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At a gathering of theological school deans one activity had the deans share the job descriptions from each of their schools. This group of deans was from a variety of contexts: different geographic regions, various denominations, free-standing and university-embedded schools, and from large and small institutions. After comparing their documents ...
Women Leaders in Higher Education: Shattering The Myths
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
Women involved or interested in leadership in higher education will find this book to be at turns inspiring and somewhat painful to read. Any woman who has held a position of leadership likely shares similar stories of personal sacrifice and institutional prejudice; indeed, many of the stories in this book paint a picture of academia as hostile, male territory. Tanya Fitzgerald manages to add a twist to this tale in the way she weaves together stories from her ethnographic research with senior women leaders in universities in Australia and New Zealand. Her work focuses primarily on the trials and triumphs of women as they extend themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically in their jobs, but the book manages to offer a sense of hope in part because the author chooses to frame her analysis around the experiences of Indigenous women. This inclusion and focus gives the book leverage in a field flooded with similar studies. Fitzgerald uses the experiences of these women to show that women’s encounters with academic institutions are best described as “continuous struggle and compromise” (25) that nevertheless opens the way for new ways of conceiving of leadership in higher education.
Fitzgerald teases out the complexities of the tasks facing women who oversee diverse staff, who are expected to “think big” while handling minutia, and who serve as mentors for women wanting to break into the leadership roles. Women’s lives as academic leaders is, in one word, “messy.” Fitzgerald is also appropriately attentive to disciplinary context and institutional climate, and her subjects come across as real individuals in real circumstances. Her overall goal is to push up against the myths that keep women as institutional housekeepers or otherwise limit their potential as leaders (22) and she manages to do that, albeit in a limited and incomplete way that fits with the stories she includes. She is careful not to advance any “grand narrative,” preferring instead to celebrate the individuality of her subjects as they improvise their lives.
The myths being shattered here include the myth of opportunity (which assumes that gender equality is established) and the myth of what leadership ought to look like and how women ought to behave (17). Overall, Fitzgerald paints a picture of academia as a land alien to women and women’s ways of being, so that women who find themselves in position to lead often have to adjust to the rules or courageously make up new rules. Fitzgerald highlights the precarious positions held by women in leadership roles, and she ends on a point of hope that seems a bit of a stretch based on her evidence. Nevertheless, I would recommend this study to any woman (or man) in leadership, either in higher education or the clergy. Although Women Leaders in Higher Education does not focus much on teaching, many women in higher education will find themselves faced with the question of whether to move into administration. This book will shed light on that personal and professional choice.
There appears to be hopeful evidence that the long recession is over and donor money is starting to trickle back into theological schools. Grant initiatives are starting to bloom (some very substantial), faithful donors are starting to fulfill deferred promises of financial support, and some are making new pledges. Recent ...
A Toolkit for Deans
Date Reviewed: February 26, 2015
The authors chose a catchy title, but it is difficult to find the “tools” for a dean’s toolkit in the book. The book This work consists of common sense advice with scenarios and short case studies that illustrate situations, dilemmas, and challenges commonly faced by deans in seven key areas, which make up the chapter divisions: managing self, leading peers, leading and managing supervisees, leading faculty, leading departments, managing students (and their parents), and managing up.
The common sense advice may be helpful to novice deans lacking administrative experience, but will be of little value to seasoned deans, associate deans, and department chairs. For example, the first chapter, on “managing ourselves,” consists of simple, generalized, pragmatic advice on: office management (“You will need to make decisions on what you will delegate, which tasks and responsibilities belong to whom, and when associate deans or senior staff may represent you” ); scheduling (“Your staff must also understand that because of the responsibility of the dean’s position, you may be out of the office frequently” ); wardrobe (“An appropriate office appearance and staff wardrobe signals respect for the dean’s office and its functions” ); and how to handle phone calls, visitors, mail, and filing.
In the scenarios and case studies the authors do well in presenting present difficult situations faced by deans. The examples range from relatively mild procedural and administrative issues to dysfunctional personal and contextual (cultural and systemic) issues. For novice deans, or those considering this job, these will provide a sobering reality check to any romantic notions. However, there is no central or systematic framework that can help a dean discern how to approach the challenges of the office. In other words, there is no discernable theory of practice for the work of the dean, aside from a strong advocacy for collaborative (“shared”) leadership, a concept for which the authors rely on Pearce and Conger’s Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002).
It is uncertain whether one consistent thread in the scenarios and case studies is a product of the scope of the authors’ experience, that of the subjects of their studies, or a reflection on the culture of higher education. That thread is the manner in which solutions for many of the difficult scenarios and cases are found. Many, if not most, of the difficulties are resolved by transferring under-functioning or acting-out faculty and staff to other departments, accommodating underperformers by offering incentives (reduced teaching loads, early retirement options), wishfully waiting out a troubling situation, triangulating provosts and department chairs, or allowing agency to the willful or weak in the system (an invasive human resource department, persons unable to do their work, and so forth). The authors are correct that “In the academic environment, deans provide the delicate but crucial backbone of university decision making” (66), but that requires the practice of courage in leadership in greater measure than most of the scenarios illustrate.
Theological schools are complex institutional systems with many interlocking "moving parts." In most schools, the curriculum is the engine that drives the institution, influencing all aspects of the seminary, from the makeup of the student body, recruitment, faculty hires and workload, to finances. While deans are primarily educational leaders with ...