After string of dean departures, University tries to soften landing for new leaders

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Visual Director

Across the University, dean’s offices might as well keep the same poster close by: “Now hiring.”

Premature expiration dates on deanships – four out of GW’s 10 deans left abruptly in the past two years – now have administrators plotting how to smoothen the transition for new academic leaders.

The University will test a new transition this fall with Ben Vinson, the new Columbian College of Arts and Sciences dean. And if it works, it could help the University avoid the serious financial and public relations consequences that have come with the latest cluster of derailed deanships.

The mentoring process will also be key as the University brings on three new deans over the next year in the business, law and nursing schools.

Provost Steven Lerman said that Vinson, who comes to GW from a vice deanship at Johns Hopkins University, will be more “deliberately” ushered through his first year, with briefings and meetings on fundraising, budgeting, research and faculty planned out by administrators in Rice Hall.

“I think it’s fair to say we have left that more to chance than through any deliberate programmatic effort,” Lerman said. “I think this will serve as a model to get the deans up to speed, particularly those who come from outside.”

The transition has been laid out by a bulked-up arm of GW’s Human Resources office, which will now help teach new deans GW 101. New deans will get an e-book filled with GW facts, go to events like Colonial Inauguration before they start the job, get access to outside leadership trainings and get scheduled meetings with key groups like faculty and students.

In turn, Vinson has maintained that his first year will include more listening than flashy new programs or lofty pledges. He said in an email that he’s spending much of his first year taking notes and starting a network with other deans and administrators. It’s all part of the process to gear up for a job filled with pressures, he said.

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Visual Director

“Deans must be a compass amidst everything surrounding them. Keeping the needle straight, with keen interpersonal skill, is hard, demanding work,” he said.

Sharon McDade, an expert in higher education administration who teaches at GW’s education school, said “the deck is stacked” against academic leaders these days, especially because few colleges can pull off plans to help them acclimate to new jobs.

“The person comes in with a great pressure to make things happen, to show energy and show initiative. Someone who comes with a get-to-know-you attitude is often labeled as weak, which reduces the amount of change and initiative,” she said.

Looking for answers
Other leaders have come in with more aggressive agendas. Doug Guthrie was fired two weeks ago as dean of the GW School of Business for failing to agree on a new budget with top administrators after he overspent by $13 million last year.

But Guthrie also faced flak from faculty for keeping them out of the loop as he tried to fulfill big ambitions, like tripling the number of endowed professors and starting a bevy of online programs.

And in November, GW Law School Dean Paul Schiff Berman left the job before faculty could oust him in a vote of no confidence, according to professor accounts. Some faculty took issue with his calls to raise the school’s average LSAT scores and start up new academic programs. Berman moved over to the provost’s office, where he oversees online learning.

Those two departures come on the heels of two other schools’ leaders – the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt and the College of Professional Studies Dean Kathleen Burke – who stepped down before their terms were up because of faculty pressures.

Some of leaders who have taken falls are also GW’s highest-paid from last year: Guthrie ($532,464), Berman ($449,807) and Barratt ($323,345).

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Former Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt

That pattern of dean departures has caused other academic leaders to question whether GW has its priorities in line.

“The central administration always says they want a dean to go in and make change. But when they say that to a dean, do they give them any help or just turn them loose?” said one administrator who did not want his name stated. “Berman came here and they wanted him to scramble some eggs, just like they wanted Guthrie to scramble some eggs.”

Of course, some deans have thrived. Lynn Goldman of the School of Public Health and Health Services has led the school to grow from one of the smallest at GW to a research powerhouse since she was hired away from Johns Hopkins in 2010. Likewise, David Dolling has executed a hiring plan for the engineering school designed to fill the new Science and Engineering Hall with polished researchers.

Forrest Maltzman, senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said GW is trying to mentor deans to understand that they can start new programs and initiatives – but not before achieving faculty and student buy-in.

“The goal is not to discourage deans from putting balls in the air,” Maltzman said. “The goal is to help ensure that the deans put the right balls in the air.”

The cost of dean derailments
The cluster of derailed deanships at GW lately could leave plenty of scars.

There’s the $13 million that Guthrie overspent last year. The $4.3 million in GW Law School lost in fundraising after Berman abruptly left office last year. Multiple leadership positions left unfulfilled in GW’s medical school.

The pain can also be measured in the volume of hearsay. “Anything that happens here becomes a topic for cocktail party conversation,” said Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. “But frankly I haven’t had much occasion for that.”

When deans leave, jobs like curriculum tweaks, departmental reviews and tenure-judging often goes on seamlessly, experts say. But the schools lose the faces of its fundraising, and plans and donations often skid to a halt.

That’s a particularly tough break as GW embarks soon on a public fundraising campaign likely worth $1 billion – one that looks to unite the separate schools under a University-wide strategic plan.

Fundraising in the law school dropped 43 percent when interim dean Gregory Maggs took over for half of last academic year because “the transition created an environment where donors wanted to wait and see to learn more about the direction the school would go,” said Richard Collins, associate vice president for law development.

“We would have had probably more large gifts had we not had the transition,” he added.

Deans are expected to spend about half their time asking for donations, an expectation University President Steven Knapp set in 2009. Big-money schools like GW’s business, law and medical schools are expected to pull in $10 million to $15 million each year.

Guthrie, who boasted two consecutive double-digit fundraising years, will soon be replaced by a still undetermined interim dean.

Mike Morsberger, GW’s vice president for development and alumni relations, said that kind of transition is a concern – but he likes to find a silver lining.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger

“I worry. I do try to watch those things closely, but I’m reminded that the only constant is change. Change is inevitable,” he said. “I’m always the optimist and for 193 years this institution has overcome some big challenges…I’m pretty upbeat about where things are going despite the occasional interruption. We keep moving forward.”

The volatility also stems from the high expectations across higher education, especially GW, where deans are expected to fundraise millions, hire top-notch researchers and pull in enough students – all while keeping faculty and administrators happy.

“All the deans who have arrived since I’ve been here have been quite dedicated to the transition that the University is going through,” said Feuer, who arrived in 2010 and is in his first dean’s job. “That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes.”

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