Liberal Education

Deans' Dilemmas: Practicing Academic Leadership

After thirteen years as a chief academic officer, I have come to respect the deep meanings associated with the word "dilemma." My dictionary lists "predicament" as a synonym and defines a dilemma as "a choice or a solution involving choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives." My administrative experience calls to mind the staggering numbers of daily dilemmas in each of my three deanships, as well as the stories of career-defining and career-ending dilemmas faced by dean colleagues. Not surprisingly, one of the favorite sessions at the annual meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD) has been an open forum titled simply "Deans' Dilemmas." The session always draws a crowd.1

Reflecting on what I read, know, and observe, I believe that the primary duty of an academic dean is effectively transforming dilemmas into decisions. Furthermore, those of us who serve in these positions need to mentor one another in the fine art of dwelling comfortably in the dilemmas of academic life while at the same time developing the ability and courage to lead in the production of sound academic decisions. ACAD provides a national venue for this mentoring to occur. Given the likelihood that deans' dilemmas will increase in complexity and profundity in the coming years, we can predict that colleges and universities will require efficient deans skilled in the occupation of academic administration. More importantly, institutions will need effective deans committed to the vocation of academic leadership. That is, we will need people who combine the skills of "how to" with the calling of "why do." More than ever, the times call for people willing to immerse themselves in deans' dilemmas by practicing both occupational and vocational leadership.

ACAD and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) are historic partners in the work of nurturing academic leaders for liberal learning. I am discovering that the partnership extends beyond organizational polity into educational theory. Specifically, the proper practice of academic leadership (as encouraged by ACAD) is very much like the proper practice of liberal education (as promoted by AAC&U): "cultivating intellectual and ethical judgment, helping students comprehend and negotiate their relationship to the larger world, and preparing graduates for lives of civic responsibility and employment."2 Academic deans transform dilemmas into decisions by cultivating academic integrity, helping faculty comprehend and negotiate their relationship between their departments and the larger university, and encouraging them to lead lives of campus citizenship and professional advancement. A deep and unexplored connection exists between the practice of liberal education and the practice of academic leadership, and the key to understanding that connection is embedded in the idea of vocation.

Vocation and liberal education

In her keynote address at AAC&U's 2003 Annual Meeting and later in Liberal Education, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (2003, 8) places renewed emphasis on the "vocational purposes" of the liberal arts. "The word vocation implies having a calling: knowing who one is, what one believes, what one values, and where one stands in the world…[O]ne purpose of a college education, and a central purpose of liberal education, should be to nurture a sense of vocation." Lagemann defines "vocational exploration" as the proper role of the faculty and calls for a re-thinking of faculty roles to emphasize the "educative power of vocational interests" and to make matters of vocation central to the academic mission. For Lagemann, liberal education engages students in exploring the relationship between vocation and occupation, thereby equipping students for success and meaning in careers and life.

I think the dean of the Harvard School of Education is "right on" in her call to nurture calling, but I do not believe a renewed emphasis on the vocational purposes of liberal education will happen easily or at all without the leadership of academic deans. One way for deans to exercise this leadership and to elevate the educative power of vocation is by giving renewed attention to our own vocational purposes. As usual, leadership begins by example.

John Bennett's wonderful new book Academic Life (2003, 73-81) makes a strong case for the value of "going deep." Reminding us of Robert Bellah's observations of the dangers of uncoupling vocation and occupation, Bennett articulates the need for college educators to "balance and integrate the personal and professional" and keep these two aspects of our lives "in regular conversation." I believe that academic deans who engage purposefully and effectively in the practice of academic leadership as vocation, not merely occupation, model what Bennett terms "hospitality to self" and may achieve for themselves a "healthy academic spirituality." The advancement of liberal learning and the success of colleges and universities also depend, at least in part, on deans' abilities to encourage hospitality in others. "Practicing hospitality toward ourselves means working toward the common good."

As a graduate of the ACE Fellows Program and a long-time ACAD member, I pay close attention to professional development opportunities for academic deans. Not surprisingly, most programs focus primarily on the techniques of occupational leadership; the market seems to dictate an emphasis on "nuts and bolts" and the "to do" of deaning. My intention here is to identify three good practices that encourage the development of vocational leadership, emphasizing the "big ideas" and the "to be" of deaning.3

Defining an academic vision

Academic deans are stewards of academic program integrity and as such are responsible for ensuring the existence of a clarifying academic vision. My dictionary defines vision as "something seen otherwise than by the ordinary sight" and "a vivid concept or object of imaginative contemplation." In theory, an academic vision sets up the curriculum as an "object of imaginative contemplation" for faculty and students. In practice, an academic vision guides discussions about academic priorities.

Over the years, I have come to recognize the need for a compelling academic vision by having to deal with the consequences of not having one. The always-hard discussions about adding and deleting programs, for example, are made much more difficult by the lack of a clarifying curricular vision or vivid curricular concept. Unclear curricular purpose leads to curriculum creep, which in turn leads to program creep and ultimately to an unsustainable program mix. Without a clarifying academic vision to guide the conversation, the attempt to determine program priorities exacerbates turf wars.4

The value of vision is extolled in the popular press and the non-academic workplace. In an oft-cited work, Peter Senge (1994, 298-299) proclaims the view that shared vision, which helps translate organizational mission into action, emerges only from "many people reflecting on the organization's purposes." According to Senge, organizational leaders are responsible for "creating a sense of purpose that binds people together and propels them to fulfill their deepest aspirations. Catalyzing people's aspirations doesn't happen by accident; it requires time, care, and strategy. Thus, the discipline of building shared vision is centered around a never-ending process, whereby people in an organization articulate their common stories—around vision, purpose, values, why their work matters, and how it fits into the larger world."

Is the academic workplace really all that different? It is possible to view the curriculum as the academic equivalent of a shared vision. A clearly articulated and well-understood curriculum serves to bind the academic community together, justifying the meaning and value of academic work. It is also possible to view the responsibility of academic deans, in terms described by Senge, as "building shared meaning, potentially where none existed before." Defining an academic vision involves striving to catalyze faculty aspirations for student learning into the creation of a curriculum that articulates the department's, college's, or university's common intellectual story. A curriculum informed by an academic vision stands as an expression of shared meaning and "a collective sense of what is important and why."

Visioning is the first good practice of vocational leadership. It requires occupational skill, knowledge of academic processes and structures, and a certain expertise. But it also requires the courage and the commitment Bennett expects from academic leaders: to "develop philosophies and ethics that promote individual and common goods"; to "create conditions for healthy spiritualities"; and to "introduce a constructive restlessness instead of a comfortable self-satisfaction" (185). In other words, it requires a strong sense of vocation.

Balancing educational paradoxes

I am convinced by the argument in management literature that some problems are better understood as paradoxes. Problems, so the argument goes, demand solutions, calling forth the powers of analysis, reason, logic, hypothesis, testing, validity, and so forth. In a problem-solving environment, people seek solutions. When they find solutions, they claim victory; when the solutions escape them, they feel defeat. Then they look for someone to blame.

Peter Jacobsen (2000, 164) defines a paradox as "a seemingly impossible combination of ideas or actions. Because of their contradictory nature, paradoxes cannot be solved—they must be lived through." Examples of paradoxical situations abound in organizational life: the simultaneous need for outcome-oriented and process-oriented approaches and people; coterminous expectations for formative and summative performance reviews; corporate cultures that promote and at the same time fear change; workplaces that both demand and oppose diversity.

A book by a group of Price Waterhouse executives (1996) identifies several workplace paradoxes in terms that will sound strikingly familiar to academic deans. They note that positive change requires significant stability; forceful leadership relies on the power of influence, not control; and organizations have a difficult time facing up to the truth that "less is more." "The key to success in the next decade," these executives argue, "will be a balanced approach to management, which does not ignore or explain away the existence of contradictions and uncertainty—the existence of paradox. Intelligent managers will face in that direction. They will learn to balance deftly the paradoxes or points of tension that run through the development, operation, and continual transformation of their enterprises" (18-19).

Balancing educational paradoxes is a good practice of vocational leadership. One tool I have found useful in this balancing endeavor is to adopt a specific paradigm as a mental framework for tackling paradoxical educational issues. Definitive frameworks of thinking provide a kind of cognitive discipline as an anchor in the midst of ambiguity, dissonance, and equally compelling arguments. The paradigm is a simple one; I ask myself: "How will this decision affect student and faculty learning?"

John Tagg's fascinating new book The Learning Paradigm College (2003) has radically reinforced my thinking about student learning and the utility of a learning paradigm.5 By reminding us that a college education is more than a collection of classes, Tagg illustrates the difference between a focus on teaching and a focus on learning. "It is the essential task of the Learning Paradigm college to change people," he says, "to make them different from what they were, because learning is always change. So the foundation for clear thinking about this task is to ask whom we propose to change and how we propose to change them" (39). Comparing the tenets of the prevailing instructional paradigm to the nascent learning paradigm, Tagg makes the case for learning at the center—of everything. "We may hope that the powerful examples of learning-focused programs and institutions that are emerging today and the weight of the accumulated evidence about what works for learning will embolden more colleges to reexamine what they do in light of the central question: What if the purpose of the college or university were learning?" (335).

Like Bennett, Tagg envisions a new kind of collegium, a "purposeful community of practice" (336) where leaders "form and shape a holistic vision of the institution they want to become" (339). Like Bennett, Tagg sees a connection between a rich academic life and institutional integrity. "Honesty, wholeness, soundness. That is what makes up institutional integrity. It is not a static state; it is an ongoing process"(288). In Tagg's Learning Paradigm college, "it is the cognitive economy, and the alignment of different activities to produce a coherent whole, that ultimately matters" (124).

Deans who foster the discipline of the learning paradigm support themselves in the effort to balance educational paradoxes, one of the good practices of vocational leadership. Tagg also hints at the connection between learning and vocation: "Learning, after all, is discovering that you are more than you thought you were" (343). I would make the connection explicit. Academic deans lead most effectively when they view students, faculty, and themselves through the lens of deep learning.

Keeping hope alive

Practicing academic leadership by defining an academic vision and balancing educational paradoxes are notable examples of the exercise of vocation. The third practice of leadership in an academic setting is of greater importance than these two, but more difficult in the accomplishment. It involves the dilemma of choosing to keep hope alive in spite of the academic penchant for criticism, skepticism, and doubt. It means nurturing the vocational purposes of the faculty, even if such nurturing conflicts with their occupational purposes. It requires the courage to question practices and policies that diminish a commitment to excellence.

John W. Gardner expressed a deep belief in the dignity and worth of the individual, the importance of individual renewal and talent development, the imperative of leadership, and the value of liberal education. In a recent edition of twenty-one essays and speeches, Living, Leading and the American Dream (2003), Gardner's vision for the fulfillment of the human condition is beautifully landscaped. Among his most famous utterances is this one from Excellence: "Humans have always lived partly on present satisfaction, partly on hope. And it's the task of the leader to keep hope alive. It is the ultimate fuel" (85). And again, "Creativity within an organization or society is to be found among men and women who are far removed from the fatalistic end of the scale. They have a powerful conviction that they can affect events in some measure. Leaders at every level must help their people keep that belief. There are all too many factors in contemporary life that diminish it" (86).

Reading Gardner is excellent preparation for life in the dean's office. With stories from years of public service, Gardner illustrates the practical and corporate benefits of envisioning goals, affirming values, motivating others, achieving workable unity, engaging diversity, preserving trust, and renewing self. In several circumstances and in many ways, Gardner asks a question that gets right to the heart of academic leadership: "How can we define the role of leaders in the way that most effectively releases the creative energies of followers in the pursuit of shared purposes?" (199). With characteristic insight, he describes a condition of leadership immediately recognizable to anyone who has served as a college dean: "Every leader willing to take risks has moments when he isn't sure whether his people are following him or chasing him" (145).

The good practice of academic leadership involves striving to keep hope alive. I have tried to do this by openly sharing information, engaging critics in non-threatening ways, and being honest about my own hopes and fears. I have also celebrated the accomplishments of current faculty and the heritage of emeriti. But keeping hope alive in academic communities has always been hard. In these financially perilous times in higher education, finding legitimate means for expressing hope may be the greatest gift of academic deans to their campuses. It may also be their greatest gift to themselves.

Academic deans who live lives of informed hopefulness reinforce the empowering message of liberal education. They reveal hope in their behavior. Sharon Daloz Parks (2000, 148), writing about mentoring young adults in the search for meaning, purpose, and faith, speaks also to the practice of vocational leadership: "Vocation arises from a deepening understanding of both self and world, which gives rise to moments of power when self and purpose become aligned with eternity. Vocation is the place where the heart's deep gladness meets the world's deep hunger." Liberal education, at its core, stimulates deepening understanding of self and the world; vocational leadership, at its best, intentionally introduces gladness to hunger. Academic deans who themselves find hopefulness in the meeting of gladness and hunger also discover an important source of keeping hope alive for others.

Practice, praxis, and vocation

Physicians are said to practice medicine, attorneys to practice law. In this sense, "practice" means "the pursuit of a profession or occupation." Academic deans practice academic leadership, which involves turning dilemmas into decisions and pursuing the occupation of academic administrator. In another and fundamentally more important sense, the practice of academic leadership is more like "praxis," as in "the exercise or practicing of an art, science, or skill." Praxis literally means, "to pass through, to experience." By exploring our own sense of vocation, by delving deeply into the "why do" of academic leadership, and by cultivating the habits of mind that routinely connect occupation with vocation, we academic deans may be able to provide engaged leadership worthy of the noble goals of liberal education and of ultimate value to the faculty, students, and universities we serve. ACAD, on its own and with AAC&U, supports us in our efforts.6

James L. Pence is provost at Pacific Lutheran University and current chair of the American Conference of Academic Deans.


  1. The American Council of Academic Deans (ACAD) was established in 1945 as an independent, national organization for academic deans from institutions belonging to the (then) Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities). In 1968 membership was opened to all academic officers. The historic affiliation between the two organizations continues. ACAD's mission is to provide academic officers with networking and professional development opportunities and to support them in their work as educational leaders. See
  2. Carol G. Schneider, president of AAC&U, describes the broader educational aims of liberal education in these terms in the "President's Message" of Liberal Education, Spring 2003. Throughout this essay, I rely on those ideas and AAC&U's Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College.
  3. Because I've had both successes and failures in transforming dilemmas into decisions and in balancing the occupational and vocational, for myself or the institution, I describe these three practices of academic leadership as both rapprochement and apologia.
  4. Robert Dickeson makes this point in his 1999 book, an often-cited example of conventional approaches to program review.
  5. Another book that has informed my views on student learning is Making Their Own Way by Marcia B. Baxter Magolda. Together, Tagg's and Magolda's work constitute a comprehensive overview of the value of a learning paradigm.
  6. The Sixtieth Annual Meeting of ACAD convenes from January 21 to 24, 2004 in Washington, DC, with the theme of "Deans' Dilemmas: Practicing Academic Leadership."

Works Cited

Bennett, J. B. 2003. Academic life: Hospitality, ethics, and spirituality. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Dickeson, R. C. 1999. Prioritizing academic programs and services: Reallocating resources to achieve strategic balance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, J. W. 2003. Living, leading, and the American dream. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jacobson, R. Leading for a change: How to master the five challenges faced by every leader. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Lagemann, E. L. 2003. The challenge of liberal education: Past, present, and future. Liberal Education, 89: 2, 6-13.

Parks, S. D. 2000. Big questions, worthy dreams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team. 1996. The paradox principles. Chicago: Irwin Professional Publishing.

Senge, P. M. et al. 1994. The fifth discipline field book: Strategies and tools for building learning organizations. New York: Doubleday.

Tagg, J. 2003. The learning paradigm college. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

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