How to dean
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In short: This entry provides guidance for anyone who's planning or already engaging to be a dean, and might also help others to understand the position of a dean better, and how academia might work in general. Naturally, this is the perspective of one person only.
Being the Dean – a manifesto reflected and revised In this post I will reflect about the time of being the dean of the Faculty of Sustainability. After some thinking and recent events, I wrote down 10 rules in the very beginning that I consider relevant to me. You might wonder now, why you should read them. Are you a dean? Do you consider becoming a dean? Even if not, the following might be of relevance for you, maybe not to learn something I learned, but to learn something about the academic system, and your part in it. I can say I learned some lessons. The guidelines I defined early on are written in bold. The revisiting of the guidelines six months into the deanship is written in plain text. The revisiting of these texts 2 months after my six year term as a dean are also highlighted accordingly. This is a highly personal account, obviously. However, since I am not aware of such a knowledge resource being available quite often, I felt it might still give people some value.
Developing the Faculty
The dean works on the coherent triangle of management of the Faculty, research in the Faculty and teaching of the Faculty, together with the other deans.
Management: Many consider that management is the central theme of being the dean. It is simply boring admin, and why would a true researcher or teacher bother at all? Well, it is admin work, I will not fool you here, but maybe we can change the admin system, if only step by step. I learned a lot about admin tricks during the last 6 months, but more importantly, I altered the mode of admin surrounding me. How I did that you ask? First, I observed for 2-3 months. During this time, only emergency changes were made, beside that, I sticked quite to the structure I found, which was after all very good. After 2-3 months, I increasingly asked people, what they would change. Then I took the ratio and rational out of the intel and started implementing changes. It was actually fun, not only for me, but also (I hope) for others. Fact is, that most people want responsibility and trust. I think it is vital to help people reach their peak, and through the efforts of my tremendous surrounding, I actually feel I get closer to my own peak. Admin is actually much much much better than its reputation. I think people do take the time to reflect on how good the system actually is. If baffled by admin and procedures, it is best -I learned- to take a step back and look at the whole picture. With some context, I believe to have learned that hardly anyone is harmful, and no one is evil in admin. People are just overworked and misunderstood. Structured and solution-orientated suggestions for improvement are what’s working best.
2022 revisit: Management within constructed institutions means playing a long game. If you want to change things, negative emotions or pressure will bring you nowhere. You need to work with the system, not against it. In my experience, the vast majority of the people working in administration and management are doing a tremendous job. Those few who seemingly bother you actually may have the most challenging job in the whole institution, as they need to enforce principles or mechanisms that they did not choose. We are at a point in time where „the machine“ tries to control any given outlier point through a new rule. To this end, we pile rules and rules on top of each other. In my experience this is not specific for any given institution, but simply the Zeitgeist. Only time will tell how we can change this. However, we can only do this together, because the machine with its mechanisms and principles is quite tight. We should never forget that we came a long way, and I can personally say that I feel to be in a very privileged situation. Also, I am in a very powerful situation, there are no mincing words there. To this end, it should be ok that there are some underlying mechanisms that control our power. However, there are definitely parts of the management that need changing. After Utilitarianism widely failed due to the rightful complaints of minorities the protection of smaller groups now often outweighs the needs of the many, yet this protection of minorities is of the most utmost importance, and should be. Consequently, we need time and patience, because there is no doubt that the rights of minorities need to be protected. All this is directly related to the management of constructed institutions. In my experience, we need to be open and clear in our communication, yet always consider why certain people in the administration enforce specific rules, and how this helps and protects people.
Research: Leuphana University is a tremendous place, I think. We have some truly inspiring research happening, and it is among the duties of the dean to aid the creation of a coherent and bold research narrative. This is really fun, since it is a true team effort. There are so many inspiring and fascinating researchers at our Faculty and university and beyond, and it is very nice to be one of the central hubs in this structure. I surely still have my own interests and research (I hope), but creating ties between an array of people is challenging yet fun. What I think is even more fascinating is the mode we can have as a dynamic and thriving Faculty. Whenever a new research call comes in, we are prepared, and as a team can consider the best options to approach a potential project. In addition, we build on a tremendous experience from the wider University, especially from the leaders of the University.
2022 revisit: Having an overview concerning the research happening at the Faculty is essential in order to tell the story of the Faculty. This is a tremendous challenge in a Faculty of Sustainability, where you have many diverse backgrounds focussing on different aspects of research. While this is on the one hand a challenge, it is naturally also an opportunity. Research collaboration in such a diverse place needs to build on a higher level of integration as well as trust. At the Faculty level, broad coherence is the biggest obstacle. You need a coherent recognition in terms of research in order to work in a joined direction. Much good if not excellent research is built on joined experience, which is basically researchers collaborating together and learning from each other. This is a bigger struggle if the backgrounds are more diverse. What is more, having different goals is a huge barrier. Imagine someone is strongly focused on English peer-reviewed publications, while another researcher only publishes books? How can these two collaborate, do they write both, or each their individual publications? Working towards joined goals is one of the biggest obstacles to gain coherence. In an interdisciplinary setting, and with a transdisciplinary ambition, the trade-offs can be huge, hence it is best to have an early joined reflection on the goals within a research project. What is more, in my experience it is best to work within larger collaborative research projects, because this gives you a good level of experience on where the other people are standing.
Teaching: The reason why I started at Leuphana, to begin with, was that a position with teaching seemed more attractive as compared to a pure research position. Still, teaching seems somewhat to play a smaller role in today’s academia. I think this is wrong, and as the dean I can often add to the discussion and strategic planning of the teaching program. Just as with research, we have a great portfolio of people, and designing and improving such cutting-edge programs (no kidding) as ours is surely fun. Also, the exchange with the student representatives as a dean is a real pleasure, as you get great feedback that you can implement. Most importantly, sustainability is a surely dynamic field, and parts of our programs are more than dynamic. What is tricky though is quality. Before I always said that I want to forget all bad info on specific courses and lectures. Now I have to implement this, and this is surely a continuous process. What to do with mediocre teaching? I myself have a course that just has not ripened into a digestible form (yet!). This takes time and clear strategic planning. Being the dean is also to work with people on a longer time scale, and build trust. This can lead to lasting and sustainable change, at least this is my current hypothesis.
2022 revisit: Teaching is often one of the most underestimated building blocks of academia. Many admirable researchers I know told me that things started moving in their heads in a more constructive direction as soon as they had to explain their research -or research in general- to others. Teaching how to become a scientist creates a deeper level of reflection that cannot be replaced by anything else, I believe. I know teaching is not for everybody, and that is ok. Different people have different focal points. However, for me it is unimaginable how to test new thoughts other than through my teaching. If I am able to explain a new thought to students, then I know I am onto something. This works in both directions. If I fail to explain something, then I guess the thought is not there yet. Teaching at a non-normal University is so great just because it is at the leading edge of research, but this is also constantly leaking into the study programs. It is admirable how many of my colleagues are using their own research as example cases in their teaching. We came a long way from academic teachers using decades-old material, which is how I was sometimes educated. Yet I had also many teachers that were entertaining us students with their latest thoughts and thus transported our learning through their excitement. One cannot overestimate the responsibility of a teacher, because many people look at you for learning and often guidance, and sometimes nothing short of inspiration. I believe teaching future scientists is the biggest honour one can have.
The team: The greatest part of being the dean is being a team. There are typically several vice deans, one on teaching, and one on research. In addition, there is the former dean, who is now designated advisor to the president on sustainability. The four of us make a surely great team. What I like best is the speed of our communication. Our telephone calls, meetings, slack chats and whatever mean of communication we use are among the densest I ever participated in. All this really brought teamwork for me to the next level.
2022 revisit:Team constellations may change over time, yet the most important thing is that all functions are still covered. While it is definitely better to work in a team with a high redundancy in case of emergencies, this is often not possible. In my experience, within a good team you have a smaller part of overlap and a larger part of individual work. You need to exchange about the important points, and you need to be able to anticipate the decisions the others might take, and be able to explain why you deviate from their anticipated decision. However, within a good team my experience is that most decisions are coherent or at least understandable for everyone. It would not be feasible to have this cohesion for all decisions, yet I believe it can be achieved. This is again a matter of trust. In a good team -and I had the privilege to work within incredible teams- you learn to trust others and hence have the possibility to lay much of the work in their hands. However, never forget, that it is ultimately your responsibility if something does not work out. Pragmatically, I can surely say that this hardly ever happened. In this case, you need to step up and say that you should have seen it coming, or that no one could have seen this coming. It does not help to blame others for mistakes that were within the realm of your leadership. These days we often speak about people of power and their privilege. Acknowledging responsibility is one of these privileges, especially when things went wrong. Naturally, this is easier said than done, yet we may be able to thrive towards it.
Creating a vision
The dean tries to jointly create a vision for the Faculty. Integrating the different ideas of professors and other Faculty, as well as our colleagues both within and outside of Leuphana demands recognition of the bigger picture, as well as being able to compromise. Please help the dean to create this vision.
Since half a year I am the dean. Building on books I read about academic deans and my own observation, I reflected from the very start on how to create a joined vision. We are a Faculty of more than 250 people, with more than 30 professors. We are diverse. We have sustainability as a joined goal. Naturally, we have different ideas, strategies and approaches to academia. I see this as our joined strength. We are also linked within the University, and also to colleagues outside of Leuphana. What are now the key steps to create a vision? Is it even possible to create a vision? Our former chancellor Helmut Schmidt famously claimed that “he who has vision should go see a doctor”. While it is true that we should not waste our resources thriving for some unachievable vision, I think one key aspect of vision is to push beyond our imagination, regardless of initial limitations. To achieve this, recognition of diversity is pivotal. By combining different entities, such as knowledge domains, methods, approaches, frameworks etc. may enable us to create something novel. This demands a proper setting, enabling exchange and multiplication of the different Faculty. Surely this poses a key challenge, as it requires initial investments and lots of diplomacy. This is one of the key goals of me being the dean. Bringing together diversity and excellence is a great challenge, but it is also very rewarding. The group of people at the Faculty is not only diverse but also large. Diplomacy and efficiency in creating exchange is one of my key goals. However, creating linkages demands knowledge and insight. This can be knowledge of the rest of the Faculty, but also includes knowledge of people outside of the Faculty. One key goal of the dean is then to try and integrate all these different types of knowledge. Creating a coherent and novel picture out of this knowledge is then -potentially- a vision. Here, another vital step is necessary to be noted. Creating a vision should not be restricted to foresight. While it is vital to envision potential future trajectories, I consider it even more important to understand a goal -even a soft goal- that you want to target. We need to create visions not only by foresight, but also by a clear and bold anticipation of what we want to achieve. Therefore, the dean needs to be able to communicate this vision and make it a participatory exercise of the Faculty, university and other players. I am glad to help integrate this vision out of the coherent canon of knowledge and goals that unites us all.'
2022 revisit: Humans life through storytelling. Being able to transport a story about the Faculty is certainly a challenge, but also a really good practice. Therefore, everybody needs to have a keen eye on what the others are doing, first and foremost the dean. Being in a Faculty of Sustainability can be overwhelming, but also fantastic. Often discussions resolve about disciplines, identities and origin stories. It reminds me a bit of the discussion of the different schools in Buddhism, where many claim to have the true, original or best way of the Dharma. Indeed there are many perspectives and ways which can lead to enlightenment, and sustainability is to me yet another contribution to this. Negotiating between the different fractions is often an absurd act, and nothing short of funny at more than one time. I remember several times that I would meet one colleague from the natural science complaining that the colleague is ok if the Faculty is only doing social science in the future, and if this is the way it is, so be it. Literally, the next colleague scheduled for a meeting was from social science and said that now this very colleague is ok if we only do natural science from now on, but at least we should be honest about it. I wish both could have seen each other, yet this is sometimes only the privilege of the dean. Hence creating a vision is often a form of integration of diverse views, and the daring act of alienating no one. During my time as a dean I tried to be as open and transparent about all these views as I could be under the given circumstances that sometimes demand confidentiality. I had the experience that creating a vision means first and foremost being coherent. To this end, it is less important that everybody understands your vision, but that they at least face a familiar narrative that they can anticipate. Having a vision is more important than convincing every last person. This is not because I would not have loved to confine each and every single person and honor their viewpoint. However, I believe that in a constructed institution this is impossible, for two reasons at least. First, for the time being, each and every single constructed institution suffers from limited resources. Thoughts on how to allocate these resources differ often, since most people only know the viewpoint of the specific institute, but not always of the whole Faculty. The second challenge is that some people just question decisions at random. In academia, you have sometimes such characters that question maybe not everything, but almost everything. If you trigger such a person, I do not know how to convince this colleague that you only have the best intention. They may question you no matter what. Ignorance and greed are old news in the struggle of human existence, yet they also pose a threat to a united vision, and clear communication and coherence are the best antidote, but will not cure all.
Acting fast and slow
The dean is action-orientated. Solutions are key to the dean. While exploring solutions may take time, we need to focus on how we reach a goal best. This demands a sensible measure and a transparent procedure, and a clear recognition of futile tasks.
Universities are just as any form of organisation built on the constant exchange between people that are goal orientated, and people that are process orientated. While certain diligence is key in creating solutions, many processes are endless, depending on the people involved. Therefore, it is key for me to find the right balance between these two extremes, the sheer endless maelstrom of admin trying to eat our time, and the head in the cloud professor who "just wants to work”. I feel for both groups. I think we have to learn where our strengths are (mine is not in filling out forms), and have to cope with our weaknesses (again I am weak at filling out forms). While this is trivial fortune cookie wisdom, much of the frictions we have in daily academia are still rooted in this simple fact. I think it is very easy to process a problem endlessly, while it is quite hard to make the first step towards a solution. On the other hand, it is clear that creativity needs time, and also needs repeated failure. Well, maybe it does not need failure, but it may certainly build on it. I might now continue telling you how we need speed, or creativity, or creativity, or speed. I have however a different take on this. I think engaging in action orientation takes experience, yet also depends on your mindset. Let's start with the latter - the mindset. I think while some people seem to be born for reflection, some others are born for action. Some people seem to tick more top-down, while others are more bottom-up. Where these two mechanisms clash, there is often tension, yet also moving forward. Experience is more tricky. I think people tend to become more effective over time, building experience. This is very helpful, yet can also create disharmony between experienced and inexperienced people. When people become very experienced, they seem to accumulate knowledge on such an epic scale, that they create action almost by reflex. This is actually the time when it is most pleasant to be the dean. Working with these fast-thinkers is an extreme privilege and a great pleasure. I learn a lot and hope to become more efficient myself. I can highly recommend to lower ranks to observe experienced thinkers and build enough trust in themselves to just observe how these fast tinkers create action. To me, this is one of the core levers in how we can move academia forward. Let’s build experience to empower fast thinkers, or at least let’s try to learn how we can create action.'
2022 revisit: Changing institutions takes time. Due to the limited resources, we have in institutions we are often in a stalemate between development and the machine trying to prevent all progress. Academic institutions can feel like a Rube Goldberg machine at times. I can only extrapolate from our institution that a mere 99% of our colleagues only have the best intentions. I am actually very grateful for how much our colleagues in administration try to help us all the time, and mostly do not get the gratitude they deserve. The same holds true for the collaboration between the deans office and the presidential floor. These colleagues are to me the unsung heroes that despite all hardships try to evolve the institution further. And then there is the office of the dean. It is these colleagues that a dean owes the most. The solutions that these close colleagues created over my six years as a dean are the biggest workload I have ever seen evolving. Leading a Faculty is like steering a huge ship; without such a team like the one we have, everything would be futile. There is a lesson learned here because in order to have such a team move mountains I believe you have to trust the team. Equally with the presidential floor of the administration, if you suspect failure or mischief, this is probably what you are also going to find. This does not mean it's literally there since it is you who sees it, but it may not have been the intention. Yet there is a flip side, and I learned this during the pandemic. At the very beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of wrong assumptions and often naive actions that led to danger and challenges. Sometimes being the dean then means to take the responsibility and create action even if people are unhappy with your decision at the time. Leading institutions does not always mean that you have to win a prize for the most beloved leader, quite the opposite. I was facing severe backlashes and completely baffled colleagues at times, yet I can clearly say that I stand by my actions also in retrospect. I hope that some of the colleagues remember, not because this is about right or wrong -it is not- but just that people understand that it was not about them or me, but about the right action, and protecting others. Being a person of power can mean that you are sometimes very much alone in your decisions, yet this may not make some decisions less right.
Transparency and communication
The dean believes that transparency and communication are key in our daily interaction. Therefore, the dean does not want to tolerate power relations and violent communication. Academia just as any other branch of society is often still hampered by the lack of non-violent communication. Hierarchy should be about taking decisions and responsibility, not about dominating others. I believe all live is precious, and violence is futile.
One could assume that administration processes would sooner or later reach some sort of equilibrium, where all processes and information flows were optimal to make the system flow best. Unfortunately, this assumption is in my experience wrong. Instead, it seems we miss most of the important information quite often. This is what administration should be all about: getting information where it is needed the most. Administration should mostly be about matching supply and demand of information. In my experience, much frustration in larger organizations originates in people not knowing the relevant piece of information, often through some flaws in the system. It could be worse, for instance when information is actively hidden. Some people might think they can manage a system best by not providing the relevant information to the people who might benefit from it. This is often a question of hierarchy and power. I believe that transparency works best in these cases. Hiding information can be seen as a form of violence. Having power over information can make you in fact superior, and consequently makes others inferior. Hierarchies are part of the way that many systems and organizations work. Yet should these entitle us to monopolize information? I think we might conclude that as long as legal issues are not violated, we might opt for transparency. This argument might not convince all-powerful people, but the truth will come out eventually, in my experience. Will the truth make us free? Hm. Sometimes. But it can also burden us. Some people are indeed very much burdened by the truth. Should we then decide to hide the truth from these burdened individuals? I think not. We should not make others less free, is what I hypothesize to be true. However, I did not start by talking about the truth. I started talking about information. Information could be neutral. Truth is not. Truth may instead be normative, many might argue. Imagine Case #1: The all-powerful professor. A professor knows the solution to a problem. The solution is knowledge of certain information. The professor does not want to reveal this information. Hence the problem cannot be solved. Obviously, this act is wrong. Imagine Case #2: The cluttered assistant. The information to solve a problem exists but was misplaced. Should we judge the cluttered assistant who misplaced it as less strong compared to the powerful professor? Probably not. The harm was not inflicted intentionally. Yet it represents a problem as we still cannot approximate a solution. Imagine Case #3: The transparent secretary. A secretary knows all solutions and can tell you all solutions, even when you only ask for a specific one. This influx of information makes you miss the important solution. The problem remains unsolved. Is this better or worse than case 1 or case 2? After all, no one solved the case. All cases are realistic. Indeed, I can say they are very realistic. However, the person inflicting power over others (=the professor) would be ranked by many as the least moral character, and it is certainly the person with the highest privilege. The problem with power relations and communication is that we often confuse these three cases. We think someone has power over us, or that the person with the solution is simply cluttered. Or we avoid a person that has the solution because we cannot understand what the person says or do not have the time to listen to all answers. In other words, I think that many of these problems are a reflection of us. The way we approach people might directly reflect back on us. Hence if we approach and judge these situations will make a true difference. As long as we are open and positive, and show our respect for a person’s work, and make sure that we highlight that we are willing to jointly approximate a solution, we may solve these challenges better, I think.
2022 revisit: There exists information in the head of a dean that is confidential, and if such information was shared with this ignitions then it has to stay confidential. However, this is very rare. Instead, information usually travels fast in constructed institutions. You can catch almost all information as it happens, and much can be anticipated once you know the respective people that are involved. Yet most people have a limited understanding of the system. This creates very negative emotions in many people. I feel that in constructed institutions this naive ignorance is the greatest root of suffering. Therefore, being the dean means to often come back to and share information that is long known to you. Also, it may not be enough to simply share the information, but instead, you have to reveal it like a magic trick. Different people understand different information in different ways. Quite often people think they had a great idea when they actually understood the idea of somebody else. The negative assumptions about institutions still prevail. People speak of backroom hush-hush debates, clandestine deals and secret circles. It is almost ridiculous that in almost all cases they are completely wrong, and lost in some weird conspiracy scheme that tells more about their trust in themselves and others than about their willingness to understand the system. I think that most information is readily available and quite accessible. You just need to invest the time to get it and connect the dots. Yet people have singular information and extrapolate to the whole network based on their imperfect understanding of the net of information. This makes transparency a challenge, as it is often about the imperfect understanding of individuals. To me, this is quite sad. I wish I could explain better why I believe that all is good, or at least almost all and everybody. Sometimes people are misguided, yes. And there is still the rare breed of people wanting power. Still, most people I met have altruistic intentions, or at least they believe they have good intentions. Who would get up in the morning and say "today I will be all evil"? Hence if I can give one piece of advice: Ask people about their aims and intentions. It is our own imperfections and impatience that hamper transparency. Now more than ever, we need to invest time to communicate, exchange and learn from each other. I have no better way how to explain this, I only know that it took me a long time to understand this. However, I am sure that I had this time.
Leadership and vision
The dean integrates processes and moves the vision of the Faculty forward. While this demands leadership, it, more importantly, demands hierarchical planning. Even if some tasks are moved forward by the dean, the whole Faculty needs to stand up to the role to move the Faculty forward, since we all are the Faculty.
The dean integrates processes and moves the vision of the Faculty forward. This demands leadership and, even more importantly, it demands hierarchical planning. While some tasks are moved forward by the dean, the whole Faculty needs to stand up to the role to move the Faculty forward, since we all are the Faculty. Now wait a minute. Just in #4, I talked about how transparency is key, and now I talk about hierarchy? Is this not a contradiction? Well, I think not. Let's see. First of all, the dean reports and collaborates with the president and his team. Hence the system of Universities has a constructed hierarchy that is long-standing and well-established. A lot of information flows in this system, and not all information can be known by all. Hence a hierarchical system demands that not all information flows towards the top. Coming to think of it, this gives lower parts of the hierarchy actually more possibility for action, which I think is a good thing. A hierarchy does to me not only focus on the top but enables also the broader basis. So far so good. Why are the higher levels now labelled as leaders by me? This is first and foremost because of the necessity to take responsibility. I consider leaders to be simply people who do not only act but also provide feedback on whether a certain line of action by people lower in the hierarchy of the system is ok. By doing this, a leader takes responsibility for their actions. These decisions can be often controversial, and sometimes even wrong. Yet inaction is not an option for most challenges. Many people want to be leaders, yet at their heart, they would need to ask themselves whether they can take responsibility and live with the consequences. I can for instance say that I was often wrong as a leader, and can only hope that my decisions were more often for the better than for the worse. Personally, I stand by my actions. I believe that a system becomes problematic when people fail to or cannot stand by their decisions, or cannot even take the necessary decisions. While this may seem trivial, it is certainly not rare. Another thought raised, in the beginning, is vision. As Helmut Schmidt famously said, whoever has visions should go see a doctor. This reflects his partly admirable stoic logic, yet I think that a certain vision of the bigger picture can be helpful as a goal and motivator. Often this is controversial since some people typically cannot identify with any vision, hence visions are prone to random critique. Still, I believe visions can reflect the focus on the main challenges, which can be helpful in hierarchical systems. The last point that I raised was about the contribution of all to help the Faculty. Most faculties show a Pareto distribution when it comes to contribution to the greater good, where 80% of the work for the Faculty is made by 20% of the people. I can understand this. People have different goals, and not all have the same goals as the dean. Some focus on their individual research, which they consider most important. I could now at length discuss the reasons for doing one or the other, thereby pitching self-interest vs. altruistic motives. I think this dimension is too complex to be answered here, if at all. However, if we stick to the empirical fact that few people shoulder most work in the Faculty, the core question is if we want to change this. Being the dean, I think our Faculty is much better than most Faculties I know, with the workload resting on more shoulders than average. Yet there is room for improvement. Instead of losing myself now in arguments on why you should contribute to your institution, I simply reduce my argument to the question: “What would be your gain if you contribute?” If I get you to reflect upon this question, I think we are one step further.
2022 revisit: Hierarchical planning and mechanisms may sound almost like a contradiction to the previous points, yet the last thing any leader has is clearly time. Leadership within institutions is therefore often still who can achieve the most with the least amount of time. While this is a sad reality, it is still a reality. We could solve this, I believe. If we would diminish hierarchies and build more on trust, then leaders would have more time which they could use more wisely. After all, we are still surrounded by institutions that demand hierarchies. Members of the ministry will want to meet presidents and deans, which they rightly perceive as the designated leaders of universities and faculties. Yet if more people would shoulder and share leadership within institutions then we would have a more integrated vision. I noted before that less and less people are willing to do this, and some may even only do this with the wrong intentions. I propose a radically different approach. Assuming that we acknowledge that leadership is still needed in a world of hierarchies, we should trust and support our leaders. Instead, I feel we often mistrust and amplify the workload. If we do not want to lead, we can at least support our leaders, after all, sharing is caring. Within our institutions, there is at least a lot of work to be shared. I believe only through that we can come to a truly shared vision. The people actively moving our institutions forwards are already all maxed out in terms of workload, yet there are many who are frustrated or even resigned. We can only rise above our current level if we integrate these people, yet our current visions only allow for a certain breed of people, a certain way of mechanisms how to conduct academia, and only for certain patterns how we evaluate academics. We somewhat became stuck in a certain direction and lost all track of diversity. Only if more people are integrated, we can have a shared vision, and increase our workload. Right now, most people still do now recognise that contributing to the long-term development is a work that may be cumbersome and sometimes futile, yet it is clearly worth it. Yet why should the many divisions we witness in society spare academia? Academia is riddled by divisions because it is a system that breads and builds upon strong identities. One colleague once put it exactly right, having 30 professors in a faculty is like herding cats. And then there are many other Faculty members to consider as well. I have no solution to offer here, but I am sure we need to radically redesign our constructs of leadership and vision, otherwise, we will be stuck in limited systems with much frustration. Strong hierarchies should be a thing of the past, yet it will take us a long way to learn how to integrate diverse perceptions for the greater good. Maybe sustainability science would be a great place to start such a line of thinking in academia? We are after all quite diverse and very normative indeed. Where could you have greater ambitions and knowledge to start such an endeavour?
There are committees in the Faculty and university that have the role to take decisions. Please consider whether the institution is served best if you approach the dean about a decision that the dean will not and can not decide on.
It is in the nature of the position of the dean to take an uncountable number of decisions every day. While much is purely day-to-day business, it is still a challenge how to act in a fair and just way, while also being compassionate. Personally, I think many of these decisions are not literally decisions, but actions that have a path dependency that is rooted in the possibilities and opinions of the Faculty. Ideally, everybody with an equal amount of knowledge and experience would come to the same conclusion. Most people are not in the position to combine the diversity of opinions as the dean tries to do. Through partial knowledge and not having relevant information people often come to different conclusions. On the other hand, no one can know everything, hence communication is key in order to approximate just and fair decisions. It is understandable that most people have a rather subjective perspective, just as I can hardly claim at all to be objective. I cannot be. And yet I will keep trying. The ethics of my actions are certainly not easy to depict. I think one should act rational, reasonable, and try to maximise the utility for all. Any single of these approaches alone is bound to fail. Yet by reflecting on each decision from all three sides I will try my best. My underlying ethical paradigm is that I try to help everybody if I can. While most decisions are -I think- path dependencies of the possibilities available, some will be controversial. The ideal future I can imagine for me personally is the one where I can stand by all my decisions.
2022 revisit: In my experience, it is good to act following some sort of a codex. While one would want to take all decisions on a case by case basis, this may create an incoherence down the road that creates huge perceptions of injustices. Showing compassion then becomes essential, because sadly, the rules within institutions can also change often only over a longer time. Then you have long debates on your hand about how things were possible in the past that are now not allowed anymore. To this end, I think it is central to verbalise why rules change and what you think about it, or even whether you tried to stop it. This is while a coherent and holistic code of conduct for yourself is of such immanent importance, yet one also needs to be able to understand when you are wrong and explain why this was the case. Since the dean ideally has the most knowledge about the Faculty you once more need to integrate this knowledge into clear guidelines. An example of such a guideline could be that all people follow the same rules. You cannot make an exception for one person, only if all people then do not need to follow the rule. Another example would be that you can ignore a rule if no damage will come from this. Now, this may feel like quite a stretch, but we are all aware of rules that are clear relics of a different time. I once heard of a rule at another university that you need to have your key on a keychain. Clearly, no one had their keys on a keychain. And then there can be rules where you trade time against damage control. If you need to check every contract you sign as a dean, then this is a lot of contracts that need checking. One could now say that you never ever check a contract of people that have a lot of funding and that what a contract signed that is below 5000 €. Effectively, through this conduct, you do not check about three-quarters of all contracts you ever sign. This saves a lot of work, and if something goes wrong, these folks anyway have enough funding to cover it through some other pot. Of course, I would have never followed such a silly rule, but if I would have, I would have found out that in six years no contract ever failed. Being fast in taking decisions is pivotal. During my tenure as a dean we often joked about blitz chess, and indeed many decisions do not only feel like this, but it is all also a bigger game with moves being connected, and a blunder at one point creates ripples down the road. This is the last argument for why you need a codex, simply you will not have the time for longer ethical reflections as it happens. Hence develop a codex on how to act early on, and try to adapt it. Lightning reactions must be carefully trained.
Being not corrupt
It is in the nature of the position of the dean that the dean cannot be corrupted. The dean will not yield to pressure or violence, and will despite his compassion not yield to negative emotion. I try to be the dean I want to see in the world.
I think that in all forms of constructed governance the danger of corruption is always there, as no one can always avoid being corrupt. What does it mean to me to be corrupt? I think whenever you misuse your power to gain a benefit for yourself or someone else close to you, you are corrupt. Consequently, no one would claim to be corrupt. All people would argue that they only had the best intentions, or were even true altruists. Following this thought, can we truly judge whether we have been corrupt? I think not, at least not if we are personally involved in the matter. Others need to be the judge, and these people need to be independent and as objective as possible. In a world that is interdependent, this is hard to achieve. However, I think this is what we have governance systems for, and there need to be institutions within these systems that can judge whether a certain act or decision might be seen as corrupt. Still, it does not end there. If corruption is the benefit certain people claim, then corruption is also about the negative and biased effects one can have on other people. I think that in any case of doubt a potential bias needs to be checked. I dare say that I have been observing corruption in the past, and often it is a quite slippery slope. I grew up with it, hence I know it when I see it. This is why I often insist on checking whether actions are corrupt or not. Still, I also know that some people consider some of my actions to be corrupt, though I dare say these are not many. I am aware that people sometimes perceive reality in this way, also since we all may have different perceptions of reality. Often, this different perception is rooted in a lack of information, which is typical in hierarchical systems, and communication may resolve the issue. Nevertheless, in rare cases opinions can differ. I think on these occasions it can be hard to convince people of my perception of reality. It may not work, and may not be possible. Sometimes, when people think you act wrong, it is very hard to make them understand that you act right. In these cases, I think it is best to try to continue to act right, or at least not corrupted. Long term, the person might reconsider, and only time will tell whether some truths may be reflected in a different light in the future.
2022 revisit: Power corrupts. This insight should be the guiding principle for anyone holding an office. There is no way how the human mind cannot be compromised by power because it is this taking of the office that leads to one's own mind being corrupted. This corruption can only be broken by knowing that there is this corruption on the one end, and by everybody else having full trust in their elected leaders. However, such philosopher-kings are not only a rare breed but also more of a ghost of the past than something we should thrive for. Still, I have the greatest respect for all leaders in this world, because their critics may never know how lonely the office can make a person. Yet these are all lofty goals, and the reality is often worse. Many people try to compromise the integrity of the system, as they are corrupt themselves, and try to bribe or otherwise compromise elected leaders. This is a bad action indeed, and a direct attack on the whole system. Some people do this for their own good, some for their respective group of people, yet I believe all these are deceived. Again, no one gets up and decides to act in an evil way. Just as only everybody can liberate themselves, people also corrupt themselves. A dean or any other leader needs to be aware of that, and make these misdeeds transparent. After all, this is the only way to face a wrong action, by making the actor aware of your perception, thereby rejecting it. Even if these people then disagree with you, you may have to move on. Just as I mentioned before, I still believe that often you cannot convince people that you believe that your action is right, and that they are wrong. This is perfectly alright. We cannot convince everybody of everything, and this is again a hard lesson learned for me. Some people seem to have no other goal than to corrupt the system, and they do this proudly. While we may never understand why these people do that, they often have a regrettable existence, because these are the most lonely ones. They cannot even fall back on power, because the only power they have is to question the power of others, yet everybody else may become increasingly annoyed by this. If we continue to ridicule ourselves by these power games, we will continue to be wasteful and not worthy of understanding each other. Therefore leaders sometimes need to lead the way, yet not all may follow. Systems are often governed by majorities, and not by everybody agreeing. While this is a trivial detail of democracy, it is still a lesson learned. Making sure that all voices are heard is the most important conduct one has to safeguard.
Representing the Faculty
The dean is a representative of the Faculty. The dean is glad to represent the Faculty, however, due to his role being focussed on a wide array of tasks please realise that the dean cannot stay for longer time stretches at all events where he is representing the Faculty. The dean often has to leave for other tasks.
It is a large honour to represent the Faculty as a dean. While honour is hard to quantify, I am constantly aware that currently, I am there for the Faculty, whenever a face, a speech or a welcoming is needed. Knowing as much as possible about the Faculty's facts, all the while having these lined up in a nice canvas of stories and anecdotes is essential to connect to others and explain the Faculty to them. In my case, I am very glad that this honour is shared among other people, hence I am currently focussing on representing the Faculty within Leuphana. Representing the Faculty has to be balanced, for at least two reasons. First, there is a high number of requests, asking for you - or better the Faculty- to be represented somewhere. Here one needs to focus, and only attend the ones which are most necessary and helpful to a high number of people. While the dean can welcome or integrate people or give a larger perspective, the dean certainly has also time constraints and cannot participate in time-intense activities that are relevant to a smaller circle of people. Where to draw this line, you ask? I do not know. This is the time when you can give the position your very own tone and style. I try to walk the fine line between diversity and utility. The second reason why representing the Faculty can get out of hand is the ego. It is not about you, it is about the office and the Faculty. When representing one should as much as possible step out of your own ego, since power enables, but also corrupts. This is again the point to realise how much power people associate with the office. However, I think this has next to nothing to do with me as a person. Another thing that is worth noticing is that some occasions are closer to my interest than others. Here, one should remember the bigger picture in balancing the Faculty. I sometimes wonder whether all time representing is well spent, even when I know I have to be there. On some occasions, the dean is a bit like a Jack-in-the-box, being put somewhere to represent. Still, I think that this is not only a necessity in constructed institutions but an honour. By now I enjoy these occasions, as there is always something to be learnt. When being a dean, you have to be the Jack-in-the-box you want to see in the world and make this role come to life. Evolve your style, and try to become good at it. The constructed function of the dean demands you to serve in this role.
2022 revisit: Many people consider representational work to be a charade, yet we should remember it is an honour. A dean represents the whole faculty, which is quite a burden, but also a great responsibility. This highlights once more the importance to have a code of conduct and be transparent about it. In addition, you need to be able to integrate the diverse aspects of the different people in the Faculty and use the most suitable information at the respective moment. Often this is closely associated to diplomacy, because you need to anticipate your audience. To this end, it is vital to find your own voice and to generate a bag of narratives that you can use at the respective appropriate time. This is almost like a small repertoire of magic tricks that you need to rehearse and practise. Me, I build several narratives that worked over time, and thus you can adapt more and more to the context of any given situation. Still, while much can be improvised, preparation is key. Ideally, you pre-prepare a short script which you then if possible adapt to the atmosphere of the room shortly before your presentation. I always tune into the room and try to feel the vibes, but also to build on information that was shared before. What I still consider to be most important is to make all representation work about the office, and not about your own interests. All professors can surely talk a lot about their own focus, but the challenge in representing the Faculty is to be impartial in your work. While this is a great idea in theory and in practice probably impossible, I believe still one needs to thrive for it. Nothing devalues an office more than the respective leader misusing their power for their own good. However, this principle can also be trouble in the other direction. Very often when you need to represent the Faculty as a dean, many people assume that after a welcome speech you can just stay for the whole day because everything is so exciting and interesting. This is indeed a very naive assumption, since the daily schedule of a dean may hold well more than a dozen appointments and schedules meetings. During peak times, this may easily double, plus additional phone calls and constant chat communication. Hence it is best to make clear from the beginning that you are glad to represent the Faculty, yet then have to leave for other duties. Some people may still be baffled, but most people appreciate clear communication. Always remember what an honour it is to meet so many people who are interested in the Faculty.
The Dean is a hub of information
The dean is a hub of information. Please bring everything you consider relevant for the Faculty to my attention. The dean will try and communicate information to the necessary people in order to approximate solutions.
I think that while knowing builds understanding, ignorance may breed suffering. Therefore, it is the role of the dean to bring information together to understand the Faculty best, and to explain the Faculty and all his decisions to others. Many people now wonder what best can actually mean. I think we can try to have the best knowledge at any given point in time, to base our decisions on. Things change, this is trivial. However, at some point in time, we should try to get all relevant information together. This is especially important to help others understand. In my experience, this is sadly not always possible. This wealth of information is needed to take especially controversial decisions. All people are biased by their own view of things. As the dean -hence as a head of a constructed institution- it is important to try to have a view on the diversity of opinions, and then look at all the checks and balances. However if people would know all the diversity of opinions and information about the Faculty, I think most decisions would neither be bold nor controversial. I like to think that most are mere path dependencies intermingled with innovations. And this is what I mean by best. All the diversity of information is often leading to several pathways, one of which is best. Many people criticise this best, but I am a true believer in Occam‘s razor (surprise!). However, within a constructed society, some information is also confidential. These secrets are necessary -often for legal reasons- or also since some people trust the dean with information they do not want to share with everybody. While I think that the smallest part of information I receive is confidential, it is very important to me that this information is a well-kept secret that can still be influential in my decisions. Funnily, many people also share confidential information with me that they also share with many others. While I still guard this information, it is amusing to hear confidential hush-hush information from many different sources. Anyway. If you want to understand something about the Faculty that is not confidential, I say ask the dean. He might know, or is glad to hear what he does not know, and will make efforts to improve his knowledge. Thank you for your contribution!
2022 revisit: The stream of information you need to integrate as a dean can be at times overwhelming, yet I can clearly say that integrating all the diverse information was one of the greatest learning points for me personally. The key about information as a dean is indeed diversity. There are many different forms of information. Some important, some maybe less so. Some very confidential, some best spread widely. Yet most important, there is a strong information monopole, where much information arrives at the dean, but also much more information needs to find its way back to the Faculty. Explaining is a key trade as a dean, and often people want to somewhat connect the dots themselves. Hence spreading information while allowing people to gain deeper insights into the connection of information is a key goal for a dean, I think. Perfecting patience is a virtue not to be taken lightly, because once you start to see patterns much information can be indeed anticipated. Warning people about immanent problems might feel difficult if all people believe that your assessment is wrong. This is yet another point concerning information, I feel the office is served best once you reached a stage where not a lot of information is able to surprise you. This was for me a certain feeling of safety, because this was when I understood how reliable the system actually is. It works mostly like a clock, with clear precision and mechanism that can indeed be understood. The last point I would like to share when it comes to information is confidentiality. Never break a vow of confidentiality unless the information is spread from somewhere else. What was given to you in confidence stays in confidence. Only if the information starts dripping through other channels, you can start spreading the information elsewhere. To this end, it is however highly relevant that within the team of the deans office, even such information needs to be shared if preparations need to be done to deal with changes. I had a very good experience with the team being well able to deal with different levels of confidentiality. Alas, information travels fast in any constructed institution. Usually one does not need to worry about this, because it seems that spreading confidential information is a key human trait. Still, within our deans team we were always very clear and explicit about which information stays within our meetings, and which can travel far and wide. I had equally good experiences with the presidential floor and other people of power in our institution. Outsiders often assume backroom agendas and restriction of information as a means of power, yet I can say with confidence that this is hardly ever a fact of reality. Instead, I believe that all leaders I know are confident where it is needed, yet open-minded and willing to share information if this is helpful. I am indeed impressed by how well the spread of information works at our institution.
How to feel about being the dean
I am grateful to be the dean.
Oh, how glad I am to be the dean. Being the dean is the greatest honour of my work life. To me, the position is not about power, but about trust. The Faculty trusts me to do my work best. I am so happy for this trust, as it brings me to the current setting closest to my main goal in life, which is helping others. Being responsible for 1000 students, some 150 Faculty staff, some 140 PhDs and our about 28 professors -right now- is fantastic. Being the dean to me basically means opening a box of duct tape every morning and start wrapping duct tape around problems. In the evening the box is empty, and there is a box for the next day already waiting. Duct tape is very versatile, you see. The first Moon lander was mainly built out of duct tape. Duct tape holds things together, blocks leaks, seals surfaces, it can soundproof, it is fantastic stuff. WD40 helps as well. And a hammer comes in handy at times. Every day the office holds something new, this is what I learned early on. Indeed, this office is the best learning opportunity ever. This is also due to the splendid team in the deans office, who catch problems to solve them really swiftly. These people are a constant influx of the most versatile solutions and approaches, that they never cease to amaze me, what a great team! Hence the core of the office for me is not about giving, it is instead a non-stopping flow of learning opportunities. In private life the greatest honour to me was becoming and being the father of my children, as I also learn so much from them. But as a dean the learning is -almost- equally amazing. However, with the office as a dean there are many constructed roles and traditional expectations. It is so great to learn these, and at times to change these. The role of the dean in general needs to shift from a role of power to a role of trust, I think. I saw many deans -also at Leuphana- being on this very same track. Being a dean you are the head of a completely constructed institution, an institution that is made by people. Hence I see the position as an opportunity to change the institution of the dean, and also to change the institution per se through this. This is the most wonderful thing about this office - it is all about driving change. I am so glad to be the dean. I thank you so much for this opportunity!
2022 revisit: Being the dean was the greatest honour of my life, with the only exception of being the father of my children. The learning experience of being the dean can not be overstated. I learned so much about institutions, other people, but first and foremost about myself. I was glad to serve the Faculty and the University. Staying calm under stress is one of the biggest lessons learned out of the office, and a lesson indeed learned several times through failure. I count five occasions. Learning to act under pressure and to remain calm in front of violence is yet another key take-home message. Integrating diversity and thriving to minimise injustices coherently is yet another challenge. While I cannot claim that I did not fail regularly considering all these deeds, I would have never thought that my thinking on these terms would have gotten ever that far, and hopefully also some of my actions. Yet the best thing was working in a team, with my fellow deans, the whole dean team, the presidential floor, and basically the whole university, and beyond. I believe that often I was trusted, but more importantly, I trusted other people. This is the greatest achievement one can have in any constructed institution, and I will always look back at my six years as a dean with the fondness of being trusted, and having trusted other people.
The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.