Position of university deans, directors, often distract from the true pursuit of academic excellence

Deans in the Academic and Administrative Management of Universiti Sains Malaysia hogged the headlines recently when the selection process of its deans and directors for schools and centres came under the spotlight.

In the early years, deans were appointed by the vice-chancellor, in consultation with members of the vice-chancellors’ exco, based on academic credentials and leadership qualities.

Later, the process was democratised to allow the academic staff of each school or centre to be involved in the selection process through a secret ballot, based on academic and leadership criteria.

Nevertheless, the vice-chancellor had the last say in the appointment of the deans.

Thus, the candidate with the highest votes, may not necessarily be selected. This selection process is currently being practised.

Then, earlier this month, there was a move to include non-academic staff in the selection of the deans and directors, but this was rescinded at the last moment after it was highlighted that such a move was in violation of the university’s constitution, which restricted the selection of the deans to only those in its academic fraternity.

It is a vote among peers to select the first among equals to provide academic leadership and management, and to institute visionary and innovative ideas to advance scholarship in the exploration and dissemination of knowledge through teaching, publications and community advocacy.

Normally, a serious academic would not want to be distracted by these bureaucratic responsibilities, and would instead, prefer to devote their time to teaching, research and publications that would stand in good stead for the advancement of their academic careers.

But others would accept these challenges as deans and directors as a path to higher positions, such as those of the deputy vice-chancellor, or even the vice-chancellor.

Deans and directors function as intermediaries between the academic staff and top management – usually a top-down flow of directives, such as the key performance indicators for publications, to source for research grants, and to observe financial constraints, which are discussed in the senate.

The senate, which is usually chaired by the vice-chancellor (sometimes by one of the deputy vice-chancellors) is mainly concerned with the quantitative and structural management fixtures.

It is more of a clearinghouse and vetting of ideas that have been crystalised at the school, which are responsible for the qualitative and intellectual output that is fine-tuned in the university’s academic committees chaired by one of the deputy vice-chancellors, before submitting them to the senate.

As such, the deans and directors are bogged down with meetings and paperwork that includes scheduling of examinations, procurement, and senate commitments. On top of that, they have to do counselling for both students and lecturers and manage other student affairs.

They have very little time left to explore ideas for the academic excellence of the school.

Some schools may have deputy deans who focus on academic matters and student affairs that could alleviate some of the workload, allowing the dean to concentrate on exploring ideas to chart and pursue the direction towards academic excellence.

Thus, the deans and directors play an integral part in the academic management and development of the university, beyond just being an intermediary.

It is, therefore, imperative that the positions of deans and directors be filled by those with good academic credentials and leadership qualities to advance the interests of the school and challenge the bureaucratic morass that constrain the intellectual development, ethos and scholarship of the respective disciplines.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.

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