Syracuse University Magazine

A Dean's Perspective for the Board of Trustees


The Syracuse University Board of Trustees is among the most open governing bodies in U.S. higher education. In its efforts to keep in close touch with the campus through dialogues with members of the University community, the board welcomes faculty, undergraduate, and graduate-student representatives to its meetings. Earlier this year, a fourth constituency was invited to send an observer: the deans of SU’s schools and colleges. Dean Douglas P. Biklen G’73 of the School of Education accepted the new role and attended his first board meeting last May. He spoke about his experience with Syracuse University Magazine associate editor David Marc.  

You’ve been part of the SU community for quite some time, so you must have attended your first meeting with some preconceptions. What is it actually like in there?

I came here as a grad student in 1969, so I’ve seen different transformational moments in the life of the University. Over the years, I’ve learned just how important the board is in determining the character of those changes. As a dean, I know that the schools and colleges depend on their alumni trustees to help carry their messages through. Like many of the deans, I’ve been to board meetings before to make presentations or as a member of special committees made up of trustees, students, and faculty members. At the meetings, the trustees discuss the University’s finances, but they also talk about how we can attract the best faculty and how we can increase our standing as a university. They’re concerned with every aspect of University life. They have to approve anything that has a financial component, and that includes everything from decisions about construction to signing off on tenure for faculty. 

What can be gained from having the deans represented at board meetings?

The Chancellor and John Chapple [’75], the board chair, both believe board members need to be well-informed about what is happening on campus—what people are working on and what they need to do their work. They want the board to get the pulse of the campus from a variety of sources. One way of doing this is to give the trustees more direct access to people. I know, from a dean’s point of view, we would like to have our perspectives heard in as many places as possible where decisions are made. By having a representative to the board, we can speak directly to the trustees on issues of vision. That’s important, because priorities and projects often flow from a vision of what the University should be. 

Can you illustrate how that works?

I was asked about Scholarship in Action: What does it mean? I told them that people—faculty and students—want to do something that makes a difference. In my field, education, it may mean creating more inclusive schools, or new educational opportunities, such as a preschool literacy program or a poetry project for adolescents. In exercise science, it could be a project about how the body builds and maintains muscle through the aging process. In essence, it involves the researcher saying, “I want to work on important questions in ways that affect the lives of people. I want that to be a byproduct of the best quality teaching and learning.” Anyway, we talked about this kind of thinking.  My guess is the trustees want to know more than just the phrases. They want to know what’s behind the phrases. For one thing, it gets them excited as contributors to the University, and for another, it prepares them to speak about the University out in the world—and that’s an important job for trustees because they would like to see Syracuse viewed as a top-tier institution in every discipline—and in every sense.

How do you report to the other deans?

Although it’s informal, we get together regularly for lunches and I’ll report there. But that’s not an issue of concern. The deans are in contact with each other by e-mail all the time.