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A dean of students is the person in charge of student affairs and activities at a specific school, and usually also plays a leadership role in setting and enforcing administrative policies. Deans typically work below school presidents or headmasters, but above teachers and other administrators. Their primary responsibility is managing issues that come up with members of the student body, both academic and personal. This person often acts as a liaison between a student and the school, and he or she serves as something of an advocate for student interests.
Most people think about deans in the context of university learning, and this is where the job is most common. The phrase “dean of students” is most often used in American and British universities, though nearly every institution of higher learning around the world has an equivalent position. The person in this role manages the broad category of “student life,” which can include everything from how well students are integrated into residence hall culture, to their academic success, to their emotional support, to facilities management. The dean is usually the school leader who is most accessible to students and most willing to listen to their problems and concerns. In many ways, he or she serves as the student’s voice to the larger school administration.
Many schools break the dean’s office into different divisions. In this sort of scenario, there may be one overarching dean of students, but several “lesser” deans within his or her office. Residential concerns may be referred to the dean of student life, for instance, while problems with professors or concerns about broader school policies might be handled by the dean of student affairs. An assistant may also be appointed to help make the job more manageable. Splitting responsibilities up like this often allows the dean’s office to serve more people and to more effectively handle specific concerns.
A number of high schools and middle schools around the world have begun adopting the dean of students model as well. The job is usually designed to be similar, but of course the issues of adolescents are often quite different from those of independent young adults. Secondary school deans often interact much more with parents and may serve as something of a connection between students, parents, and school leaders. Information sharing and open communication is often at the heart of this job, more than it would be at the university level.
There are some things that deans at all levels have in common, particularly where administrative duties are concerned. Budget assessments, admissions procedures, health service programs, and the allocation of funds to student organizations often fall on the dean’s desk. Other common responsibilities include managing campus services such as security, food and dining, housing, counseling, and events coordination.
Work as a community liaison may also come under this category. The dean is generally required to represent the institution at city council meetings or other local gatherings. This is particularly true of those working in secondary schools, but it can also apply to some university leaders. When student interests or affairs are topics of discussion, this professional is frequently viewed as their unbiased spokesperson. He or she may also be asked to participate in alumni functions or address parent groups who may have an interest in student welfare.
The dean of students customarily also provides counsel to students. The topics on which he or she advises them can be quite diverse and frequently include matters pertaining to financial aid, scholarships and grants, personal relationships, social activities, and career or educational objectives. He or she may also be asked to provide guidance to campus clubs or student groups, particularly when it comes to explaining school policies or rules.
Much of the job also tends to center on individual student well-being. Tasks in this category tend to include physical, spiritual, and emotional endeavors. The goal is generally to promote leadership and respect for diversity and moral conduct. If infractions regarding misuse of alcohol or drugs or improper student conduct occur, the dean of students normally has a great deal of influence on what disciplinary actions are taken, and often works with accused students one-on-one. He or she is expected to maintain a high level of objectivity in decisions while serving everyone’s concerns equitably and in the best interests of the school’s goals and objectives.
Different schools have different requirements for deans, but higher education is almost always near the top of the list. The best candidates usually have at least a master’s degree, and often a doctorate, in education or a related field like school psychology or adolescent development. Some experience working in a school setting may also be required. People who want to eventually become a dean of students may begin as a teacher or as a school counselor before seeking promotion.
When I was in college, the assistant dean of students helped me tremendously when I had concerns about college life and my future career path. She helped me adjust when I arrived as a freshman, and guided me in choosing classes to fit my career choice throughout my four years on campus. I don't know if I would have graduated without her guidance!
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