The announcement earlier this week that Steve Hedden is stepping down as dean of the Kansas University School of Fine Arts is sure to have come as a surprise and disappointment to his many friends.
Hedden took over the deanship in 2003 and was about to undergo his five-year review, as all KU deans must.
Whether Hedden voluntarily resigned in order to spend fulltime as a teacher or he was "encouraged" to resign is known only by the retiring dean and a few others. Is this the work of KU Provost Richard Lariviere who told some at KU to expect numerous changes on Mount Oread?
Whatever the case, Hedden should be thanked for his service and his efforts to improve the school, and sent best wishes in his teaching career.
Now, the No. 1 task is to give KU every chance of attracting and securing the services and vision of a new dean who can build a truly outstanding School of Fine Arts.
There are many questions:
- Just how important is the School of Fine Arts in the minds of those controlling KU?
- What priority is the School of Fine Arts given on Mount Oread?
- Who decides what kind of person KU wants? The chancellor, the provost or department chairs and other faculty members?
- What role do alumni play in the selection process for a new dean?
- What skills will be important in the eyes of those determining who should be dean?
- How important is a dean's ability to raise money? Should the new dean be recognized as a superb, skilled instrumental musician; an artist; a sculptor; a person with an excellent record in dance; or possibly a person recognized for his or her knowledge of choral music or, perhaps, design?
- Is building strong alumni support important? How about excellence in recruiting superior students and distinguished faculty members? What makes a great dean of a school of fine arts?
Obviously, the chancellor, provost, members of the Board of Regents and the overall university community must have the genuine desire to achieve excellence. Are they willing to "pay the price" rather than just say nice-sounding words?
Perhaps one of the most important factors is how the selection committee is formed. The types of individuals chosen for this committee set the tone and importance of this search process. A weak selection committee is likely to result in a poor search and weak list of final candidates.
A university doesn't have too many opportunities to fill dean positions. True, it is almost easier to get rid of a dean than it is to shed a faculty member. Nevertheless, when an opening for a deanship occurs, it is so important the search process is thorough in every respect. There is reason to wonder just how thorough various search processes have been in past years for some of KU's most important positions.
It seems reasonable that search efforts, fringe benefits, salaries and investigations into the backgrounds, experience and "winning records" of those being considered for academic and administrative positions at KU should be just as thorough as are search efforts for a new football or basketball coach.
Why not have deans who are looked upon as "winners" who can build their respective departments into national leaders? Isn't teaching, research and the motivating of students the name of the game at a university?
Past KU School of Fine Arts deans have been:
- Donald Swarthout, 1923-1950.
- Thomas Gorton, 1950-1975.
- James Moeser, 1975-1985.
- Peter Thompson, 1986-1999.
- Toni-Marie Montgomery, 2000-2003.
- Steve Hedden, 2003-2008.
If deans were to be graded as a major college football or basketball coach, which of the above deans have the best record? Did any of these deans take the KU School of Fine Arts to a Big 6, Big 8 or Big 12 conference championship or top national ranking?
The five-year review policy for all KU deans probably serves a good purpose in forcing a comprehensive review of their work and how they have handled their responsibilities. A number of positions at KU have "opened up" in recent years prior to their five-year review. Turnover can be healthy in some respects, but so is tenure.
It is hoped that the search committee for the next KU dean of the School of Fine Arts will be composed of "heavyweights" in every category - faculty, students and alumni. And, these committee members should be given the charge and freedom to attract a new dean with an impeccable record, a person with vision and drive, and one who aspires to build the KU School of Fine Arts into a position of national leadership.
Why not shoot for the best?