Janus the Dean
Looking both ways at once

By David F. Bright, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature and Chair, Department of Classics


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Every academic dean should know Janus. That two-faced Roman god was a kind of doorkeeper (ianitor, from ianua, door). Like a door, he looked both ways at once; like the doorway, he represented entrances and presided over beginnings (dare we say commencements?). His double-faced image appeared on coins, giving him a close association with financial transactions. His temple door was closed in times of peace--a rare occurrence in Roman history--and open in times of conflict. His most famous function was to preside over the link between one year and the next: the month of January. What better patron divinity for academic deans than this circumspect guardian of the past and guide to the future?

The dean is often regarded as a Janus-figure, standing between the faculty who embody the college on one side and the campus administration on the other. Both connections are essential, but almost everyone thinks of the dean as either the leading faculty member, the college’s champion in dealing with the administration, or as the administration’s agent in the college. In the past fifteen years the balance of perception across the country has shifted markedly towards the second view: deans are far more often considered administrators making decisions based on policies and resources rather than academic leaders fostering ideas and programs in collaboration with the faculty.

Even more unlike their double-visaged patron, however, academic deans hold an impermanent honor. Emory has had its share of turnover in the decanal roster recently, with eleven changes of leadership in the nine academic schools since 1996. Although that rate sounds high, it is only slightly above the national average. In fact, the average time in office for deans is now less than the five-year appointments with which they typically enter office.

This means that searching for a dean is almost as constant a feature of the academic landscape as capital campaigns or (elsewhere, of course!) athletic scandals. That in turn makes it imperative that the permanent population, namely, the faculty, and the campus administration achieve clear agreement about what they are looking for in a dean. The arts and sciences at Emory are confronted with an unusual occasion for such deliberation in the wake of Dean Steven Sanderson’s departure, with larger questions being raised about the relationship between the college and the graduate school. Thus the already complex question of what we want in the next dean is linked to the possible reorganization of a major portion of the university.

What do deans do? Traditionally, they manage and lead operations from student affairs to physical plant and from faculty development to massive (but always insufficient!) budgets. But changes in the decanal role at schools across the country make it harder to predict what a college wants and recruit someone who will fit everyone’s expectations.

Most noticeable is the great increase in the amount of time a dean spends off campus, especially in “development” (the pursuit of external resources). Twenty years ago it was uncommon for a dean to be much involved in this activity. Deans at private institutions did more than their public colleagues, but few spent more than 10 percent of their time on development. Now many deans, both public and private, say that they must commit at least one-third of their calendar to work with major donors, foundations, alumni, and other groups, and even more at crucial stages of a campaign. The alternative is to fall behind peer institutions in garnering funds for new buildings, innovative programs and star faculty.

This emphasis on raising external resources has not only affected the profile of talents a dean is expected to have (and therewith the pool of preferred candidates from the university’s perspective), it also means the dean is less visible on campus and less accessible for personal contact with faculty and students. As a result, no matter how engaged the dean may be with campus issues, no matter how successful in gathering resources for the academic purposes of the college, faculty are likely to regard their leader as detached from the life of the college. A dean may appear indifferent to academic concerns if Janus looks outward rather than inward too much of the time.

At least as important are the changes in the academic landscape. Traditional disciplines have combined, mutated, or even vanished from the catalog, while new fields and programs spring up, calling for more faculty, facilities, and fresh forms of collaboration. Some of the most exciting new fields cost a great deal to start and even more to maintain at the requisite level of quality. The dean must be able to appreciate and adjudicate the claims of both the traditional and the innovative across the full spectrum of intellectual effort in the school.

The arts and sciences are peculiarly affected by this process, here as elsewhere. Emory College teaches by far the largest number of undergraduates on campus, in some three dozen departments and programs. But the vast majority of those same faculty are also engaged in graduate education and research, not to mention advising nearly five thousand students through four change-filled years of personal and intellectual growth.

It is the scale of this double commitment to both undergraduate and graduate education, together with the daunting array of fields and programs, that makes leadership in the arts and sciences such a challenge and such a pleasure. The college and graduate school are not the same thing, but they are inseparably linked by their disciplinary scope, their faculty and their research. Most college faculty are also graduate faculty, but there are as many more colleagues from units outside the college who are also graduate faculty of arts and sciences.

The deliberations in the college and graduate school over the next two years will determine whether the faculty wish to preserve, alter, or even discard the current organizational arrangements. In any case, the next dean(s) in arts and sciences will be looking in many directions at once: in and out, up and down.

Perhaps deans need a new patron, one with three faces instead of just two: but that was Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hell.

David Bright’s book The Academic Deanship: Individual Careers and Institutional Roles (Jossey-Bass) was published this summer.