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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Selecting a Dean

I had been thinking of writing about selecting the second rung of leadership in an academic institution for a long time, but this semester is not allowing me to write much. But when I saw Prof. Ram Mohan's blog on the same topic, I was encouraged to write my own views on it.

Typically, in Indian institutions, the top position (Director or Principal or Vice Chancellor) is often advertised, and the decision makers (whether promoters, including government, or the board) often do consider a broad search, including people from outside the institute. There are some lacunaes in the process. As Prof. Ram Mohan says, the board (assuming that this is the body responsible for recruiting the top leader) must first articulate what type of skills it considers more important at that stage. This is hardly ever done. A combination of decent academic record with experience in administration is all that matters. But at least the search is wider.

But, when it comes to the second rung of leadership, there is very little focus on the selection process. And the result is an obvious one - you get some good Deans, and with others, you just pray that they won't do enough damage in the 3 years that they would be occupying the office.

First of all, there is no articulation of the job description. Somehow we all are supposed to be aware of it. While one may generally be aware of what are the responsibilities of say, Dean of Students Affairs, a document specifying the role will great help the search process. Also, what are the specific focus for the next couple of years, or what are the immediate issues to be handled will also help potential candidates and those who are involved in nomination or selection. If the goal of the Institute is to privatize the messes of all hostels, and you bring in a Dean who is philosophically opposed to outsourcing, it is not going to help the goals of the Institute. But, if the job description only included one line about managing the hostel, then no one will ask about the philosophy of outsourcing from the potential candidates.

Second, there is a need to think about the desirable profile. Not that a person outside this profile cannot be a good Dean. But having a desirable profile makes it easier to think of names to nominate and for shortlisting, etc. For example, Dean of Research and Development whose office is expected to provide support to all project investigators should be one who has handled several projects himself/herself. Dean of Students Affairs should be one who has handled student interaction either as a warden or in some other capacity. Dean of Alumni Affairs will have to be one does not mind traveling and meeting a lot of people. And so on. The profile may include desirable past experience, age profile, interests, etc. Again, generally speaking, there is no profile that is made available during most searches.

Thirdly, unlike search for Director or VC which looks at external candidates, there is hardly any institute in India who will look for external candidates for a Dean's position. This must change. Normally, a good institute would not recruit its own fresh PhDs as faculty. The reasons are many. But one reason is that we want the person to have had a diverse experience, and bring in a different perspective to the institute. In the same way, a few leadership positions being filled by external persons would bring in a new way of doing things, a change of perspective. And it becomes a tool to attract talent as well.

Fourth, in most cases, the process is very secretive. Not having a job description and a desirable profile is part of that secretive culture. It is impossible to find out who all were nominated, who were shortlisted, how shortlisting was done, why someone was selected as a Dean, etc. No transparency at all. Having a more public process (even in private universities) will result in better selections. It should be known to stake holders who are being considered, and how shortlisting was done. The shortlisted candidates may be asked to give a presentation on their vision and plans for the job. Such presentations could either be open to all stake holders, or at least their videos be made available to stake holders later on. This would result in people who are really passionate about the job and has some clear vision and plans for the job to be selected.

My colleagues tell me that secretive process is necessary since most faculty members in a good institute like IITs do not wish to become Deans. If they have to go through a transparent process, they will simply refuse. On the other hand, if they are selected after a secretive process, then they think it is their responsibility to take up any role assigned to them by the institute. So the secretive process helps the Institute in getting good Deans. Nothing could be farther from reality. While I don't deny that there are some faculty members who would agree to be a Dean after a secretive process and wouldn't have participated in a transparent process, but the number of such Deans is small. Most faculty who do not want to be an administrator will refuse to take up the role even after the secretive process. A lot of people who later turn out to be ineffective leaders as Deans, wouldn't have participated in the transparent process, but are happy to be Deans after a secretive process. And the transparent process does not mean that the Director or the board members cannot approach faculty members and encourage them to participate in the process. In fact, it is often necessary to do this in any selection process, if you want quality intake. We do this all the time for faculty selection, but somehow forget to do so when it comes to leadership positions.

Search for leaders often a long time. Hence it is important that the process starts six months in advance. The final decision should be announced about a month in advance of the incumbent's tenure coming to an end. It should be possible for the new Dean to spend some time as Dean-designate and observe how the previous dean carries out various tasks. This would enable the transition to be smooth.

I welcome readers, particularly those who are faculty members in Indian institutions, to write about any interesting mechanism that their institute follows to find leadership talent.

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