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What do deans even do?

Credit: Hal Mayforth

Of all the rarities in a grad student’s life—sleep, dignity, hope, shampoo—none is as elusive as a chance to complain directly to a roomful of deans. Yet that’s exactly the opportunity the Dean’s Luncheon offered us. Also, free food.

Once a year, the university hosted a catered lunch for grad students. The sandwiches alone would have coaxed us out of our labs and carrels—but even better, every dean at the school sat at a long table, poised behind a microphone, ready to answer any question we cared to ask. (Well, maybe not every dean but at least every relevant dean; the dean of undergraduate life, no doubt, was busy dealing with plagiarists, plagiarism, drunken vandalism, and plagiarizing.)

The nice thing about solving administrative problems is that when you make a decision, the thing you decided happens.

I don’t remember most of the questions we asked, but I’m sure we covered the important ones such as “Why does my adviser hate me?” and “How many sandwiches are we allowed to take?” With those out of the way, a pattern emerged in our back-and-forth, and it went something like this:

STUDENT: I think it would be great if we had X.

DEAN: Me too! That’s totally on our radar.

STUDENT: Great! So when can we expect this to happen?

DEAN: Either not soon or not ever, because X costs money.

STUDENT: Oh. Can we at least have Y?

DEAN: That would be wonderful! Sadly, Y also costs money.

STUDENT: Um … so, what can we have?

DEAN: You can have sandwiches.

The role of a dean, it seems, is to (a) deny funding requests and (b) be a dean.

I never quite understood what these people did, these academic administrators who come in so many inscrutable flavors—deans, provosts, directors, ombudspeople, regents, assistants to the vice associate what-have-you. But most of all, I never considered academic administration as a career path for anyone interested in science. It sounded more like something you do when you’re good and ready to be done with science.

Then, a couple years after graduating, I ran into Alex Tan, a graduate student in my department at the same time I was. While most of my classmates, at that point, were either postdocs or had given up on academe, Tan told me she was on the “academic administrative track” at the University of California, Berkeley, which she assured me was actually a thing.

“I knew it was ideal after about a week,” she said recently. No bench work, no grant writing, none of the classic dry-heaving that accompanies the pursuit of tenure. Yet she still had a hand in academia—a much more powerful hand than any postdoc.

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CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

Of all the career paths open to scientists, academic administration has to be one of the most obscure. Even Tan hadn’t planned to end up an administrator. “My husband and I moved to California when his lab moved west, and I was the trailer wife,” she said. By “trailer wife” she meant, I hope, “trailing wife” and not “wife transported on, or relegated to, a trailer.” She was certain she didn’t want the life of a postdoc, so she did a general university-related job search, and the next thing she knew, she—fresh out of a Ph.D. program—was overseeing adjunct faculty members and their courses.

Tan is now the director of the Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program at the Johns Hopkins Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences in Baltimore, Maryland, advising students, designing curricula, writing recommendation letters, networking with the medical school leadership, and serving on university committees. She finds it all “immensely rewarding.”

“I knew I wanted to teach, but I hated grading papers,” she wrote in an e-mail, “I wanted to write, and I wanted something that would allow me to be always learning, be innovative/creative, [have] opportunities but not the requirement of publications/research, and focus heavily on problem-solving.” Also, it appears, she wanted a career that would permit the use of a lot of forward slashes.

I can’t help thinking that maybe this is the appeal of academic administration: It uses 70% of what you learn as a scientist but not 100%. Maybe a lot of nontraditional science careers have a similar allure: You’re sitting at your lab bench thinking how much you love critical thinking but hate, say, lab meetings.

Unfortunately, Tan can’t help me figure out what deans do, because she can’t really become one. This is true, apparently, of just about everyone whose first real job is on this administrative track. They may even have “dean” in their job titles, but they won’t ever be real capital-D Deans. “The minute I stopped doing research,” she said, “I gave up the possibility of being Dean of Arts & Sciences or Undergraduate Research.” Those positions are available only to tenured professors.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

I find that requirement a little strange, as if 7 years of pipetting wouldn’t prepare you to administer departmental funding, but 16 years of pipetting would.

So, eager to get the perspective of a real dean, I called one of my former grad school professors at Hopkins, Beverly Wendland, who—just a month ago—was named the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. You can tell she’s important because her title (a) includes the word “Dean,” (b) is really long, and (c) contains the full names of two other people.

What does Dean Wendland do? She “sets priorities and agendas for the school,” which is a dean-ish way of saying that she controls the Magic Money Valve, opening it for certain purposes and keeping it closed for others. (That’s my interpretation, not hers.)

Actually, she said, her job is “not to figure out who to say no to but who to tell to wait for their turn.” I appreciate that strategy. I use it often with my 3-year-old daughter: “I’m not saying you can’t have a cookie. I’m just saying you can’t have a cookie now.” (I’m also fervently hoping that you’ll forget you wanted a cookie.)

It’s tough for Dean Wendland, because “everyone feels their crisis is the highest priority,” and no one seems to understand that resources are limited. As grad students, we certainly suffered from that disease: We assumed that the stingy old deans just didn’t understand how desperately we needed X and Y. But maybe the deans understood perfectly, and after the graduate student luncheon, they sat through six more meetings in which elements of the university pleaded for A, B, C, D, E, and—wait for it—F. And those other meetings probably didn’t even have sandwiches.

Though Dean Wendland was an interim dean before she became a real dean, she hasn’t yet experienced a Dean’s Luncheon. Her time—14 to 16 hours a day, she estimates—is filled with meetings, e-mails, faculty hiring, fundraising, and deciding which departments are allowed to hire new professors. That’s what a dean does. That.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “But I went into science because I want to study quasars,” or “because I’m obsessed with migratory birds,” or “because I was too nerdy for a Ph.D. in anthropology but not nerdy enough for a Ph.D. in engineering.” How is it intellectually rewarding to attend meetings and send e-mails?

In Dean Wendland’s case, part of the answer is that she’s still Dr. Wendland. She still runs an eight-person lab, studying endocytosis with four grad students who probably don’t have to attend as many lab meetings as they used to. More than that, she finds she’s using a lot of the same mental muscles to find creative solutions to administrative problems that she did to solve scientific ones.

The nice thing about solving administrative problems is that when you make a decision, the thing you decided happens. Let me say that again. The thing you decided—the thing that will affect lots of scholars, lots of researchers—actually occurs. Wow. Compare that to grad school, where the thing you decided just becomes fodder for a lot of complaints about why it will never occur. “I don’t feel like I’m a paper pusher,” Dean Wendland said. “I feel like I’m finding real solutions to real problems, and I’m making a difference.”

Even Tan, who happily left the lab after her Ph.D., is doing research of a sort. She’s examining trends in premedical advising. She is even—old habits die hard—hoping to publish them.

Recent figures show that the number of academic administrators has doubled in the last 25 years. For good or ill, this is one area of academia—maybe the only area—where job prospects are booming. Public universities now have two administrators for every tenure-track professor. Private universities have two and a half.

Do we need so many administrators? Is academia becoming too top-heavy? Those are valid questions, but they’re for another time. The real, relevant questions here are: Now that you know it’s possible to be influential in academia and remain creative, is an academic administrator position the right fit for you? Would you want to pursue such a position after your Ph.D. or after receiving tenure? And, most importantly, how many sandwiches are we allowed to take?

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