What Is an Academic Dean?

Academic dean shaking graduates hands

Do you have a passion for education but don’t think you want to become a professor? If so, you could explore the possibility of pursuing an administrative role instead. For example, you might choose a career as an academic dean.

Academic deans are higher education administrators who play a vital role in shaping the future of their institution. They work collaboratively with other administrators and with professors to further the long-term objectives of their department or college. If you’re interested in becoming an academic dean, it’s important to understand all the requirements of this esteemed position.

What Does an Academic Dean Do?

Although they are not professors, academic deans are highly educated individuals and skilled leaders. They plan, direct and oversee all activities that fall under the administrative functions in their higher education institution. Depending on the institution, an academic dean may be the head of an individual department or a college. For example, a Department of English and a College of Doctoral Studies each have their own academic deans.

An academic dean serves as a liaison between students, faculty, other staff members, top-level leadership of the school, and other administrators. They are head of their academic unit, serving as its public face and representing it to the rest of the school and to external stakeholders.

Broadly, the responsibilities of an academic dean are to develop and nurture the mission and vision for their department or college. This professional has a hand in the academic, budgetary and administrative facets of the department or college. In short, the dean must keep in mind the overall mission of the university while also overseeing the activities of the individual department or college.

A Typical Academic Dean Job Description

The specific responsibilities and daily tasks that you might find in an academic dean job description depend largely on the institution and the needs of the dean’s own department or college. In general, an academic dean will perform all high-level tasks related to the academic planning, budgetary and administrative needs of the department. These can include the following:

  • Establish policies, procedures and standards for the department’s faculty, staff and students
  • Nurture a positive workplace culture and student learning environment
  • Serve as an advocate to the school’s provost for the resource requirements of the department
  • Lead the scholarly, research and educational activities of the department, such as planning curricula in collaboration with faculty members
  • Conduct periodic program reviews as required by the school
  • Develop student affairs initiatives to increase the diversity of their student body
  • Create hiring plans and oversee the hiring of new faculty members and staff
  • Review faculty applications for tenure and make appropriate recommendations

In addition, an academic dean provides financial leadership for the department. They are responsible for developing departmental budgets, providing competitive salaries and ensuring the appropriate allocation of departmental financial resources.

In some cases, an academic dean may also engage with external stakeholders — that is, individuals and organizations outside the school that have an interest in the department. For example, the dean may engage with alumni or liaise with their own counterparts at other schools to enhance the professional image of the department.

Essential Skills and Characteristics of an Effective Academic Dean

One of the most essential skills of an academic dean is leadership. After all, deans are the heads of their departments. They are responsible for inspiring and motivating their faculty and staff, and for developing a positive and inclusive workplace culture. All effective leaders must embrace a mindset of accountability, transparency and servant leadership.

In addition, the following skills and characteristics are essential for this profession:

  • Communication skills
  • Collaborative, yet efficient decision-making abilities
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Professionalism
  • Open-mindedness and a willingness to consider new ideas
  • Financial competence

Becoming an Academic Dean

The pathway toward becoming a dean of a department or college is rather lengthy, yet incredibly rewarding. It’s a universal requirement that all academic deans must have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the vast majority of positions require at least one graduate degree.

For your bachelor’s degree, you should major in the subject area that you are most passionate about. Academic deans are hired for every type of college and department, so your choice of bachelor’s degree should reflect the department you would eventually like to lead.

Then, you will need to earn a master’s degree. Again, there is considerable flexibility here. Some institutions prefer to hire administrators with a master’s degree in education and/or higher education leadership. Others prefer that their administrators have a stronger academic background in the department’s subject area.

After earning your master’s degree, you might choose to enter the workforce to begin gaining practical experience. For example, a master’s degree can qualify you to become a professor or an administrator at a community college. Many universities prefer to hire deans who have experience as professors or instructors.

Alternatively, you may decide to work toward your doctorate degree right away. A Doctor of Education (EdD) in a relevant area, such as higher education leadership, is an ideal choice for an aspiring dean. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in a related area is also suitable. Note that a PhD program will focus on theory and research, whereas an EdD is more oriented toward the use of evidence-based research for practical applications.

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information about GCU’s doctoral programs, such as the Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership: Higher Education Leadership (Qualitative Research) or doctoral resources such as the Doctoral Community (DC) Network™, visit the College of Doctoral Studies or click on the Request More Information button at the top of this page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.