Life After Deaning

How to transition from decision maker to faculty member.

YOU HAVE BEEN a dean for more than 25 years at three different institutions. You have set strategy and vision, hired faculty, and developed programs. You have raised money to name a college, a graduate school, and numerous professorships. You have become socially friendly with corporate leaders of your community. You have sat on local boards for businesses and nonprofits. You have engaged frequently with your dean colleagues both internally and globally, chaired numerous university search committees, and served as part of the leadership fabric of your institution.

And now you have decided to step down and return to faculty.

Is there a strategy that allows a longstanding dean to transition from administrator to professor? That was the question I had to answer four years ago when I decided to retire from the top post and return to teaching. It is an issue many of my colleagues wrestle with as they consider making the same career change.

The experience will be different for all retiring deans and might be affected by how long they have been at their colleges and whether they previously served on the faculty. But before they attempt to make the switch, I believe they should ask themselves nine important questions:

1. Will I be able to relate to undergraduate and graduate students in the classroom?

2. Will the students be able to relate to me?

3. What will I teach?

4. Can I adjust from being the leader of the college to being a member of the faculty?

5. How will my faculty colleagues view me?

6. What will be my relationship with the new dean?

7. What will be my relationship with university leadership?

8. What changes can I expect in my relationships with the corporate community?

9. Am I equipped mentally and emotionally to deal with these changes?

Based on my own experiences, I can suggest a roadmap that will guide retiring deans to their new places on the faculty roster.

THE DEAN’S LIFE

Let me start by stating I loved my position as dean. Every day was different. There was always a new challenge or opportunity for the college or university, and I was part of determining every solution.

I enjoyed hiring new faculty, and I personally interviewed every new faculty hire. Each interaction was a learning experience for me. I found it invigorating to hear about candidates’ research and discuss how they could contribute to the institution. I also had the opportunity to meet often with existing college faculty. While those exchanges could be challenging, the interactions allowed me to understand the passions of the individual faculty members.

I also enjoyed engaging with staff members. They were the folks who made the college run efficiently and effectively on a daily basis. They understood better than anyone else who our students were and what they hoped to achieve with their degrees.

RELATIONSHIPS CHANGE WHEN ANYONE RETURNS TO THE FACULTY AFTER SERVING AS DEAN.

Possibly my favorite activity was interacting with the corporate community and alumni. These groups were cheerleaders for the college and institution. They were tireless in their efforts to help recruit faculty, attract students, and promote new programs that would both benefit their organizations and boost the prestige of the college.

I knew that all of these relationships would change when I stepped down from the top post—as they will for anyone who returns to the faculty after serving as dean.

KEY ADJUSTMENTS

Just as there are nine questions all retiring deans should ask themselves, there are nine steps they can take to make their transitions go smoothly. If you are a dean looking to make this particular career change, these are the recommendations I would give you:

1. Start the process early. When you communicate your plans well in advance, the institution has time to determine its best strategy for finding the next dean—and you have time to wind down your work and plan your next steps. I informed my provost 16 months in advance that I was planning to step down, and I communicated the news to the college faculty and staff about a year before I left the office. Because the college had so much notice, the leaders were ready to begin a new dean search the first week of the next school year. Both the provost and search committee thanked me for providing the extensive lead time.

2. Negotiate a sabbatical. Time away from the institution is necessary for both you and the college. From the college’s perspective, it’s essential for the new dean to have a chance to be seen as the leader without the old dean hanging around and causing confusion. From your perspective, it’s critical that you have time to unwind—and begin to internalize the fact that you no longer lead the college.

3. Plan your sabbatical. Make sure you stay active and engaged during your time away. As dean, you effectively have been working 24/7, likely for many years, and it’s impossible to stop “cold turkey” without feeling some loss of identity or value. For me, my savior was the position I had on the advisory board of an international school. Working with the school two mornings a week gave me focus and made me feel that I was still making a contribution during my transition.

IT’S ESSENTIAL FOR THE NEW DEAN TO BE SEEN AS THE LEADER WITHOUT THE OLD DEAN HANGING AROUND AND CAUSING CONFUSION.

4. Pick your office. Once you return to campus, demonstrate that you really want to be part of the faculty. For instance, when you choose your new office, pick a space that communicates your commitment to your new role, rather than a space that indicates you expect to receive special treatment or privileges. I chose a traditional faculty office filled with used furniture—although I did get it painted!

5. Decide what you will teach in which department. It was impossible for me to return to teaching the subjects I had taught 25 years ago—accounting and information technology. Both had changed too much in the intervening years. Therefore, I had to determine what new subject area I could contribute to in a way that would benefit both the students and the college. The most logical areas were business strategy and international business. My years of deaning made strategy a natural discipline. And since I had been a dean at a school in Madrid, had established numerous global programs, and had headed a global educational consortium, I had significant insights into how global organizations operate.

6. Familiarize yourself with today’s classroom. If you’ve been away from the classroom for some time, before you begin teaching again you should gain an understanding of the technology that’s available today. Attend workshops that will teach you how to integrate new tech into your style of teaching. Take advantage of the fact that every one of your students has a smartphone, and—rather than battling with students as you try to keep them off their devices—figure out how to use phones to enhance the learning experience. For instance, use smartphones to take attendance in seconds. You can also find various platforms that allow students to use their phones to answer quizzes about how well they understand business concepts.

No doubt online learning has become essential at your institution because of the pandemic, but even before the virus hit, online MBAs were among the fastest-growing programs for many business schools. This means it is critical for you to learn more about technologies for video conferencing and classroom capture. Take advantage of every opportunity your school offers to help faculty master online teaching techniques.

7. Adapt your teaching style. Students have changed. The instantaneous availability of information means that many have developed shorter attention spans, so the trick is to keep them engaged. Ask your younger faculty colleagues what techniques they are using and how effective they are. Instead of lecturing in every class, allow students to work in teams to solve problems and analyze cases. Bring in guests who can describe their real-world experiences. You might even share your own experiences as a leader of the college and the university.

8. Embrace your new role within the university. You are now a faculty member, so become part of the faculty. Go to departmental and college faculty meetings. Observe and listen, but keep your comments and thoughts mostly to yourself.

But here’s where things get tricky! It’s essential that you stay away from the dean’s suite. First, most faculty avoid engaging with the dean on a daily basis. Second, you need to give the new dean time to get established in the position. Especially if the dean is an external candidate, you should keep a very low profile and stay away from social activities that the dean is expected to attend. Most important, do not respond to new policies that you do not agree with. New leadership will move in directions that might run counter to directions you would have chosen. This is normal. Always remember that you are no longer the key decision maker of the college.

NEW LEADERSHIP WILL MOVE IN DIRECTIONS THAT MIGHT RUN COUNTER TO DIRECTIONS YOU WOULD HAVE CHOSEN.

But what should you do if your new dean communicates information to the college that you believe is incorrect, or makes plans to discontinue a program that you have championed? Although it may be difficult, you should refrain from voicing your concerns. Let other faculty or administrators respond if they disagree with new strategies or want to set the record straight. New deans must have the chance to engage with—and learn from—those around them as a part of the decision-making process.

9. Embrace your new role within the community. As the CEO of the college, you had great visibility with alumni, university leadership, the college’s board of advisors, and the corporate community. One of the most difficult aspects of your transition to faculty is that your visibility and importance within these communities will diminish significantly or disappear altogether. In most cases, the individuals within these communities will respect your change of roles and direct their ongoing communications to the new dean.

However, these relationships remain incredibly valuable, and you can find ways to continue them in your new role as a faculty member. For instance, you can use your connections to bring guest lecturers into the classroom or to help students obtain internships or post-graduation employment. I have brought in guest lecturers who were young alumni or young board members, but I would not have had those connections if I had not been dean.

A NEW CAREER

It’s now been four years since I left the dean’s position, and I have fully acclimated to my new role as a faculty member. The adjustment took time—probably one or two years. The six-month period I was away on sabbatical was critical in helping me make the transition.

Today, I teach about 100 students each semester. I serve on the college promotion and tenure committee, as well as the department’s post-tenure review committee. I am actively engaged in assessment of learning for the department and college. I know what my role is, and I am very comfortable in that role.

My relationship with faculty members has changed significantly. Some of them occasionally come to me for institutional knowledge or informal advice, but for the most part, they see me now as one of them—a colleague. I have also had time to learn about them as people, not just faculty members, and I know them so much better now.

As I mentioned previously, I loved my position as dean. But four years later, I love my position as faculty member as well. I am doing what I had planned to do with my career, more than 40 years ago, and it feels great!


Ira Weiss is a professor of strategic management in the department of management innovation and entrepreneurship at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management in Raleigh.

 

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