I have had only limited interactions with Deans in my career. I have met them when interviewing for jobs, I have tended to see their impact via the interpretations espoused by my various Chairs, and I have bumped in them at various events. So, I cannot speak with great certainty about what a Dean is supposed to do.
But I have been thinking about that as I ponder the UBC story, as a key and somewhat underplayed element has been the role of the middle level management folks, the Deans, in pressuring the professor. Lots of attention on the guy at the top and the professor getting pressed after blogging about stuff, but the Deans? Not so much, not yet.
And this raises the question: are Deans supposed to thoughtlessly transmit the dictats of the higher ups? Are they just transformers in the sense of electricity: to step up the input and intensify as the flow of criticism passes through them to those under them?
Because I have read too much Principal-Agency Theory, and co-authored a book on discretion on the Afghanistan battlefield, I tend to think that management folks have discretion and competing interests. Yes, the bosses at the top have heaps of power, but the managers in the middle must take seriously not just the bosses but also the interests of those below them. After all, if they lose credibility and legitimacy with those "under their command," then they lose the ability to lead and will eventually face crises that may lead to their replacement.
So, it seems to be that Deans probably have some discretion about how to interpret the messages from on high, and that this discretion can vary over time, among institutions and within institutions. Besides the variance in actual discretion, the question then focuses on how profs use that discretion.
My favorite case of this is from my old employer: Texas Tech. When the Chancellor wanted to put a disgraced Bush official on the faculty, the Dean of the Law School said hell no. When the Chancellor then asked the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a person who thought receivership was such a cool idea that she swapped the chairs of two departments that were not terribly dysfunctional. This Dean said, sure and twice on Sundays! So, TTU got a bit of a black eye on the media for paying a Bush failure to teach Political Science. Two deans behaved differently, partly because of relative power and prestige and partly out of inclination.
Coming back to UBC, Berdahl details how she was "pulled aside by our
newly-appointed Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity during a conversation I
was enjoying with colleagues." Yep, the Dean responsible for Equity and Diversity saw that his/her job was to undermine both by pressuring faculty. Can any UBC prof consider this Associate Dean to have any legitimacy after selling out his or her mission due to pressure from the Board? I would think not.
So, as UBC goes forward, I hope the attention does not focus solely on the very top as things are broken in the middle as well.