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In academic administrations such as school or colleges, a dean is the person with significant authority over a specific academic unit, or over a specific area of concern, or both. Deans are occasionally found in middle schools and high schools as well.
The term comes from the Latin decanus, "a leader of ten", taken from the medieval monasteries (particularly those following the Cluniac Reforms) which were often extremely large, with hundreds of monks (the size of a small college campus). The monks were organized into groups of ten for administrative purposes, along the lines of military platoons, headed by a senior monk, the decanus.
The term was later used to denote the head of a community of priests, as the chapter of a cathedral, or a section of a diocese (a "deanery").
When the universities grew out of the cathedral and monastery schools, the title of dean was used for officials with various administrative duties.
Many junior high schools and high schools have a teacher or administrator referred to as a dean who is in charge of student discipline and to some degree administrative services. In large schools or some boarding schools there may be a dean of men or boys, and a dean of women or girls, or each year (freshman, sophomore, etc.) may have a dean. Although most high schools are led by a principal or headmaster, a few (particularly private preparatory schools) refer to their chief authority as a dean.
The term is much more commonly used in higher education. Although usage differs from one institution to another, a dean is usually the head of a significant collection of departments within a university (e.g., "dean of the downtown campus", "dean of the college of arts and sciences", "dean of the school of medicine"), with responsibilities for approving faculty hiring, setting academic policies, overseeing the budget, fundraising, and other administration. Such a dean is usually a tenured professor from one of the departments, but gives up most teaching and research activities upon assuming the deanship.
Other senior administrative positions in higher education may also carry the title of dean (or a lesser title such as associate dean or assistant dean). For example, many colleges and universities have a position known as "dean of students", who is in charge of student services, and a "dean of the faculty", who serves as the faculty's voice in the school's day-to-day administration.
Almost every American law school, medical school, divinity school, or other professional school is part of a university, and so refers to its highest ranking administrator as a dean. Most have several assistant or associate deans as well (such as an associate dean of academics or an associate dean of students).
The American Bar Association regulations on the operation of law schools, which must be followed for such an institution to receive and maintain ABA accreditation, define the role of the law school dean. These regulations specify that "A law school shall have a full-time dean, selected by the governing board or its designee, to whom the dean shall be responsible". Thus, a law school dean may not simply be a professor selected by fellow professors, nor even by the President of the University.
Similar standards exist with respect to medical school deans. Specifically, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which accredits medical schools, thereby making them eligible for federal grants and state licensure, sets forth the operative conditions. LCME regulations require that the "chief official of the medical school, who usually holds the title 'dean,' must have ready access to the university president or other university official charged with final responsibility for the school, and to other university officials as are necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the dean's office". The LCME further require that the dean "must be qualified by education and experience to provide leadership in medical education, scholarly activity, and care of patients", and that "[t]he dean and a committee of the faculty should determine medical school policies".
In collegiate universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, each college may have a dean who is responsible for discipline. An interview with the dean as a result of misbehaviour is referred to as a deaning. The dean may also, or instead, be responsible for the running of the college chapel. At Queens' College, Cambridge, the posts of Dean of College and Dean of Chapel are separate.
The University of Durham also has a Dean of Colleges, who is chosen from the various college principals and masters and takes a parallel role to the faculty deans in university-wide debate.
Each of the colleges of the University of Lancaster has a dean as part of their governing syndicate.
In a Canadian university or a college, a dean is typically the head of a faculty, which may include several academic departments. Typical positions include Dean of Arts, Dean of Engineering, Dean of Science and Dean of Business. Many universities also have a Dean of Graduate Studies, responsible for work at the postgraduate level in all parts of the university.
The job description for deans at the University of Waterloo is probably typical, and reads in part, "The dean of a faculty is primarily a university officer, serving in that capacity on the senate, appropriate major committees and on other university bodies. As university officer, the dean has the dual role of making independent judgments on total university matters and representing the particular faculty's policies and points of view. The dean should oversee the particular faculty's relations with other faculties to ensure that they are harmonious and serve the total university's objectives. The dean will report directly to the vice president, academic and provost."
There may be associate deans responsible to the dean for particular administrative functions.
Some universities also have a dean of students, responsible for aspects of welfare and discipline and serving as an advocate for students within the institution.