Paul L. Caron

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Why Has My University Thrived During COVID-19? We Have A Long-Serving Dean And Provost

Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  The Relief of Consistent Leadership, by Terry McGlynn (California State University-Dominguez Hills):

Dean ProvostSo much about 2020-21 has been so difficult, yet from my perspective as a professor, our campus seems more effective and functional than ever.

How can that be? The pandemic has stretched us thin, remote teaching and learning has innumerable drawbacks and challenges, and, like many institutions across higher education, we are looking at enrollment declines that might spell budgetary disaster. Those circumstances don’t exactly convey that we’re in our salad days.

Nevertheless, there’s one big reason I am upbeat: My university is finally experiencing a stretch of consistent leadership. After a decade of constant administrative turnover, we’ve had the same dean for five years and the same provost for four. They are both student centered and good at their jobs. It’s an odd feeling — we’re just not used to having good leaders stick around.

Like so many other regional public universities, my institution has been chronically plagued by administrators who have treated the place — and its students, staff, and faculty members — as a personal step ladder for their own careers. Either they were looking to break things as soon as possible so they could proclaim victory and quickly move on, or they only planned to stay around long enough to get a bigger retirement check.

Three years ago, when I wrote about this problem in The Chronicle — “Why Relentless Administrative Turnover Makes It Hard for Us to Do Our Jobs” — I felt exhausted by our revolving leadership door. At that point, we had seen eight provosts over the course of 10 years (including the interim ones, some of whom lasted longer than the actual hires) and four “permanent” deans in my college.

It’s hard to assess whether any of the short-timers actually could have been good at the job, because they weren’t focused on the long term. Every fall convocation would bring a new set of initiatives. The experienced folks knew to wait for those plans to wilt and be replaced when yet another new administration took office. Even when the plans were good, we knew they wouldn’t be around long enough to become institutionalized.

Our current administration, however, started out on a different tack. The new provost and dean — recognizing that it takes a few years for strategic plans to yield genuine dividends — opted to keep the most effective ideas of their predecessors and then steadily build on those successes.

There is a reason why colleges and universities develop strategic plans for five-year periods, or longer. Academe is structurally resistant to change. When a new administrator arrives on campus and attempts to fix things overnight, that usually just results in damage. Effective leaders take the time to learn the lay of the land and build relationships, pursuing change with a sincere appreciation for the strengths of shared governance.

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