By Eric Lavigne

The role of academic deans is often described as multi-faceted and conflict-laden. The reason is that academic deans are meant to serve the interests of multiple groups within their institutions: central administration, faculty, staff, and students. They also need to meet the expectations of multiple external groups: government, alumni, accreditation agencies, regulatory bodies, professional associations, and donors. To complicate things further, these groups do not speak with one voice, nor share common interests. Navigating through this shifting maze of conflicting interests creates role conflict, as deans receive mixed signals about their functions. This explains why becoming an academic dean is best described as a trial by fire.

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Job announcements can support this challenging transition by sending early signals to prospective deans about what their role will be. In a recent study, I have taken a look at the job announcements published by Canadian universities to determine what message they send. Studying early signals matters because these signals prime the perception of newcomers about their new roles. My study covers the period from 2011 to 2015 and draws on 223 announcements, kindly made available by the magazine University Affairs.

What I found was surprising. I had not foreseen the extent to which recruiting firms would drive my study. As it turns out, job announcements have about as much to do with the recruiting firm selected to support the search than the university or academic unit doing the search.

Why? Recruiting firms tend to either reuse the same phrases to describe a position or refer to the same set of roles. To give an example, consider the following excerpts, taken from two different job announcements:

…leads the Faculty in its mission in relation to teaching, service, and fine arts scholarship and creative endeavours, as well as directing the Faculty’s budget, general administration, and future development.

…leads the Faculty in its mission in relation to teaching, research and scholarship, and service, as well as directing the Faculty’s budget, general administration and future development.

These and similar statements found in other announcements have one thing in common: they come from the same recruiting firm. Although they describe positions in vastly different faculties (arts, education, science, etc.), they present the same roles in the same way.

Are the messages sent by these job announcements appropriate? Do they reflect and convey what the role of an academic dean in these institutions really is? Of course not. Under such circumstances, definitions of the role of academic deans become bland and misleading. They paint a portrait that has little to do with the reality newly-appointed deans will face. As such, they can potentially be harmful to their successful transition.

But this is not the worst part.

The use and reuse of standardized language is more of an issue because 80% of dean job announcements come from recruiting firms. Further, 64% come from only four recruiting firms. Hence, recruiting firms controlling the headhunting market shape the public definition of the role of Canadian academic deans to a greater extent than the communities academic deans are meant to lead.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. Universities must, when interfacing with recruiting firms, resist the temptation to start with a template. They need to consider job announcements as tools to support the successful transition of deans into their new role. As such, the role described in job announcements should be more comprehensive, but also authentic in its description of the critical functions a newly-appointed dean is expected to fulfill.