The Essential Dean

June 15, 2004 · by James P. Cramer

It has been years since such a critical mass of talent has stepped up to the plate at the same time to provide energized leadership in our struggling and often fledgling higher education system.

It has been quite a spring season for design practitioners and visionaries to step into leadership roles in higher education. Garth Rockcastle of Meyer Scherer Rockcastle Architects has been named the new Dean of Architecture at University of Maryland while Reed Kroloff (Rome Prize Fellow) is taking the helm at Tulane and Mark Robbins (National Endowment for the Arts leader) at Syracuse. Each has strengths that we believe will link together practice with students in higher education in creative new ways. We’re encouraged. Each understands how systems can be put into play that recreate, revision, and re-energize their institutions.

It has been years since such a critical mass of talent has stepped up to the plate at the same time to provide energized leadership in our struggling and often fledgling higher education system. But in the three instances above, there is substantial reason to believe that there will be an authentic new bridge between professional practice and academia. Building it will be a monumental project.

An emerging new design profession is at stake. It is hard to imagine a more important development to the future of the architecture profession. These leaders appear to understand the enormous possibility ahead. But some faculty still don’t. Already we hear grumbling on two of these three campuses about the dean selections from faculty insiders who are not anxious to change their habits, negativity and limiting beliefs.

It is ironic that at this time in history when there is more exceptional promise for the design professions that some in our schools are squabbling over internal politics, resources, and positioning—often to the detriment of their students. Fundamental issues need to be addressed including tenure, low faculty salaries, and wide communication gaps between the academy and reality. The stakes are high. We live at a time when trends are unfolding a new reality that will position architects and designers as significant in creating economic success and ecological responsibility—which is more important than ever.

Recruiting and retaining quality leaders and faculty who understand the context and potential of the new design professions will be a key to these institutions success—and to our future. Quality deans and faculty are the cornerstone of higher education. Great deans cannot accomplish this alone—as essential as they are they still need an engaged profession and a faculty who is open to transformation.

It is time to celebrate the engagement of inspired leaders who have signed on for some tough challenges in higher education. Let’s support them with some real resources: money, time, ideas, and an attitude that includes cheerleading. That’s the spirit of the design professions of the future.

—James P. Cramer

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