When most students pack up and head off to college for the first time, the only thing they know about the role of deans is what they have seen in the movies. From Animal House’s vindictive Dean Wormer to Old School’s sneering Dean Pritchard, the movies haven’t always left the most favorable impression in the minds of incoming college students.
When they get to school, students will see a different picture of deans in action. Although it’s true that the dean of students is responsible for investigating and disciplining students in the event of misconduct, that’s a job that protects most students more than it harms them. And a dean is often the first voice to stand up for students when outside pressures or influences come to impact the learning environment.
They might even learn it’s cool to make the dean’s list at college—a mark of academic distinction on the road to graduating with a high class standing and hot job prospects.
But becoming a dean takes decades of hard work and professional development, not to mention the right kind of leadership training. It’s not a job that every university administrator is meant to fill. But it’s a very gratifying one for those who can meet the challenges.
The Job of the Dean Is Important to Colleges, but Not Always in the Same Way
So what exactly does a dean do?
Different schools use the title of dean in different ways and to describe different functions. What they have in common is this:
At some universities, deans are heads of a collective department, such as a school of law or medicine. In other cases, they handle an administrative department, such as enrollment or library services.
Deans are often professors who have moved up in the leadership hierarchy, particularly in instances where the job represents a supervisory role in a specific academic department.
In both cases, deans have broad responsibility for management and administration in their department. They may handle such varied tasks as:
In their position as academic leaders, they may also play a strong part in developing grant or research proposals or coordinating investigative efforts and resource procurement in large-scale research efforts. They may also play a significant role in ethical investigations and maintaining standards within their departments.
It’s a broad portfolio that takes an exceptional set of leadership skills to execute effectively.
Deans Have to Develop a Balanced Skillset to Juggle a Complex Job
The dean’s role is most often outside the immediate sphere of teaching and research. However, deans need a solid background in those skills in order to understand the needs and concerns of faculty and staff.
To that background, they need to add the standard stuff of leadership roles everywhere:
And because getting any group of college professors to agree on anything is like herding cats, strong problem-solving and negotiation skills are highly recommended. This is particularly true since academic freedom doesn’t necessarily allow the dean to make top-down decisions. Even when they can, they may prefer to work toward consensus for better long-term harmony and effectiveness.
Deans also need a strong command of the trends influencing their department’s field. They are responsible for much of the strategic planning, budget requests, and recruiting that will happen within their departments.
They must also have an ear to the ground for larger issues sweeping academia, whether it’s increased sensitivity to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or skyrocketing tuition rates. While they are rarely in a position to directly influence school policies in these matters, they may participate in councils and committees that can influence the decisions chancellors and provosts make.
What Degree Should You Earn to Become a College Dean?
Deans will usually have a background in a field related to the school or department they administer—for example, it’s valuable to have a law degree if you’re going to oversee a law school. And since many deans come to the position through teaching as a professor, they are likely to already have sterling credentials in their field. At large schools, that typically means a doctoral degree.
But at some point in their academic career, many deans will want to earn a degree that helps them develop the specific skills needed to excel as academic leaders and managers.
That usually comes through a master’s or doctoral degree in a field like Educational Administration.
These studies are stacked on top of whatever other credentials a dean may have already earned in their area of expertise. But they provide important context and skills in academic leadership that their professional studies probably didn’t address.
Given the advanced matters of education and scholarship they will be tackling, almost all deans will end up pursuing a doctoral degree at some point. It’s quite likely that they already hold a master’s in their own field. However, to get started as an assistant dean, or even a full dean at a smaller school, it’s quite possible to earn a master’s degree initially.
That will frequently be a degree like a Master of Arts in Educational Administration with a Concentration in Higher Education/Student Affairs, or a Master of Education (MEd) in Higher Educational Leadership.
At the doctoral level, the same subjects are covered in even more rigor and detail through degrees like the Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership, or a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Educational Leadership. Just as with the master’s level, you’ll also find specializations that are focused on higher education, like a Doctor of Education in Higher & Postsecondary Education, or a Doctor of Education in Higher Education. Or you can look for even more specialized programs, like the PhD in Educational Leadership and Organizational Development in Post-Secondary Education.
Each of these degrees brings you a broad overview of higher education policy and administration while also honing your skills in direct leadership.
Doctoral programs will have a more research-oriented focus, although the EdD is considered a practical degree and offers more specific training for administration roles.
In all cases, you’ll take courses in subjects such as:
You’ll also find that you have a lot of leeway in your final project, whether it’s a thesis, dissertation, or capstone project. Particularly at the doctoral level, you’re expected to shape your investigations around your own theories and interests, allowing a level of customization that other degrees just can’t match.
As an academic, you’re aware of how important choosing the right final project is, and the power it can hold to shape your career in higher education administration.
Experience Is the Key to Becoming a College Dean
Although your education will be important, schools are not likely to take a chance on anyone in these important jobs who hasn’t already demonstrated exceptional ability and leadership skills in other educational administration posts.
Whether you are coming at it from a faculty position or have already switched to a lower-level administration track, you’ll polish your formal education with the emery cloth of real-world challenges.
Unlike K-12 administration jobs, where state licensure rules often require both supervised and individual experience before you can qualify, colleges are free to hire without such concerns. But in some ways, that makes your experience and education even more important. Without a bar to clear in state credentialing, you’ll be competing for positions on the basis of your resume.
It had better be impressive!
How Much Do College Deans Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes college deans in the broader category for post-secondary educational administrators.
As middle management in most universities, it’s likely that deans fall right into the median salary level for that position. As of 2021, that was $96,910 per year.
But BLS offers another way to slice the data that provides even more perspective. They track the difference between positions at four-year and junior colleges separately. As you might expect, deans working at junior colleges, with smaller average total student headcounts, come in a little under the median, at $94,120.
Those at larger colleges, universities, and professional schools earn an average of $98,180.
College administrators can work at either public or private institutions. BLS doesn’t separate out data on salary levels between these two categories, but you can make some generalizations about benefits and other kinds of compensation.
Deans at public universities are public employees and will enjoy the substantial employment protections and typically excellent pension benefits that come with those roles. A dean at a private college, on the other hand, will have more freedom to negotiate their own compensation package based on experience and expertise. But the job is not likely to come with retirement or healthcare benefits as strong as those from public schools.
At least in part, being a dean is a prestigious position. It means taking a step outside the cozy, cloistered realm of university professorship into a job that has some risk, but also makes a larger impact. You’ll have to make tough decisions, but you’ll also own the results of those decisions when they pay off. These are not easy jobs to get, but there is a reason that there is plenty of competition to land them.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Education Administrators reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.