Faces of Dreamers: Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

By Kathy E. Johnson and Mary K. Boyd


As chief academic officers (CAOs), we are only as effective as the leaders around us. No matter how compelling our ideas for enhancing the academic enterprise might be, the key to whether those ideas crystallize or fade away is whether we have cultivated a team of capable leaders committed to aligning their program or school with the institution’s mission and priorities.

This is no small feat, given that most deans and chairs began their careers with a passion for their disciplines and relatively little in the way of leadership training.

Chairs, in particular, play a critically important role in influencing the climates in which faculty do their work. Through everyday decisions that entail if, when, and how information is shared, and the means by which they recognize and reward faculty and staff, chairs are poised to influence, positively or negatively, just about any initiative a CAO might hope to launch.

Deans are exquisitely well-positioned to serve as role models and to provide chairs with professional development, but they may be more focused on external relations, finances, or school-based initiatives than institution-wide priorities. We believe that a concentrated focus on onboarding, developing, and providing regular feedback to deans, who in turn are held accountable for doing the same with chairs, is one of the most critical foundations for overall success a CAO can build.

Getting the lay of the land and developing a leadership statement

Have you catalogued available sources of leadership development training on or off campus, or thought about what helps leaders succeed at your institution? There are numerous resources, some of which are listed at the end of this post, as well as the potential to develop in-house training.

At IUPUI, a group of faculty scholars with expertise on leadership was asked to review our suite of leadership development activities and weigh in on whether there were gaps or programs in need of fine-tuning. Early on in the process, faculty asked this question: What are the values, skills, and beliefs that are most important for leaders to possess in order to flourish at IUPUI? Having not spent any significant time reflecting on this topic, we found that we had a lot to talk about.

A series of conversations among cabinet members and the council of deans evolved into a leadership statement that then was further improved through conversations with faculty governance leaders. The statement was posted on a campus website that hosts content on leadership development and is now regularly incorporated into materials disseminated by search committees and shared with search firms. It also is used as the basis for interview questions for prospective leaders and also provides the foundation for annual review meetings with deans. Finally, it serves as the roadmap for the leadership development of chairs, associate deans, and deans.

A leadership transition at the former Center for Teaching Excellence at Berry College provided an opportunity for faculty to talk about the need for professional development that encompassed all aspects of their role. They expressed interest in leadership development programs, as well as opportunities to travel to discipline-specific workshops and trainings. Those who are hesitant to move into a chair position may be encouraged through opportunities to develop their leadership skills and by assuming committee roles prior to moving into an administrative position.

Chair development Is not optional

Chairs inhabit the liminal space between faculty and administrative roles and must navigate through challenging schedules and competing sets of priorities. Chair appointment practices vary across schools, with some departments essentially rotating through (often reluctant) senior faculty and others appointing only after a competitive search. If chair development opportunities are optional, those most apt to participate are likely to already be more committed to the role. While the training needed will depend on the institution and individual needs, it is essential that deans clearly communicate their expectation that chairs engage in training for the new role.

Berry College is developing a series of new chair workshops with topics recommended by experienced chairs. We discovered that chairs needed early training in writing evaluation letters for promotion and tenure as most are due shortly after new chairs begin. Experienced members of the promotion and tenure committee lead support sessions, and seasoned chairs also provide training on institutional effectiveness and assessment.

At IUPUI, deans specify the requirement to participate in training in chairs’ letters of appointment, and the schedule for training is designed to avoid conflicts with other meetings on campus. New chairs begin with a two-day bootcamp co-led by a professor of organizational psychology and the senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. Training continues for 10 months through monthly meetings intended both to provide a basic toolkit for succeeding in the chair role (e.g., hiring issues, academic planning, promoting diversity and cultivating an inclusive climate) as well as support for deepening leadership skills through topics such as strategic planning and conflict resolution.

Deans benefit from an individualized approach

While most new deans have already held at least one administrative position, they must quickly cultivate a host of new skills to thrive as fundraisers, financial planners, enrollment managers, and academic leaders for their school. Each campus also provides a unique array of cultural and climate issues that need to be navigated sensitively and often with a degree of urgency. We recommend onboarding new deans through a series of scheduled conversations with cabinet members and other academic leaders, privileging a focus on the financial health of the unit (particularly if Responsibility Center Management is employed as a budgeting model, for which tuition revenue flows directly back to the unit that generates it), as well as key areas of need specific to that school that have surfaced.

At IUPUI, one of our most worthwhile investments has involved providing an executive coach to each new dean. Executive coaches are recruited for their expertise in organizational psychology or higher education leadership, and begin working with deans in their fifth or sixth month, continuing throughout the first year. Deans complete a comprehensive battery of self-assessments to confirm their strengths and reveal where they need to improve.

Our survey office deploys a 360-degree survey for faculty and staff within the unit to provide anonymous feedback to the new dean. Together with the CAO, the executive coach helps each new dean to draft an individualized development plan (IDP) that focuses on four to five key goals, taking into account the feedback received from faculty, staff, self-assessment results, and campus needs. The IDP includes key action items, metrics, and relevant resources and becomes the focus of the coaching relationship. We have found that executive coaching provides consistent support for the unique constellation of needs that each new dean has. It also helps deans to be more effective communicators as they gain practice in articulating their priorities. Every dean that has completed executive coaching has said it’s one of the most significant professional development opportunities they have ever experienced.

Ongoing professional development is also important to deepening leadership capacity. Feedback is solicited each year from faculty at Berry College for all administrators. Thoughtful review of the feedback can suggest areas to be strengthened, with the development of a targeted annual plan. Common topics include effective communication, difficult conversations, and strategic planning.

The CAO is well-positioned to understand the school or institutional context and can work directly with the dean or recommend an external coach or specialized training. Developing a detailed plan for onboarding new leaders takes a bit of forethought, sensitivity to the unique institutional context, and a dedicated budget line. Yet faculty and staff will appreciate the care and support provided to new leaders, and we guarantee that the investment will reap dividends.


acaologoACAO aims to enhance the effectiveness of CAOs by providing networking and professional development opportunities and engaging members in academic affairs issues that cut across the diversity of higher education institutions and missions.

Higher Education Today