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What is a dean? 

Michael Feder

Written by Michael Feder

Marc Booker headshot

Reviewed by Marc Booker, PhD,  Vice Provost, Strategy

Lightbulb in the brain of a side profile of a man

At a glance

  • In higher education, a dean serves as the leader of a college, school or other division within an academic institution. Dean roles are primarily academic and require deep expertise in an academic discipline, most often the discipline of the college or school the dean is leading.
  • Other examples of deans are those who are advocates and leaders of a college’s or university’s faculty community, called a dean of faculty, or a dean of students, who acts as an advocate and guide for a student body.
  • Deans typically need to hold doctoral degrees, but there are opportunities for those who hold master’s degrees, depending on the department they lead or the policies of their university.
  • Get to the head of the classroom with an education degree. Learn more about online education degrees at University of Phoenix, including options at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels.

Being a dean at a college or university can be incredibly gratifying. Not only does it involve handling essential responsibilities that impact students and faculty, but this role also can guide the overall direction of a college or university, thereby creating an ongoing legacy.

Deans who lead colleges, schools or academic departments within a university report to an associate provost or provost, depending on the structure of the institution. Deans are skilled strategic thinkers and possess a high level of business acumen. A dean also interacts regularly with many different stakeholders, from the leadership of the institution to alumni, faculty and students.

Deans also have a wide range of responsibilities within the college or school they lead. Duties include decision-making on academic staff and faculty, responsibility for academic programming, oversight of overall curriculum goals, policymaking authority, and guidance and direction on financial matters.

Deans should see the “big picture” and be able to share that vision with those they lead. Strong leadership skills, the ability to build relationships and grow personal and professional networks, professional presence, and empathy for faculty and students are all important for a dean’s success as a leader.

Becoming a dean can be a unique option for those looking to advance into progressively more responsible administrative roles within higher education. Deans not only get to work with students, but they also get to shape an institution’s policies, initiatives and strategic direction.

There are many ways to choose a career path, and becoming a dean in a college or university means planning ahead to ensure you get the right education and experience.

What is a dean of faculty?

A dean of faculty serves as a liaison between the academic leadership of a college or school and the faculty of that institution. A successful dean of faculty is a person who acts as an advocate and champion for the needs of the faculty and is able to negotiate those needs with the academic leadership.

In this role it is crucial to be able to see both sides of an issue, quickly grasp the complexity of a situation, find common ground, and think critically about maximizing positive outcomes for both faculty and academic leadership.

What is a dean of students?

A dean of students is a service-oriented leadership role, typically the leader and advocate for the entire student body. Deans of students often serve as a guide and mentor to students, oversee academic policies related to students, and oversee disciplinary processes when issues arise with a student.

Deans of students also work to create positive relationships with faculty, staff, alumni and external constituencies to improve the student experience, and generally interface with the deans of colleges or disciplines to coordinate on strategies affecting students inside and outside of the classroom.

Dean compared with president

While both college deans and college presidents are leadership roles in higher education, the positions have major differences. Deans focus on guiding the academic and student life aspects of their institutions for a specific division or academic unit, whereas presidents focus on managing all operations across the university.

A university president must focus on developing strategies for growth and financial stability for the institution overall and act as its main spokesperson. Presidents are also ultimately responsible for legal issues such as accreditation, labor laws and compliance with state regulations.

In addition, presidents, like deans, often drive fundraising, but the president’s responsibility is often large, university-wide initiatives that require coordinated efforts. Presidents also represent their university to external stakeholders — sitting on boards, attending presidents’ meetings with other university leadership, and building relationships in the community.

Successful presidents are often seasoned business leaders, ensuring that the university can continue educating students and serving their needs through strategic thinking and wise financial planning.

Skills

Deans working in a college or university need a wide range of skills to be successful in their roles. These include:

  • Leadership: They must have strong leadership and decision-making skills to manage student affairs effectively.
  • Organizational skills: They must maintain accurate records and tasks that require excellent organizational capabilities.
  • Communication: They must be able to communicate clearly with students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders to keep everyone informed about relevant issues.
  • Interpersonal skills: Deans need to be able to collaborate with all those involved on campus to foster a positive learning environment.
  • Patience and understanding: The role of deans involves managing difficult situations, so they must be patient and understanding when dealing with challenging student or faculty issues.
  • Problem-solving: They must possess excellent problem-solving skills to address academic or disciplinary matters that might arise.
  • Strategic thinking: Deans need to think strategically about their school’s future, such as developing initiatives for student success or recommending academic changes.
  • Higher education experience

These are the core competencies but, depending on the institution, other skills may be required.

For example, a college dean at a small private institution might need fundraising experience if their job responsibilities include leading fundraising campaigns. A dean at a large public university may need to work with faculty to drive grant funding and research. Or a dean at an adult-serving institution may need to know the principles of andragogy (the art or science of teaching adults) to best serve these students.

Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), academic deans are in the category of “postsecondary education administrators.” BLS notes that postsecondary education administrators typically hold a master’s degree. However, it specifies dean positions typically require a PhD. Individuals with bachelor’s degrees may have opportunities, depending on the type of role and level of institution.

Certifications

While certification is not required to become a college dean, it can benefit those interested in pursuing leadership roles. A Certified Higher Education Professional (CHEP) credential is widely recognized as important for those working in higher education administration. The CHEP credential demonstrates an understanding of higher education administration and leadership principles. It also indicates a commitment to professional development and ethical practices.

In addition to the CHEP, other certifications may be helpful, depending on the role of the dean. For example, a dean of student affairs might benefit from having a Student Affairs Educator Certification credential, which focuses on the principles and practices of student affairs administration. The type of certification required for each role will depend on the institution and other factors such as location.

Ultimately, having relevant certifications could be beneficial in helping to secure a dean position and demonstrate an individual’s commitment to professional development.

Experience

In addition to formal education, prior experience is often necessary for becoming a college dean. The type of experience required depends on the particular role and responsibilities. For example, an applicant for a dean of student services position might need experience in student affairs or higher education administration. Other experiences might include:

  • Leadership positions, such as serving on university committees
  • Teaching experience at a college or university
  • Serving in management

Having worked with administrators and faculty members is also beneficial. Developing relationships with other leaders and staff on campus can help a new or aspiring dean navigate the role’s challenges. In addition, it is common for deans to have experience at their institution, or in a similar setting, that helps them understand the culture, policies and procedures.

Job outlook

As of May 2023, the projected job outlook for postsecondary education administrators is estimated to grow 4% between 2022 and 2032, according to BLS. That’s an estimated average of 15,300 openings expected each year.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2021-2031 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

Resources for college deans

When considering a career as a dean within a college or university, it’s essential to be aware of the resources available. Career resource centers can offer assistance with finding job postings, writing resumés and cover letters, interviewing skills and more.

Additionally, professional organizations, like the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Administrators, can be helpful networking resources. These organizations provide information, resources and professional development opportunities related to higher education administration and student affairs.

Other ways to connect include:

  • Attending professional conferences and workshops
  • Networking with peers or mentors in the field
  • Joining online forums and other virtual professional discussion groups

Such resources can be invaluable in helping individuals stay up to date on trends, best practices and job opportunities related to being a college dean.

Ultimately, becoming a dean for a college or university can be a rewarding yet challenging career path depending on the nature of your institution and the challenges it may face. However, having the right resources, knowledge and support can help individuals get started in pursuing such a role.

Education programs at University of Phoenix

At this time, University of Phoenix (UOPX) offers a post-master’s certificate that educationally prepares students to become an academic dean. The University’s master’s degree and doctoral programs align to other leadership roles in education, such as principal and school administrator.

  • Master of Arts in Education/Administration and Supervision — This graduate degree program prepares candidates for K-12 school principal licensure. Candidates for this program must have already earned a bachelor’s degree. The program includes a clinical component requiring field experience and an administrative internship above and beyond program coursework. There may be additional qualifications and/or disqualifications applicable in order to work as a principal with any local, state or federal entity. Requirements for licensure vary by state.
  • Post Master’s Certificate in Higher Education Administration (CERT/D-HEA) — The CERT/D-HEA program prepares students to create and improve the policies that shape colleges and universities. Credits earned in the CERT/D-HEA program are transferrable toward the Doctor of Education with a focus in Higher Education Administration program at UOPX.
  • Doctor of Education (EdD) — The EdD program prepares learners to become transformational leaders who will strategically manage and lead complex educational organizations.

Learn more about the education programs University of Phoenix has to offer!

Headshot of Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

Headshot of Marc Booker

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Dr. Marc Booker, University of Phoenix Vice Provost for Strategy, has more than two decades of experience working with online and distance education students at the post-secondary level. He currently oversees critical path academic initiatives to improve the student experience. Dr. Booker is a regular speaker, author and contributor to national higher education associations.

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