, including Syracuse. The roots of the word vocation, after all, have to do with being summoned by God to perform some special function-to be called, as it were.

I do not believe that Burt Blatt felt at all that he had been so summoned to the work of a professor. What does seem to be clear is that he somehow believed that being a professor (which is what he was most basically) is a calling that bestows on people both special privileges and special responsibilities. Having said that, let me note what one of the colleagues said as he reflected on what Burt brought to the deanship:

I think of it as essentially that Burt himself was a deeply religious person, operating from a very deep religious ethic. He had a deep religious sensibility. I find some great principles to hang on to in his behavior. They may not be formally religious but they have a deep religious ethic.

Maybe there was something in the vocation notion expressed in its sense of “being called” after all. We will never know. Here are some other comments that express the calling idea in one form or another.

The thing I loved the most was his sense of responsibility. It showed itself in small things and in big things. And the responsibility to the big and the responsibility to the small was all equally important. If you knew that, you really sensed Blatt.

It was almost like this. Being a professor was such a special thing that he couldn’t tolerate a professor not really being a professor. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who would talk about “What is a good professor?” and take it seriously. I think what he really felt was that being a professor was the most important and privileged job in the world.

It was almost like having come out of working in church. It’s the closest example I can come to. It would be a sense of vocation, a sense of calling, and a sense of a spiritual dimension that he had in this. It was more than a job by far.

What seems to be the case, then, though Burt to the best of my knowledge was never heard to use the term vocation or calling as a descriptor of what it meant to be a professor, is that his behavior spoke to that idea continually and in different ways: the sense of religiosity that some felt about the way he dealt with his work; the notion of his feelings of responsibility that went along with the privileges of his position; the specialness he attached to it all; his willingness to be public about “What is a Good Professor?“; and the vague and puzzling feeling, after a meeting with Burt, that was described as “almost like having come out of working in church.” (This latter comment, by the way, came from a professor who had been a practicing minister. He knew whereof he spoke.)

I must confess to being a little ill at ease with these comments. They come a bit too close to the un-understandable for me to feel completely comfortable with them—but perhaps that is all right. What I mean by “all right” is this: It may be that what makes a dean memorable—as opposed to simply remembering that X was dean a few years ago—is a certain sense of mystery that surrounds his or her ability to get people to do things or to get them to feel that they are somehow engaged in the most important work in the world and in the best place in the world. It is not that Burt Blatt was able to get or even wanted to get all of his faculty to feel that way. Indeed there were a few that I suspect he would have traded for a first-round draft choice coming out of the Little League World Series. Still a large nucleus of both senior and junior faculty seemed clearly to sense what he was all about—and to support it. I have little doubt that many were attracted to this mystery that was somehow associated with a man of the “professional cloth.”

Of course, my interviewees talked of other things about Burt Blatt that made him memorable—his sense of humor, his habit of playing trivia with baseball statistics, his attentiveness, his small-boy spontaneity, and so on. As I noted earlier, however, the consensus regarding his work and life as dean was comprised of the factors already discussed: his caring for individuals, thus creating a feeling of having been reached out to; his guileless behavior that freed others to behave the same way; and the sense of vocation that people felt fairly oozed from him in a spontaneous and believable fashion.

I close this part of the story of this very memorable dean with some comments from a young assistant professor:

You know that portrait of him down on the second floor. Whenever I pass it I can’t help the thoughts that flood in. Occasionally I smell the tobacco he used, or hear a joke that he pulled. It’s a flood of old memories. It’s really quite amazing. And there is something else about it, too. For a while I compared subsequent deans to him and I learned that I can’t do that.

There will never be another Burt Blatt, not as a dean. In fact, if you tried to write a manual about being a dean in his particular style, you’d probably get arrested. But it sure worked for him. He motivated me. He made me feel glad to be part of the faculty. He made me try to reach for heights I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

So indeed Burton Blatt was and continues to be a memorable dean. I did not, however, engage in this study in order to memorialize him. What I wanted to do was to touch on what I was quite sure would be some of the mystery surrounding his memorableness and, in the process, learn some things about academic leadership. I suspect that, despite my intentions to the contrary, some memorializing has crept in, but I also suspect it was unavoidable.

What, then, can be learned about academic leadership from this account? Several things, I think, none of which have much to do with any particular set of competencies except in a very low-level way. On this last point, to dispense with it quickly, it seems clear that a dean needs to be able to deal with routine administrative matters competently and with dispatch. The affairs of the dean’s office need to be conducted in a businesslike fashion. There are certainly skills attached to constructing academic budgets and to making wise personnel decisions, for example, but these kinds of things were not what made Burt Blatt memorable to his faculty. Other things entered the conversation and it is to these other things that I think we must attend.

There is another thought that is important because it was, with one reinforcing exception, not mentioned in the interviews. It was that there was no reference to Burt as academic leader in the sense of being a program developer or curriculum planner. The one time these roles were mentioned it was only to take note of his not performing them. Yet it seems to be that a lot of program planning and curriculum development took place. Things always seemed to be happening. The dean’s office was like Grand Central Station in the sense of professors continually being in and out, testing ideas, receiving encouragement, and so on. Further, Burt was rarely observed simply “nosing around” the building, yet he seemed to know what every individual was doing—or not doing—and to be able to lend his support or deliver his sanction.

So the question becomes, How come there was all this activity, all this institutional commitment, when the dean was not taking the lead in activities we typically associate with leadership? Perhaps the answer to the question rests with changing it from thinking about something called academic leadership to the notion of leadership of academics, that is, professors. The former uses academic as an adjective to modify the noun leadership, and I would submit that no one knows what that means. But “leadership of academics” refers to people and here, I think, starts to emerge part of the answer to the question. That is, if one conceives of oneself primarily as a leader of people, and not only holding a position as an institutional leader, what one does depends in large measure on the prior concept one has of the group one is leading. This concept at times becomes a reflection of one’s concept of oneself as a member of that group.

Take the present case. Though probably unarticulated, it seems clear that Burt Blatt saw himself as having a vocation as a professor. It also seems clear that though he may have made some errors of judgment with regard to particular individuals, his overall view of his faculty was that they saw themselves in similar fashion. The leadership equation then becomes a fairly simple one. People who see themselves as having a vocation need no other leadership than the nurturing that enables them to act on and act out their vocation. Professors would do what they would do because that was the way it must be. I do not pretend to think that Burt consciously spoke this concept to himself, but his behavior clearly suggested that this was the way he thought, even though there were certainly cases of individual disappointments.

This last thought, though, is beside the point, which is that the concept of leadership of academics—that which the person in the leadership position does to try to “make things happen”—has as its basic structure the a priori view that a person (dean) has of the professoriate. This view, I suspect, is a reflection of one’s view of self. Thus, a dean might take office with the concept of self as a manager and a congruent idea that what needs to happen to a faculty is that it should somehow be managed. Different things will most certainly happen in that case from what we have just discussed depending on how the concept of management is acted out. Decision making will probably be centralized. Study groups might be organized with a view to curriculum change and some professors might be sent to “faculty development” programs. Or, another dean, having an image of professors as being on the “gravy train,” might try to change what he or she sees as the condition of the professoriate by developing a system of accountability. Regardless, the point is that leaders must have followers—structurally if in not fact—and what one does as a leader depends very much, but not solely, on the terms by which one has learned to see and understand the follower group.

The second factor in the leadership equation is the idea of reciprocation. It came up in interview after interview. The plain fact of the matter is that people do reciprocate. In one fashion or another, as Gouldner noted,2 they give back what they get, not necessarily in kind but in some equally valued currency. Thus, as one professor noted, the context of Burt Blatt’s caring and warmth was that of giving, and he reciprocated by giving his best work, precisely what Burt wanted. Somewhat differently, with regard to the notion of being guileless, professors and other administrators seemed to give back close to what they received—openness of themselves with the dean.

The concept of leadership, then, is a reasonable one to generalize, but each situation will have its own specifics. Thus, it is not hard to conceive of a professorial cadre that distances itself from a management- or supervisory-oriented dean. Whatever, the rule of thumb has been with us a long time: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” There is nothing strange or mysterious about that.

Two things, then, ought come to mind as we think about what it means to be a leader of academics. First is the idea that whatever view one has of professors or what professors should be will in large measure affect what one wants to do and how one acts out his or her role. Second, in one way or another a person will get back what he or she gives. Perhaps that is not much to come from this article entitled “Beyond Something Called the Deanship.” I think it is quite a bit. In any event, that is the end of the story.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 1, 1988, p. 85-98
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 458, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 12:04:41 AM

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