As two of GW’s top colleges search for new deans this year, faculty will pepper candidates with questions. But the candidates will likely have one big question of their own: What exactly happened to my predecessor?
Over the last year, deanships in the law and business schools have been cut short after highly publicized tussles with faculty and top administrators over governance and budgets. Now, the University’s recruiting message will stress a stronger support structure to transition new leaders.
The business and law school searches now have faculty committees underway to find new deans, while the GW School of Nursing expects to start its search this month. All three searches are expected to finish before the academic year closes.
Murat Tarimcilar, a professor of decision sciences who is leading the dean search for the GW School of Business, said the school’s reputation and location would ultimately triumph over candidates’ concerns about between the college and University.
“[Candidates] know the school went through a tough time, so it’s a moment where someone with good leadership skill can come in here, put the school together, take it to new heights,” he said.
Doug Guthrie, the former business dean, was fired in August, creating a rift between that school and the central administration.
School of Business faculty had to quickly put together a search this fall. Several argued last year that Guthrie did not have enough managerial experience, a trait that Tarimcilar said faculty on the 16-person search committee would likely value.
University President Steven Knapp said he talks with all finalists for deanships about their concerns, which typically range from what GW’s expectations are to what resources they will have.
“Nobody is going to take a position like this unless they feel reasonably confident they can be successful in this position and that’s a conversation that goes on initially with the search committee, but ultimately with Provost Lerman and me,” he said.
Provost Steven Lerman, GW’s top academic leader, said he is not fazed by the trio of searches and that he is confident that both positions will attract top candidates given each school’s strong reputations.
But four schools have had deans suddenly leave their posts in the past two years, after Peg Barratt, then dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, stepped down a month after faculty said she lacked a clear vision for the school.
Now, GW is piloting a year-long orientation program for new deans this year, strategically introducing Ben Vinson, new dean of the Columbian College, to faculty, deans and the University as a whole before he starts making significant decisions.
GW will use the program to make GW stand out from other institutes, showing candidates that the University values deans’ transitions to GW, Lerman said.
Both Guthrie and former law school dean Paul Schiff Berman got in hot water in their first two years because faculty thought their efforts accelerated too quickly. Berman is now leading GW’s online learning initiatives in the provost’s office.
Roger Schechter, a professor leading the law school search, said guiding deans through their first year would help them get to know faculty better, but that the school should be careful to make sure it does not stay still for a year.
“You want the dean to have the freedom to get to know people, but you don’t want to, in effect, have the school in limbo for the year,” he said.
He added that finding a dean who is able to navigate the school’s large size would be a challenge. GW’s law school is one of the largest in the nation, enrolling about 480 students in its class this fall, compared to competitor schools like the University of Virginia, which enrolled 336.
A new dean will oversee some changes, but is not entering a position where they will need to reinvent the school to raise application rates, Schechter, who is leading his third dean search, said.
“I think that what you need is you need somebody who thinks outside the box, you need somebody who will be creative, who will try to get ahead of that trend line,” Schechter said.
Lawrence Dessem, a former dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, said it is increasingly tough to find leaders who can make hard choices while retaining a base of support within their school.
“This is a very tough environment in higher education,” Dessem, who has published multiple articles about dean searches, said. “I think at those environments when the financial resources are stretched, people get angry.”