Published on 2015/09/17

The New Key Skill Today’s Deans Are Expected to Have

The EvoLLLution | The New Key Skill Today’s Deans Are Expected to Have
As funds become increasingly scarce for colleges and universities, deans will be increasingly expected to add fundraising to their array of responsibilities.

Being a leader in today’s higher education climate is challenging. Declining budgets and skyrocketing expectations from students, staff, senior leadership and employers require leaders to be innovative, entrepreneurial risk-takers in a largely risk-averse environment. Today, leaders are expected to add one more skill to their arsenal: fundraising. Being able to raise capital for a specific unit or division is critical at many institutions to maintain the level of service and offerings. In this interview, Oliver Tomlin sheds some light on the importance of fundraising for today’s deans and shares his thoughts on how this expectation will continue to grow in future.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is fundraising such a high priority for deans today?

Oliver Tomlin (OT): First of all, it’s no secret that budgets across all academic areas are tighter today than they have been in the past. This is a result of decreases in federal and state funding, increased competition for private funding, competition for students and tuition revenue, and many other factors. Deans in schools from Education to Business to Law and more are being asked to put fundraising hats on and really get creative about keeping their schools solvent and sustainable. Very few deans have the luxury of doing mostly traditional academic and administrative responsibilities with little pressure to raise money. It’s just a much different academic environment today than ever before.

Deans are expected to carry higher profiles than in the past, at least in terms of representing their departments at public functions, networking with peers and institutional leaders, and being more a part of the community. There are more media opportunities than in the past, too. This gives deans a pretty good platform from which to meet potential donors and champion fundraising efforts.

Evo: Are there any particular divisions or departments where deans are under more pressure to fundraise than others?

OT: There are a variety of schools that have seen decreasing enrollments (law schools come to mind) or feel pinched for other reasons, but let me say that the most pressure might be for deans in the liberal arts space. They have a much more difficult time demonstrating “return on investment” to their schools and prospective donors than, say, the STEM disciplines, business, or health sciences. We all know that the arts are priceless from an educational perspective, but deans in this area have a harder time making their case for dollars and verifying the outcomes of dollars invested.

Business school deans are under pressure as well. A B-school’s brand is such a critical part of its success nowadays (think Wharton, Kellogg, etc.), and top deans are expected to leverage this brand to recruit students and faculty and to establish national and international partnerships to expand the school’s reach and notoriety. Even deans at mid-tier schools have this expectation, which isn’t always realistic. Not surprisingly many business schools are recruiting deans with entrepreneurial backgrounds or closer ties to the corporate world.

These are a couple examples, but really the pressures have ramped up for all deans across all divisions and departments.

Evo: Fundraising is a critical skill for incoming deans, but how important is it for current deans to improve their fundraising skills in order to maintain their positions?

OT: I don’t think current deans are at risk of losing their jobs if they are not strong fundraisers, especially if that was not a major responsibility when they assumed their roles. Nevertheless, getting more experience, training and involvement in their institutions’ development efforts will only enhance their institutional value. Other leaders across campus will take notice and want to collaborate with that person. (And of course if they go on the market and look for work elsewhere, it will most likely be a priority for an institution looking to hire. Some deans’ academic and leadership reputations precede them, but most have to work to prove what new and exciting things they can do for a potential employer.)

People might wonder if it’s possible to improve one’s fundraising skills. I think so—it is not magic and there are best practices and skills (persistence, sincerity, etc.) that most deans can leverage to become better at it.

Evo: What impact will this trend have on the role and responsibilities of divisional deans over the next decade?

OT: I think there will be an explicit expectation that fundraising will become a requirement of dean positions and that a specific percent of their time will be spent on development. This will of course detract from the time that they can allocate for other dean duties. This shift could dramatically impact the type of candidates being recruited to dean positions, since colleges and universities will be looking beyond academic credentials and focusing on fundraising as well as leaders who have vision, a business sense, and a bit of entrepreneurship.

Deans will be different, with more diffuse responsibilities than ever before. They will need to have help from the people around them and also coordinate better with fellow deans and leaders across their institutions.

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Key Takeaways

  • The capacity to raise funds is an important skill for deans today and is going to become more prominent and in-demand over time.
  • Leaders of business schools, especially those that carry their own brand and reputation, are under greater pressure to fundraise than other leaders in equivalent positions elsewhere in the institution.

Readers Comments

Sarah Herrera 2015/09/17 at 9:50 am

It really is becoming its own specialized discipline. There are people whose entire postsecondary career focuses on learning how to effectively fundraise the kinds of dollar figures needed to keep institutions afloat in difficult times. I imagine we’ll eventually start demanding advance degrees in fundraising from our deans and their associates.

Nick Shaw 2015/09/17 at 4:15 pm

I’m sure we’ll see more distinct positions geared toward fundraising and development as we move forward. We’re already seeing universities that employ VPs of development because they’ve seen how important it is and also how specialized a skillset it can require.

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