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What Do Academic Deans Do?

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Photo courtesy of Meredith College

Academic deans have an important role to play at every college. But what exactly does the job entail? Although Meredith College is one community, it is composed of four different schools: Education, Health and Human Sciences; Mathematical and Natural Sciences; Business and Arts and Humanities. Dr. Liz Wolfinger, Dean of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, and Dr. Sarah Roth, Dean of Arts and Humanities, recently explained their responsibilities to Meredith students, the college and their favorite aspects of their work.

When faced with an academic issue, Meredith students have many resources they can turn to, including the professor of a course, academic advisors, department heads and finally the dean of their specific school. A dean can do many things in one day, such as administrative work and addressing student concerns that cannot be satisfactorily resolved by consulting with a department head. Every week, the four deans meet with Senior Vice President and Provost Matthew Poslusny to discuss college-wide events, as well as what’s happening within the individual schools. Periodically, deans will also meet with their department heads to keep current with what sort of events are happening within a specific department. Their administrative work can be slightly less exciting. Dr. Roth explained, “We sign a lot of things, we grant certain proposals, we do grade appeals. If a student wants to drop or add a class late, it comes through us. Whatever is above the level of a department head is what we handle.” In addition, there are various long-term projects deans must concern themselves with. “We could swing from talking about COVID to what to do next semester about spring break to amending a policy within the course catalog,” said Dean Wolfinger. Both say the variety of tasks they are responsible for keeps them engaged with their work.

Having a PhD is typical of a dean at Meredith, but it is not necessarily required. Dr. Roth and Dr. Wolfinger earned theirs in history and microbiology and have been deans at Meredith since 2017 and 2006, respectively. Commonly, a dean will start off as a faculty member and be selected to become a dean, as happened in Dean Wolfinger’s case. Even with the many responsibilities that come with their roles, both deans are also teaching a course this semester. Being an instructor of a course is a great benefit that helps them understand what it’s like to be in the classroom and how rigorous the coursework is. “We must be cognizant of what it means to earn a bachelor’s degree and how we can prepare students for post-graduate life. We have to understand that world and what employers are looking for,” explained Dean Wolfinger. They admire the growth they see in students who come to Meredith and learn to find their voices. “I feel so passionate about being at a women’s college, especially in this day and age. Women need to be leaders, we need women leaders to make the world a better place,” said Dean Roth.

Advocating for students inside and outside of the classroom is a cornerstone of a dean’s responsibility to students and the college in general. Speaking about Meredith’s efforts to become more inclusive, Dean Roth said, “Academic deans do not just need to know, but we want to know when there is an incident involving racism, sexism or any other type of discrimination, exclusion or inequity students see or experience in their classes or in any other aspect of their academic experience.” Over the past few months, the deans have been working closely with department heads to create plans that will make departments more inclusive and equitable for all students, with a particular emphasis on making sure students of color feel they belong and are treated as valued members of the academic community. Many of Meredith’s departments have brought in inclusion and equity consultants, or are making plans to do so. In 2019, the deans, along with Provost Poslusny, took racial equity training administered by the Racial Equity Institute, and are currently working on more long-term plans to implement more inclusive teaching practices and decolonize curricula.

When asked what they would like students to know about their role at Meredith, both deans emphasized that students are their top priority. “We are really committed to students, faculty staff and even parents having access to the resources they need,” said Dean Wolfinger. In her response, Dean Roth echoed that sentiment, saying “Even though we can be extremely busy, we will make time for students who need any kind of support, even if it’s just pointing them in the direction of another resource. We want to sit with you and think through what we can do to help you.” They both said that they love being part of an institution that encourages and celebrates women finding their voice and place in the world.

By Claire Heins, Contributing Writer


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