Think Like a Dean: Beth Fox

 October 21, 2015

Beth Fox, Ph.D.

From 2010 to 2015, Beth Fox, Ph.D., served as associate dean and director of the Academic Advising Center for Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. In this interview, completed before she transitioned to a new position at Cornell, Dr. Fox discusses her views on leadership, balancing daily activities with long-term planning, and her approach to cultivating trust with different types of people.

Tell us a little about your office and the people in it.

Duke’s Academic Advising Center asks people around the university to volunteer as academic advisors for incoming first-year students and to work with those students until they choose and join a major, at which point they are matched with a faculty adviser. We have professional advisers in this office as well, but they provide a different type of advising. The volunteers come from all over the campus, primarily from the faculty but also from academic and student affairs, admissions, development, the law school, and the business school. These academic advisors are the only person that students are required to meet with during the first half of their undergraduate career, so these positions have the capacity to be deeply influential to how students view their academic identity at Duke. Our 250-plus volunteers are responsible for about 2800 students.

For you, what are the qualities of a good leader and good leadership? 

I'm thinking of two people—one at Duke, one not—who I really admire. These two leaders are very different people. One is gregarious and very extroverted, and the other is very quiet, methodical, and thoughtful. But they both have this same quality of being able to articulate the larger goal, say why it would pertain to every single individual in the room, anticipate the exception that people have for it, and articulate a rationale for moving forward together. One of the things leaders struggle with is to only focus on why we should do something rather than taking the time to think about the people who may not agree and how to respond to that particular person without getting bogged down in the disagreement. This is something President Brodhead taught me, actually, and I thought it was very useful. You have to be able to state in meaningful ways the rewards that each person would feel for moving forward as opposed to the rewards of not participating.

What specific skills have helped you cultivate your own leadership style?

This is actually my second career. My first was more traditionally aligned with my graduate work. My Ph.D. is in biological anthropology and anatomy from Duke where I studied the behavioral ecology of wild orangutans. So I'm a scientist with experience in the social sciences as well. I think that data can do a great job of speaking to a large group of people and for people to feel involved in understanding how to move forward. One way that I've tried to speak to a broad audience is to collect information, do a lot of assessment, share the results with a broad array of audiences, and then collect feedback on what they think I should focus on next. For example, I noticed when I arrived at Duke that students would sometimes talk about "the administration" as if it were a monolith rather than part of a community that has disagreements and agreements. So I made a commitment to present an assessment to the Duke student government on an annual basis about what my office is doing and how I’m thinking about my priorities. I then solicit their feedback. Every March, I present them my data, for better or worse. Then I ask, “What do you think?” Similarly, I do this with our volunteers. I collect information about how students think about the office, what volunteers think about their role, and I do an annual address: this is what you think, this is what students think, these are the challenges that I'm facing, here's how I think I should move forward—“What do you think?” I'm not necessarily the most inspiring speaker, but I do know how to use my skill set in terms of assessment and data as a way to inspire and to cultivate trust in my leadership. Every person who decides to become a leader has to decide what he or she is good at and what things they will just continue to work on.

I have a master's degree in experiential education, which taught me to think about elements of leadership—both traditional vertical leadership and lateral leadership—and how to be aware of how people’s personalities can impact the outcomes, particularly in times of stress and difficulty. Certain personality types will experience difficulty in one context but will shine in another. So as someone who oversees a pretty big office, I have to be aware that every single person will experience the same thing in a different way, and be cognizant of all those personality types. This is particularly true of our volunteer pool. These are people that are already compensated by Duke to do something else yet are choosing in their spare time to engage with undergraduates, and are really committed to welcoming them into our community. That's a very different dynamic than working with people who are paid employees. I have to balance those different motivations on a daily basis.

A place like Duke is such a large and complicated institution that serves multiple different constituencies. What are some of the ways you oversee a department to balance the day-to-day with the long term? 

Every day I have to decide which things I'm going to do and which things I'm going to allow to be not done. That's a very real pressure that I think all administrators face. There is never an easy decision about what to do, and it's very easy to become overly focused on the day-to-day needs. One of the things that I’ve learned over the past thirteen years is that it’s really important to take a moment every day—and I do this without fail, usually when I'm driving to work—to be very cognizant of my role within the university framework. It is within that framework that allows you to make the decision about the day-to-day minutiae and the way to move things forward. It’s also easy to think that the university where you work is an insular institution, but it works in very real ways with all the other institutions, including ones we don't even think about on a daily basis. I think keeping in mind what Duke is in relation to the nation and the world is a good way to think about what I am supposed to do about this particular problem at this particular moment.

I also work individually with students. One of the things we try to teach our students is to shift all the perceived external loci of control—try to understand which of those are real, which can be eliminated, and which are imaginary. This gives them more internal feeling of control over their decisions and their direction.  We deal with our students not in mass but as one human being at a time. That's one of the things I enjoy about being a dean: taking these large institutional problems—this is the sociological or anthropological part that I enjoy even though it can seem overwhelming—and thinking of them as one human interaction at a time. It’s one way to move things forward.


Darren Mueller, Ph.D.

Darren received his PhD in musicology from Duke University in 2015. He is currently visiting faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he teaches music history.