In general, I think deans have as much discretion as the provost and president give them. But it generally varies by issue and by priority. There are some issues where you have absolutely no discretion and are expected to carry out upper-admin's wishes even if your faculty disagree (that doesn't mean that you can't argue for a different solution behind the scenes, but once you've lost the argument, it's over). There are other issues where your discretion is almost total. Faculty sometimes forget that deans are middle managers, and that upper administration sets the broader policy and strategic goals, as they should.
I suspect that there are probably differences between inside and outside deans. While it's not universally true (and probably less true at the R1s), outside deans are usually brought in to solve a problem or to be a change agent. Neither augurs well for their popularity with the troops, at least initially. In a way that chairs don't, deans have to balance the good of the institution against the best interests of the college, something that faculty rarely appreciate unless the balance goes their way.
I am inclined to believe that, in general, administrators (academic and otherwise) are popular when times are good and unpopular when times are bad, even when the circumstances are beyond their control. Think presidential approval ratings: no president is popular during a recession; but when times are good, everyone loves you. That's probably why you're seeing a lot more no-confidence votes coming out of universities lately, given the financial condition of many states and the stinginess of many legislatures.
I think the best you can do as dean is to be as honest and transparent as possible (even when that means telling people that you can't talk about certain matters), and to treat everyone fairly and with respect. Just as important, deans can't become part of the drama, something which often frustrates the faculty when things don't go their way. I have been accused of rolling over for the administration in cases where I definitely did not, simply because I refused to take my internal disagreements with my bosses public (something which would be bad for both the college and, of course, for me).
The other bit involving the Berdahl story involves the administration's relationship with its trustees and benefactors. One of the great administrative challenges can be protecting faculty who do or say outrageous things (or are perceived by trustees as having done so). Sometimes this involves appearing to be tough in hopes that the situation will blow over and the trustee in question will move on to other things. That may have been what they were trying to do at UBC, but Berdahl either didn't want to play along or didn't realize what the administration was up to. Or maybe they were being just as heavy-handed as she imagines; who knows? I've never had a case that went complete off the rails, but I have sympathy for administrators in that situation. Whatever one thinks of Phyllis Wise at Illinois, she was in a completely no-win situation with Salaita, and to the people who say that she should have stood up for principle and all that, I would answer (and not disingenuously), "What are you willing to risk your career over?" For administrators in at-will positions, this is not a rhetorical question. "What hill do you choose to die on?" is a question that tenured faculty never have to face.A very valuable perspective. As I said, I have been lucky to have mostly very good deans and very few poor ones. Perhaps places to a better job of selecting deans than chairs (I have had only two excellent chairs and, yes, one of them is my current chair/director).
The UBC debate continues, reminding me of a twitter conversation I had today about the NFL/Brady context:
. @McCannSportsLaw @AdamSchefter amazing how sunk cost bias and reputation costs have driven so much on NFL side— Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz) August 19, 2015
Well bad decision makers use bad decision making rules/logics https://t.co/r9QDrqQBC5— Steve Saideman (@smsaideman) August 19, 2015