Top Five Responsibilities of a Dean
What, exactly, does the dean of the College of Engineering do? Dean Lester summarizes:
#1: Every dean has a responsibility to provide an outstanding educational experience for the students in the college. That responsibility transcends everything else. The dean is responsible for putting pieces in place that give students a chance to learn the disciplines taught by the college. A big part of that is…
#2: …recruiting, developing and retaining an outstanding faculty. Faculty are the core of everything.
#3: Recruiting, developing and retaining an outstanding staff. We tend to overlook staff, but they are the foot soldiers upon which the college marches. Staff members have a tremendous responsibility at this school to keep student records intact, keep classrooms and laboratories functional, make sure there is a safe environment and more. The College of Engineering is fortunate to have a staff that has been around for a long time and experiences little turnover.
#4: Ensuring there is a growing student body populated with excellent students. It goes without saying that you have to have students to teach, so it is incumbent upon the dean to work with the university on the recruitment, retention and graduation of students.
#5: Developing financial and physical infrastructure. Once the above pieces are in place, you have to have the financial and physical infrastructure to tie it all together. That takes money, obviously. So a dean works with the university and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, doing a lot of missionary work outside the college to explain the importance of engineering to the state and the state’s economy. A dean also tries to convince the president, the provost, the vice-president of research and the Board of Trustees of the same thing because there are 18 deans on this campus, all of whom have needs that far outstrip the ability of the campus to manage them with the financial resources the campus has. So, the dean is responsible for, if you will, polishing the image of the college inside and outside the university and trying to secure adequate funding to run the program. Increasingly, a dean needs to spend time raising private funds because there simply isn’t going to be enough money coming from the state due to its budget constraints.
Related to this part of the job is the responsibility to raise money for scholarships—especially at UK, whose students frequently come from families of modest means. Students at UK have had their tuition increased every year over the last 10 years. As a result, the dean also has the responsibility for raising money for scholarships to defray some of the cost of the education.
On August 31, the longest-tenured dean in the College of Engineering’s history, Thomas W. Lester, will walk into his third floor office in the Ralph G. Anderson building for the last time. Lester is stepping down as dean, a decision he announced to the College of Engineering faculty more than a year earlier. Following the Labor Day holiday weekend, John Y. Walz, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Virginia Tech will take over for Lester, who will remain on the faculty as a professor of mechanical engineering.
Most of the today’s underclassmen hadn’t been born when Dean Lester left Louisiana State University for UK in 1990. Several of the facilities that play a prominent role in the college’s educational and research efforts didn’t exist and Dean Lester has seen two different presidents each spend a decade at the helm of Kentucky’s flagship institution. So when we asked him to cull through his experiences and share the top five things he learned while dean, we knew we were making a big ask.
Ever the engineer, Dean Lester was willing to tackle the assignment. As a result, we are grateful to Dean Lester and proud to disclose his reflections on the top five things he learned during his 22 years as dean of the College of Engineering.
Top Five Things Dr. Lester Learned During His Tenure as Dean
#1: It takes patience to change the culture.
We have 158 faculty members in the College of Engineering. They are all very bright people who are also very opinionated as to where the college should be going. So a dean can’t go in and start forcing change. A dean has to listen; in fact, the biggest thing a dean needs to be able to do is listen to the faculty, chairs, staff and students, articulate the direction he or she thinks the college should take and then, very patiently, coax people along that direction. You certainly can’t come in with edicts from on high and tell everyone where they are going to go. You have to work with them, involving them in the process.
#2: Always find the good in every individual.
Not every individual is going to be a Nobel Prize winner or a Lutes Award winner (given for outstanding teaching); however, every faculty member here was hired with the expectation that they could succeed at the University of Kentucky. The extent to which one can engage faculty members to further the mission of the college is a measure of how good of an administrator one is. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the army you’ve got.” Likewise, you go to school with the faculty you’ve got. That means you need to make the best possible use of the talent among your faculty and staff.
#3: Our alumni are awesome.
Nobody who has not been in my position can appreciate the love and the passion that our alumni have for UK and the College of Engineering. They are proud of this college and talk with sincerity about how much it has meant to their professional and personal lives. They talk with appreciation about what faculty members did during their time on campus that kept them from floundering and/or helped them succeed. It has been an enormously gratifying experience to listen to those stories and meet people willing to help the institution—not only financially, but also with their time and effort to assist with student recruitment.
#4: UK is profoundly important to the state of Kentucky.
One reason I came to UK was that I felt this institution had an ability to influence the state’s direction in economic development, medicine, technology, etc. That belief has only been reinforced during my 22 years here. This university is central to the welfare of the state of Kentucky. It is awe-inspiring to travel around the state and listen to people talk about how much they depend upon the university. Whether they went to UK or not, they have an admiration for the university, as well as high expectations that it will make life better for their children—better than life has been for them.
#5: I was more expendable than you think.
If the dean has done his or her job in assembling the faculty, staff, facilities, infrastructure and processes used to make sure things run well, it is amazing how well the place runs without the intervention of the dean. I learned this when my wife, Susan, was terminally ill with cancer. Then-president Lee Todd and then-provost Mike Neitzel encouraged me to make caring for my wife my primary responsibility, an offer for which I was extraordinarily grateful. So, there were six months toward the end of her life where I was a part-time dean and probably wasn’t very effective in anything I did—for obvious reasons. In spite of that, the college operated as well as it always had. We continued with our mission of educating students and, after I had walked through that nightmare and was back in my office, it was like I had never left. Why? Because the staff and faculty went about their business day after day, passionately educating students, pursuing knowledge through research and working with various agencies and companies outside the university to help stimulate economic development.