The University of Michigan



The key academic leadership of the University of Michigan is provided by the deans of its schools and colleges.  The historical list of the deans of each school or college can be found on its webpage.

The University of Michigan has long had a tradition of highly decentralized leadership.  Executive officers, deans, directors, and department chairs all enjoy unusual authority and autonomy, albeit with considerable responsibility both for the welfare of their units and the progress of the university, more generally.  This culture of delegating authority, flexibility, and accountability to the appropriate levels has allowed Michigan to attract and to develop some truly extraordinary leaders.

The university administration is essentially a leadership network, primarily comprised of members of the faculty themselves–some on temporary assignment, others in more permanent roles–which extends throughout the university and within academic and administrative units.  At the most fundamental organizational level are academic departments such as history, surgery, and accounting.  Most faculty identify first with their academic departments, since these relate most closely to their primary activities of teaching and research.  Departments are led by chairs, usually appointed by deans for a fixed term (three to five years), albeit, with input from the senior faculty members in the department.

At the next organizational level are clusters of academic departments organized into schools or colleges such as Law, Medicine, Engineering, and Literature, Science, and the Arts, led by deans who are recommended by the executive officers of the university (e.g., the provost or president) and appointed by the Regents.  Deans are the key academic leaders most responsible for the priority, quality, and integrity of the University’s academic programs.  They select department chairs, recruit and evaluate faculty, seek resources for their school both within the university (arguing for their share of university resources) and beyond the campus (through private fundraising or research grantsmanship).  As the key line officers for the faculty of the university, they have rather considerable authority that usually aligns well with their great responsibilities.

The University of Michigan has long been known as a “deans’ university”, in which the authority and responsibility of deans as academic leaders is unusually strong. Good things happen in the University’s academic programs because of good deans, at least over the long term–and vice-versa, of course.  Yet, despite this dispersal of power, Michigan is also an institution where team building and cooperation is greatly valued.  Deans come together quite easily as teams, particularly if encouraged by the provost and president, and willingly work together on university-wide priorities.

To be sure, there are many drawbacks to academic leadership roles, such as department chairs or deans.  These positions rarely open up at a convenient point in one’s career, since most productive faculty members usually have ongoing obligations for teaching or research that are difficult to suspend for administrative assignments.  Although an energetic faculty member can sometimes take on the additional burdens of chairing a major academic committee or even leading a small department or research institute, the time requirements of a major administrative assignment such as department chair or dean will inevitably come at the expense of scholarly activity and the ability to attract research grants.  The higher one climbs on the academic leadership ladder, from project director to department chair to dean to executive officer, the more likely it is that the rungs of the ladder will burn out below them as they lose the scholarly momentum (at least in the opinion of their colleagues) necessary to return to active roles in teaching and research.

While being a faculty member is the best job in a university–the most prestige, the most freedom, and the most opportunity–if one has to be an academic administrator, the next best role is that of a dean, at least at Michigan.  Although some academic units such as the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts or the School of Medicine rival major universities in their size, financial resources, and organizational complexity, for most University of Michigan schools and colleges, both the size and intellectual span are just about right to allow true leadership.  To be sure, deans have to answer in both directions, to the provost from above and their faculty from below.  But their capacity to control both their own destiny and that of their school is far beyond that of most administrators.

University of Michigan Professor Dan Moerman, an anthropologist by training and longstanding member of faculty governance, suggests a very interesting perspective of the role of a dean as a broker between the two cultures of the university: the faculty (collegial, center-periphery, colleagues, peer respect) and the administration (hierarchical, top-down, bosses, performance evaluations).  Moerman observes that, “When a president discusses things with deans, he calls a meeting; with the faculty, the president invites them to dinner.  The dean is the mediator, the connecting link, between the two cultures.  To be credible to the faculty, the dean must have scholarly credentials.  But to relate to the administration, the dean needs to be competitive rather than collegial.  This leads to a certain intentional ambiguity to the role.  The dean is a broker, a middleman, betwixt and between–a trickster like Coyote or Janus.”  Since deans must represent the views of the faculty and never be seen as losing, they must become quite conservative, seeking to minimize risk and maximize flexibility.  A president who interacts directly with the faculty becomes very threatening to a dean. (“If man can talk to God, what need is there for a priest?”)  What to do?  As Moerman suggests, “Kick ass” says the administrator; “consult” says the faculty; “confuse” thinks the dean…

Provost Billy E. Frye and his Deans (by Sam Viviano 1986)

Top Row: Terry Sandalow, Harold Johnson, Richard Daughtery, John D'Arms, Bob Metcalf, Jim Duderstadt, Dick Christensen

Second Row: BIll Kelly, Tom Juster, Jim Crowfoot, Gil Whitaker, June Osborn, Bob Warner, Gideon Frieder, Paul Boylan

Bottom Row: Carl Berger, Rhetaugh Dumas, Joe Johnson, Bill Frye, Peter Steiner, Marge Levy, Ara Paul