Dawn Z. Hodges. Ph.D., is vice president for academic affairs at Southern Crescent Technical College. Her regular column, “The Reflective Leader,” appears monthly in Dean & Provost. Email her at dhodges@sctech.edu.

Dawn Z. HodgesAcademic leaders make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions every semester, some more important than others. Good decision-making is a skill that can be developed.

Here are my tips for good academic decision-making. They might be a helpful place to start if you are a new administrator in your institution, or you might want to share them with new administrators.

  1. There’s a reason you’re asked to read the course catalog and student handbook on your first day of work at any new job. As an academic leader, you should know the policies and procedures of your institution like the back of your hand. They should always be the first point of contact in making a decision. As I said in the title, good decision-making starts with policy, but it doesn’t end there.
  2. Be firm on policy, but be flexible too. Does that make sense? This concept is the most difficult part of decision-making to teach. Some personality types get it easier than others. Policies are very important to the college but they aren’t legal code. Well, some of them actually are! And those you can’t change. And you have to know them well enough to know the difference. But there are some things you can be flexible on. A course substitution is a perfect example. No one ever died because he took a sociology course as his social science rather than a psychology course, even if it’s not an approved option at your college.
  3. Check with others throughout the college if you think the decision is going to affect a policy outside of academics such as financial aid, the bursar’s office, the registrar’s office, etc.
  4. Bounce your decisions off other department chairs or deans. You don’t want to just go willy-nilly down the hall asking people what they think, because there are privacy issues to consider, but your colleagues can be a rich source of experience.
  5. One of the most important questions you will need to ask before you make a decision is “does this hurt the student’s education or does it help it?” Any decision that hinders a student’s education is a bad one. Now I’m not talking about not suspending a student for cheating. In the short term, that might appear to hurt the student’s education, but in the long term it may be the best thing that ever happened to the student. I’m talking more about those decisions that we might make out of pride, or anger, or because we want to win. If you ever feel yourself making a decision from that place, you aren’t ready to make the decision.
  6. If you are tasked with making a certain kind of academic decision, it’s very important to be consistent with yourself. For example, I make the decisions on all the “hardship withdrawals.” A hardship withdrawal is one that happens after the deadline for withdrawals in a semester. I found that among our deans, some were very soft-hearted and everything was approved. Some followed policy to the letter, and there was no such thing as a hardship withdrawal. And so now I make all the final decisions. I know that I am consistent with myself on what I will and won’t approve. If your college is too big for one person to approve all of one particular thing, then the dean, provost or chief academic officer might need to spend some time talking about this with the decision-makers so that everyone can be consistent. Otherwise, it’s not fair to the students and could potentially create some liability for the college.
  7. Have a way to document your decisions for the records. For historical purposes, and if you were to be audited, the student records need to show why a certain decision was made, especially if it varies from policy.

Ultimately, the integrity of the college is at stake. Accreditation is very important, but there is something even higher than that. And that is doing what is right. We’ve all read about the administrators who got caught up in “this or that” and ended up in prison for selling degrees. The degree has to mean something or it isn’t worth anything. When you make academic decisions, you are the “keeper of the flame.” I take that responsibility very seriously.

Sound decision-making is probably the most important skill any academic administrator can possess. It can take years of hard knocks to learn it, but I think we can reduce the time it takes to learn the skill if we share best practices.