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Mistress of Vice

As Erin wrote last week, by mid-June most academics are settling into a slower tempo, working at the pace for reading, writing, and contemplation. I, on the other hand, am ramping up to a July 1 start date for my new role as Vice Dean of Arts at the University of Alberta.

What does that mean? I wish I knew. The position is relatively new to universities, and it means different things in different contexts. I like to think of it as the Leo McGarry position, though I’d be content to be half the strategic thinker he is. With the responsibilities of a dean being largely external (60% of a Dean’s job at the UofA is external), the Vice Dean often minds the shop, overseeing hiring and retention and programming. In our case, the Vice Dean is also in charge of space, consults closely on budget, and will coordinate international strategy and interdisciplinarity, as well as technology and innovation. You fill in for other associate deans (at the moment, I’m effectively AD Research, AD Teaching and Learning, and AD Grad, since there is a gap between people) and help sort out sticky HR situations. You push email, sprint from meeting to meeting, and respond to requests for information from – well, all over, from what I can see – while maintaining your supervisions, cranking out some research, and building the careers of those around you. Oh, and you don’t get to teach.

I know what you’re thinking, because I’m wondering the same thing: what on earth would compel anyone to take on such a role? Well, for one thing, I’m nosy. I like to know what’s going on with people, with departments, with institutions. For another, I’m bossy. (Yeah, I was that six year old.) I’ve always wanted a job with “Vice” in the title – ideally Mistress of Vice, but Vice Dean will do. And evidently I just can’t shake my career-long attraction to the intellectual question of how to make complicated institutions work better.

I will continue blogging here at Hook & Eye, though as I explained to my co-bloggers, the wonderful Aimee and Erin, there may be times where it simply isn’t possible. I don’t know, either, how freely I’ll be able to speak. That’s something I’ll have to feel my way through. But because I care about this blog and its readers – you! – and because it might prove useful to record what it’s like to learn a job like this, I want to keep my oar in.

So what’s it like to learn a job like this? Scary. Prone to anxiety in general, particularly anticipatory anxiety, I am definitely getting my fill of things to worry about. There is just so much I’ve never done; like most professors, I feel junior even though I’ve been in the game a long time now. How do you hire colleagues, from job ad to signed contract? How do you write effectively to the government? How do you think through a new process in a way that’s fair and expeditious? What if there is a dark side, and I’m on it? Whose emails do I answer first, and how promptly? How many and which errors are forgivable? What can I let go of? Where are the files on our subvention process, what are the terms of reference for this group I’m now chairing, and when is it okay (with me) to cancel a meeting with a student/friend/colleague? Will I lose my friends? Will my colleagues still respect me? Will they like me? – understand me, my job, the things I have to do? How much sleeve-tugging can you do before you’re simply an annoyance? How do you learn all of these things at the same time, and still stay on top of email? And would I worry about any of this if I wasn’t so conventionally gendered?

I will keep you posted.

10 thoughts on “Mistress of Vice

  1. I agree with Lee: you'll be awesome. And I'm watching you very carefully, because I have exactly the same personality type (terminal nosiness, a desire to see behind the scenes, a zeal for making things more efficient) and I fear I may one day administer … something.

    Thank you for exploring what it means to be a Vice-Dean, and in public.

    (A first, loaded, question: so, the Dean is the guy who gets to go out in public, and the Vice Dean is the one keeping things operational on the home front? Is the Vice Dean the wife of the Dean?)

    (A first, loaded, statement: is it wrong that, personally, I find the tasks associated with Vice Deaning more interesting than those of the Dean?)


  2. Wow.

    Heather, you so inspire me. I look forward to hearing your opinions on the position (those you can share, of course) and I wish you much luck in your endeavors as Vice Dean. Have a lovely summer!


  3. Thanks, friends.

    Years ago I did some leadership development in Banff, which included a ropes course. What we learned is that there is a syntax to doing dangerous work. The climber says, “Climbing,” and those holding the ropes say, “Climb on.” If you don't have that conversation, you don't have any business scaling mountains. It's the only way you know you're safe.

    So in the spirit of that exchange: “Climbing!”


  4. Can you talk a little about the not teaching, and how you think that will work with administrating. congrats and all that, but im curious about the tension.


  5. @Anthony: yeah, good question. Not sure I'll answer it but here goes. You can't teach and do this job, and the reason for that is that the schedule isn't regular enough. It's impossible, in this day and age, to say to the President (e.g.), “Sorry, I teach English 224 at that time. Could we meet an hour later?” And I can't live with a course made up of patched together guest lecturers and canceled office hours. It's just not fair to students.

    The personal tension? Harder. Last semester I made myself notice that 3:30 on Tuesdays – walking out of my undergrad class – was the happiest I was all week; 3:30 on Thursday was the tiredest I was all week. So it's mixed. I love teaching. It feeds me; it gives purpose to the work I do; it always makes sense as a job, even when I feel underprepared, underwhelmed, under the gun. But it will be there for me. I can always go back to it, or so I fancy.

    It's possible, in future years, that I'll be able to fit in a course here and there – a seminar that meets weekly, a night class, e.g. But I won't teach if I can't teach well.

    Is that what you meant? I don't think there's anything easy about it…


  6. Congratulations! Aimee, I prefer the Vice Dean as well — part of the reason is what I call face-time demands. The Dean position is external and requires a high level of face-time on evenings and weekends and often, international travel. If you have a life…a kid…a spouse…these demands are taxing.

    So glad to have you in this power position!!


  7. Having been a Deputy Head of Social Sciences (at a UK institution), I recognize a lot of your questions. If it is any consolation, the colleague I thought most likely to hate me (and to believe in a Dark Side, which I was now on) was a union activist. His response was “How interesting. Giving a management position to someone with aptitude for management.” You can hear the sarcastic tone but it was clearly aimed somewhere else. Made me relax a bit and just get on with doing that job. I loved it.


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