Transitioning to a New Deanship in Unprecedented Times
Transitioning to a new deanship is already a challenge—transitioning during a crisis is an even larger challenge. One dean transitioning during the COVID-19 crisis shares six points that will assist her as she shifts.
There is never a good time to announce your resignation. In my case, on day three of our new work-from-home regimen and just days before our classes were to go online, I announced to the Drucker School of Management community that I was leaving to begin a deanship at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I have been asked by many how I feel about transitioning to a new deanship during unprecedented times, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the ensuing uncertainty it brings. Let me share some thoughts.
While many of us have lived through severe economic recessions, I personally have never been impacted by a pandemic such as COVID-19. As I write this post, the USA has not yet flattened the curve, so we are faced with enormous uncertainty: how much longer will we be working remotely? Will summer courses need to be online? What about fall? If we are still online in fall, will students defer their enrollment? Will our retention rates drop? Will COVID-19 return again late in the fall semester? Will students still be able to secure internships? Will graduates find employment?
Against this backdrop, the following points will help me as I transition:
1. This is a public health crisis first, but with substantive economic and social consequences. These days in particular we need to treat people with kindness and empathy because we seldom know the full effect of the pandemic on our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other stakeholders, plus their loved ones.
2. There is no playbook. We are all adjusting to things as they arise and trying to respond in the best way we can with the information we have at the time.
3. Leadership matters. In times of great adversity, people look for calm and decisive leadership, so anyone in a leadership position needs to acknowledge there is a crisis but at the same time try not to overreact. We are all making decisions without a set of comprehensive facts in front of us, where outcomes are uncertain. We need to be bold enough to make decisions and act, plan for a range of possible outcomes, and be unafraid of changing positions as new data comes to light. Above all, we need to communicate effectively to our many stakeholders.
4. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the proverb goes. We are all challenging ourselves and each other to question assumptions about why we do what we do and to find new and creative ways to do things. Some of these new practices may well become our new normal. As Peter Drucker once famously said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
5. Focus will be our friend. Inflection points force us to question who we are as an institution, why we offer the programs we offer, and why we deliver programs the way that we do. I do believe that well-run institutions will end up better positioned in the marketplace, be more focused and more efficient, and be far more intentional with the way resources are allocated.
6. What will post-pandemic education look like? What is interesting to me is that students tend to see online teaching as an inferior delivery method, with some asking for fee reductions. We are seeing early signs in the market that students want to defer their enrollment if classes remain online in the fall term.
At the same time, we are hearing that many students feel they are able to participate more effectively online by, for example, raising their hand to speak in a synchronous class, or being put into breakout rooms with only one other student. Plus, faculty are experimenting with a range of innovative asynchronous options. So while I do not believe our current circumstances will mean the end of on-campus instruction, I do believe we will see a new teaching world featuring mixed modalities.
I also believe we will realize the downsides to long-term social distancing and social isolation, and this will only amplify the best characteristics of higher education: the need to foster an environment that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion; the value of student engagement; the benefits of experiential learning; our role as professors to facilitate many opportunities for students to grow; the value of the teacher-scholar model; and the importance of exemplary residential experiences to build community. These are the characteristics that define Miami University and the reasons why I am very optimistic about what lies ahead for me personally.
At a broader level, I wonder whether we will ever fully return to our pre-pandemic ways. Will we continue to reach out to people in our communities to check on them as we are doing during the pandemic? Will we continue to shop online as much as we do now, or will we return to some brick-and-mortar shopping? Will we return to our pre-pandemic levels of consumption, or will we realize we can manage with less? Will we travel as much as we did before—especially by air?
As I close, do I feel prepared to take on these challenges? Absolutely. Aside from the Farmer School of Business role being my second deanship, transitions in higher education are gradual. Even though I am not starting until July 1, I feel a need to ready myself to lead in the new environment because some things will still be in a state of flux through summer and into fall. Certain actions I take now can help ease my transition in the months to come.
I am already receiving emails from the president and communicating regularly with the provost at Miami University, so I am keeping up with the decisions they are both making on behalf of the university. I am also holding virtual meetings with key stakeholders, including some donors, faculty, students, alumni, and the school’s business advisory council, and reading all that I can to become as familiar with the Farmer School of Business. One thing I know is that AACSB Continuous Improvement Reports are always a good place to start! I am also making myself available to meet with prospective students as we close out this recruitment cycle.
A student asked me during my on-campus interview if I thought moving from Claremont Graduate University to Miami University would be a heavy lift—and keep in mind, this on-campus interview was before we became aware of COVID-19. I smiled and pointed out that I had a heavy enough lift moving from New Zealand to the U.S. in 2004 to join Claremont Graduate University and had not only managed that transition well but had thrived.
So, for me, taking time to listen and learn about Miami University, being adaptable, staying calm, living in the present, and keeping a sense of humor (as best I can) are all characteristics that will likely help.
Jenny Darroch is the current Henry Y. Hwang Dean and a professor at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management and incoming dean and Mitchel P. Rales Chair in Business Leadership at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business. She currently chairs AACSB’s Women Administrators in Management Education (WAME) Affinity Group.