Top 9 Deans in U.S. Colleges and Universities

Managing higher education, in a nutshell, is a tough job. Hiring key personnel for the administration, designing academic programs, and working closely with provosts and the rest of the department leaders–deans oversee the entire operation of the system. They deserve more than a pat on the back for aiming to develop a better framework of a school of education. However, not everyone is aware of these complexities of the position. Sadly, deans don’t receive much recognition as doctors and lawyers do.

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Furthermore, the ambiguity and conflict of their roles contribute to the issues that come with the job. Characterized as diplomat, dragon, and dove, deans often fall in the position of liaising with the university leaders and managing the faculty and students. According to a study conducted, deans perform more than 160 different duties.

Deans perform different tasks and are categorized according to their areas of responsibility. Hiring professors and identifying which instructors are worthy of tenure are mainly the undertakings of faculty deans. On the other hand, student deans look after the students’ welfare, such as on-campus housing, student affairs, and other extracurricular activities. Every academic division or sometimes an entire college falls under the supervision of department deans. They go through coursework, educational programs, rules, and policies under their assigned departments.

Roles and Responsibilities

Primarily, they are the conveyors of the university’s vision and mediator of the staff, the deans’ responsibilities include communications, mentorship, management, and coordination. As communicators, they implement strategic objectives and disseminate them to the faculty throughout the campus and the general public. At times they are the face of the university in media-related events. Their interpersonal skills must be impeccable because they have to perform a series of appearances on televisions, on local papers, and radio interviews.

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Working closely with faculty, staff, and scholars, is under the jurisdiction of the dean’s mentorship role. In some cases, they become professors and handle multiple classes every semester. Moreover, deans ensure that student scholars are progressively moving towards their educational goals and get sufficient support from the institution. Dubbed as the faculty and staff’s confidants, assuring their subordinates receive adequate recognition and appreciation is part of their responsibilities.

Management and coordination roles go hand in hand. As leaders of the institute, they advocate for the college in budget planning, tactical projects, and political propositions. Also, they oversee the coordination of all university sectors, the scholastic programs, socio-civic events, and other initiatives. As participants of comprehensive discussions and decision making, deans have to view the entire scope of education and engage in continuous research about prestigious colleges and scholastic studies.

Challenges of the Job

The typical day of a dean is like putting out of fires both in and out of the university. Overseeing regular classes and research have been seamlessly conducted, is one thing; dealing with spur-of-the-moment emergencies every day is another thing. On top of that, as the university’s representative in the community, dealing with common issues such as tuition fee increases and fundraising is a real effort. Deans should be confident enough to take criticism and listen to the problems thrown at them. Building a reliable advisory board will make a huge difference. Ergo, being the face of the school, adds unwarranted pressure to the job.

Characteristics of a Successful Dean

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Nowadays, higher education is expecting the deans to be performing as academic entrepreneurs. Their roles have evolved, in which world-class institutes prefer deans to be heavily involved in fundraising, projecting P&L, and promoting the diversification of revenue channels. Ultimately, they must have business acumen, entrepreneurial perspective, and gleaming interpersonal skills.

Visionary and creative

The current academic leadership paradigm necessitates distinct attributes for the institution to maintain its excellence. Their capability to be visionary and creative is crucial to the success of the educational system. Consequently, they have the motivation to discover innovative revenue streams, facilitate fundraising, and stabilize the budget–simultaneously.

Cooperative and non-coforming

Furthermore, successful deans are surprisingly non-conforming and cooperative. Because of their massive role, the combination of both is vital to the organization. Their readiness to involve others in decision-making but more likely to adhere to their agenda and flexibility in rules and procedures are the requisites to survive the unique cultural context of higher education.

Relaxed and calm

Nevertheless, the traditional relaxed and calm persona is essential during hectic days at school. In a multifaceted collegiate institution, a proclivity for tranquility is a compelling asset to perform primary responsibilities, such as mitigating staff politics and encouraging harmonious relationships among the faculties. Their level-headedness in tackling pressing matters constitutes a considerable portion of their role as the head of the university.

Adaptable and sensitive

Public engagements and leading charity events form part of the civic responsibilities of the dean. Effective deans have mastered the art of balancing their sociability and sensitivity. Their perceptiveness is essential to develop relationships with students, faculties, and stakeholders. With a series of social engagements, deans should possess the skill to adapt to situations–from being the compassionate mentor to a gregarious leader in a fundraising affair.

In creating this list of the top deans in the country, we put the spotlight on the hardworking leaders in Ivy Leagues, private schools, public universities, and community colleges. Our aim is to present the academic leaderships of highly qualified professionals across all types of colleges and universities.

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Patricia Davidson, Ph.D., MEd, R.N., FAAN

1-Dean Patricia Davidson

Dean, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing

Patricia M. Davidson became the fourth dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. The Australian professor earned her education degree in 1985 and her MeD in education in 1993 at Wollongong University. She then received her doctorate in 2003 from the University of Newcastle.

Before earning her numerous accolades, she spent more than two decades as a frontline clinician and nurse manager. Eventually, she focused on research and teaching. Davidson used evidence-based teaching methods and devoted her time to developing advanced models of person-centered care delivery.

Her diverse practice expertise in cardiovascular science and the care of vulnerable communities led her to work at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia as a director of the Center for Cardiovascular and Chronic Care.

According to Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University and responsible for Davidson’s recommendation to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, she has the qualities of an award-winning scientist and educator. They can incredibly contribute to the future of healthcare and nursing. Daniels considers Davidson to be an “innovative dean and a formidable university citizen” because of her reputation as a builder and a doer.

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Camilla Persson Benbow, Ed.D.

2-Dean Camilla P. Benbow

Dean of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University

Camilla Persson Benbow, an education graduate of Johns Hopkins University, is the Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. As an educational psychologist, Benbow concentrated on the education of intellectually gifted young individuals. She is also interested in identifying effective teaching in STEM education that can develop intellectual talents. Benbow is also a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society.

Benbow’s leadership at the university has been the catalyst in the development of education degree programs that received numerous accolades from prestigious award-giving bodies. USA Today and StartClass highly recognized its early childhood education degree program.

In 2006-2012, she was active in different national and international organizations centered on math and science. She also earned various awards for her research studies. Her recent stint as co-chair of the Commission on Standards and Performance Reporting elevated the new accreditation standards for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

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Eileen Strempel*

3-Eileen Strempel

Inaugural Dean of UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music

Dr. Eileen Strempel currently serves as the Inaugural Dean of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Strempel relishes the joy of founding a “start-up company,” as the school is the first and only school of music in the University of California System, and recently formed as a result of a generous $30M donation by trumpeter, producer and artist Herb Alpert.

Dean Strempel’s scholarly interests focus on the music of women composers, and her work includes numerous recordings, commissions, articles and edited volumes that examine the political, social and musical contexts of the most influential female composers of our time. As a trained opera singer and a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, Strempel is also a nationally recognized champion for transfer students and views superb public education as one of the principal social justice issues of our time.

With Stephen J. Handel, the coauthors’ third book, Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students is slated for publication in January, 2021 with Roman and Littlefield Press.Both are proud long-term members of the National Advisory Board for the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS).

Previously, Strempel was the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Cincinnati and Professor of Voice at The College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Prior to that, she served in a variety of roles at Syracuse University over a seventeen-year span, where she was awarded a Kauffman Foundation eProfessorship and the prestigious ACE Fellowship, which she served at Colgate University. Strempel received her Bachelor of Music from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and she received her doctorate from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

* Information provided by featured dean

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Kimberly Lawless

4-Kimberly Lawless

Dean of Education, Pennsylvania State College

Kimberly Lawless, the psychology graduate from Boston College, is currently the Dean of Education at Pennsylvania State College. Coming from a 20-year at the University of Illinois, Lawless was part of a solid list of candidates which involved a meticulous deliberation process. With her passion and energy to engage with the college community as well as her tactical vision, Nick Jones, the university’s executive vice president, is confident that Lawless will lead the organization to excellence in teaching and research.

Lawless started as faculty staff at Utah State University before her collegiate career unfolded as the University of Illinois at Chicago’s associate dean for research. She was the department chair and a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology for four years.

During her time as the associate dean, Lawless had a considerable contribution to the research community, which led to an increase of 40% of research productivity within four years. Lawless prioritized the research programs and its staff to gain ample support from the organization. Throughout her profession, there were over $30 million in grants and contracts received, which resulted in publishing over numerous journal articles and book chapters.

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Tiffany Boykin, Ph.D., Esq.

5-Tiffany Boykin

Dean of Student Engagement, Anne Arundel Community College

Tiffany Boykin, a principal attorney and Juris Doctor, is the Dean of Student Engagement at Anne Arundel Community College. She made it to the list of “Diverse Top 35 Women in Higher Education” by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.” She was an admin assistant at Baltimore City Community College, then started teaching and got involved with student affairs committees. Eventually, she pursued her doctorate in higher education administration.

Boykin’s current work focuses on supporting students’ welfare. Her research and teaching tackle the recent issues in community college education, the participation of black colleges and universities, and other legal aspects of higher education. During the early years of her job, she expressed her interest in helping students go through college. “I love helping them navigate that and then go on to be successful there and beyond,” she said.

For Boykin, community college is the first step for every student’s dreams and aspirations. It is a place with excellent programs, experienced faculty, and staff, which is ideal for intellectual people who aim to thrive.

Boykin’s accomplished educational journey started at the University of Maryland, College Park, earning her bachelor’s degree. She got her master’s education at Towson University, a doctorate at Morgan State University, and a J.D. at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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Ray Jayawardhana

6-Ray Jayawardhana

Harold Tanner Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University

Ray Jayawardhana, the highly acclaimed astrophysicist, accomplished science writer, and academic leader, is the Harold Tanner Dean of College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University and a professor of Astronomy. Before his appointment, he held a similar position at York University as the Dean of Science and a professor of Physics and Astronomy.

Jayawardhana became a seasoned professor from prestigious institutions such as the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto. He taught Astronomy and Astrophysics subjects. As a highly acclaimed science writer, he wrote books and articles about science intended for general readers.

Michael Kotlikoff, the Provost, acknowledged Jayawardhana’s exceptional experience in academic leadership and his notable accomplishments. He believes that the professor’s substantial background in humanities and science can help bridge the disciplines easily.

As York’s chief of the Faculty of Science, both academic and administration, he managed a considerable amount of funding for research. Also, he served as the adviser to the president on science engagement at the University of Toronto. He had several recognition for his works from different reputable research organizations in Canada. 

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Kerwin Kofi Charles

7-Kerwin Charles

Indra K. Nooyi Dean of School of Management, Yale University

Kerwin Kofi Charles, the economist, and academic leader, is the Indra K. Nooyi Dean of the School of Management at Yale University. Because of his involvement in numerous professional organizations, various research projects, and a multi-awarded scholastic profession, Peter Salovey, the university president, is confident that Charles is competent enough for the position. Salovey is positive that the School of Management will progress as a stronger global center for business education under Charles’s leadership.

Following his Ph.D. from Cornell University, Charles went straight to become a faculty member at the University of Michigan. He later taught at the Harris School of Public Policy of the University of Chicago. His profession unfolded by conducting diverse research projects about economics and business, as well as several published scholarly journals.

Charles was a committed educator and a leading scholar in different economic disciplines. Through his significant knowledge, he has the dedication to share his knowledge with the next generation. Salovey noted that Charles had inspired young scholars to “take joy in an informed argument, to make a habit of being skeptical, and of pursuing the truth through rigorous analysis of the available evidence.”

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Lance Jeremy Fortnow

8-Lance Fortnow

Dean of College of Science, Illinois Institute of Technology

Lance Jeremy Fortnow, the computer scientist and known for his significant contributions to computational complexity and interactive proof systems, is currently the Dean of the College of Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His substantial experience as an educator from reputable institutions and sizable contributions as a researcher, made him fit to be the dean of the institute’s second-biggest departments. 

Coming from his long service as the chair of the School of Computer Science at Georgia Institute of Technology, Fortnow has the full support and confidence from Peter Kilpatrick, the senior vice president of academic affairs and provost of Illinois Tech. Kilpatrick sees the department’s future success under his leadership because of Fortnow’s outstanding reputation for innovation in the discipline of computational science on a local and global scale.

After receiving his doctorate in Applied Mathematics at MIT, he immediately started his teaching profession at the University of Chicago and moved to Northwestern University. Aside from being an educator, he is also a renowned author of a science book and published several journal articles about economics and computational complexity.

Fortnow expressed his excitement as he returned to the city of Chicago and headed the science department. He aspires to improve the institute’s reputation in science, technology education, and research and bring it to a world-class level.

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Victor M. Brown, Ph.D., MBA

9-Victor Brown

Dean for the Division of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Bergen Community College

Victor Mark Brown, a native from Montego Bay, Jamaica, is heading one of the colleges of Bergen Community College, the division of the business, arts, and social sciences. His extensive academic background in research, higher education management, and consulting made him suitable for the position. 

Before he was appointed a dean, Brown began his scholastic profession as a research associate at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Tennessee and further moved to a faculty position at Tuskegee University. His career burgeoned when he became the dean of one of the divisions in Burlington County College and at Fort Valley State University.

Brown was a passionate and determined student at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and earned a double major in Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry. His efforts were merited with an international scholarship, which allowed him to obtain his master’s degree in Business Administration and a doctorate in Biochemistry.

Brown has been dynamic in his involvement in academic programs about leadership development on deprived minority youth. He received numerous accolades because of such participation and his advocacy of youth development. He also has multiple published journal articles, featured in local and international conferences.