Journal of Nursing Education

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Top Ranked Schools of Nursing: The Role of the Dean

Susan E Pollock, PhD, RN



The Top Ranked School of Nursing Study (TRSN) was a nationwide investigation for the purpose of delineating a composite of elements that constitute a top ranked school. The role of the dean was identified as the most frequent, if not the most significant, element of administration. The influence and scope of the administration in a TRSN were described as were the ways in which these endeavors are pursued and supported. The findings will be of benefit to anyone interested in promoting and improving nursing scholarship.



The Top Ranked School of Nursing Study (TRSN) was a nationwide investigation for the purpose of delineating a composite of elements that constitute a top ranked school. The role of the dean was identified as the most frequent, if not the most significant, element of administration. The influence and scope of the administration in a TRSN were described as were the ways in which these endeavors are pursued and supported. The findings will be of benefit to anyone interested in promoting and improving nursing scholarship.


The initial impetus for the Top Ranked School of Nursing project was from the Foundation Advisory Council to the School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin. The Council is composed of private citizens whose primary function is to seek private funding for specific needs of the School of Nursing. In the fall of 1984 the Council requested information about comparisons between leading schools of nursing to identify areas needing changes in our school for which they would seek resources. Thus, the plan was developed to conduct a nationwide study to identify factors that comprise the top ranked schools of nursing in the United States.

The TRSN1 was a nationwide investigation for the purpose of describing the composite that constitutes a top ranking for a school of nursing. From December 1984 through March 1985 the study was undertaken by Drs. Mabel Wandelt, Mary Duffy, and Susan Pollock of The University of Texas at Austin. A qualitative research approach, focus-group methodology, was used for the study. Since the study involved a large number of interviews, an interview guide or schedule was used to make sure all topics were explored with all groups of informants. Information was obtained through on-site, small group interviews with persons who had extensive knowledge about their own school. Five group interviews were conducted in each of seven2 top ranked schools in the United States. Each group was composed of five or six individuals from the following categories: deans and their assistants, professors and associate professors, assistant professors and instructors, graduate students (masters and doctoral), and undergraduate students. There was no crossover between categories.

Findings were descriptions of the many elements, processes, and interrelationships that compose a top ranked school of nursing. These descriptions fell into the following major categories: administration, faculty, curriculum, students, resources, and social contribution. The results are useful to persons concerned with the quality of today's schools of nursing: students, faculty, administrators, community supporters, and funding sources.

While the Top Ranked School of Nursing Study was published by the National League for Nursing (1985), it is important to share significant characteristics of these schools with an even larger audience than might otherwise read the report. Of particular interest is the characteristics of administration, considered significant in their being cited as top ranked, that were found in top ranked schools of nursing, even though they varied in size of faculty and student body, type of support, and cost of educational program. The remainder of this paper describes the following significant administrative characteristics: supportive environment, the dean's role, challenging atmosphere, administrative expectations, and organizational structure.


Support from all levels of administration and a supportive environment in general were key elements in top ranked schools of nursing. Deans and their administrative groups emphasized the importance of support from the university administration in carrying out their responsibilities, faculty stated that support from their deans and administrative groups was essential for fulfilling their goals, and students viewed support from both the dean and faculty as a positive aspect of their nursing education.

Top ranked schools of nursing had support from their parent institution. This support was manifested in numerous ways, including an equitable share of the available financial resources. "The dean doesn't hesitate to ask the university administration for needed resources and she has a good success rate." The nursing programs received needed teaching, research, and administrative budget lines as well as adequate funding for faculty support, staff, research centers, and learning centers. Nursing administrators had good relations with university administrators and were treated as equal partners with respect to allocation of resources.

The nursing programs were recognized as leaders in their respective universities as well as in nursing. Since publication of the Chamings report (1984) that ranked these programs among the top 20 schools of nursing, they had received official recognition from the governing bodies and top level administration of their university. "They know our nursing program is nationally ranked and acknowledge that we are leaders in the university." Top ranked schools of nursing were respected and appreciated by the other units on campus. They were often asked to collaborate with other departments in research projects, scholarly presentations, and other academic activities. Faculty were on major committees of the university and were involved in numerous interdisciplinary endeavors.

Faculty in top ranked schools of nursing had encouragement and support from the dean and other nursing administrators for their own professional development. "There has been over the years support of faculty to pursue a variety of interests, even during times of retrenchment." There were financial supports for faculty to attend conferences, present papers, and pursue doctoral education. Faculty support was also manifested by availability of services to do research studies and publish results. "There is congruence between what administration purports and what they support with resources." Faculty were supported in their scholarly endeavors and rewarded for their accomplishments. There was a commitment of the nursing programs to support the development of new faculty. New faculty were encouraged to meet with the dean or department chair to discuss career goals. "The dean works actively with faculty to get tenure or pursue other career options." Mentorships with senior faculty were commonly utilized by new faculty to facilitate their research and teaching interests. Department chairs worked with new nursing faculty to support their adjustment to the faculty and plan their work schedule so they had time for research and other scholarly endeavors.

All of these factors interacted to comprise the supportive environments found in top ranked schools of nursing. The different levels of support permeated all groups within the nursing program. While students were not usually involved directly with university administration, they were cognizant of the respect and support that the nursing program received from the university. Students found nursing administration supportive in all aspects of their nursing education as well as in their own personal growth and development.


The role of the dean was the most frequent response to the question, "What were the positive aspects of administration and organization in a top ranked school of nursing?" All groups within the nursing program were in agreement that the role played by the dean was a significant factor in their top ranking. Different examples were cited, depending upon the perspective of the group, illustrating the dean's importance and influence.

A frequent comment participants used in describing positive aspects of administration was the dean's expertise in administration. While deans in top ranked schools used different administrative styles, they based their selection of style on the same criterion: what best suited their own strengths while being consistent with the mission of the parent institution. "The dean essentially guided the program, the administration was planned and organized in a theoretically sound way." There was also a theme of stability, several schools having had only a few deans or the current dean had been there for at least five years. 'The first dean built a very firm foundation and today we have an excellent dean." In the present nursing programs there were clear separations between administrative decisions and faculty decisions, although the amount of delegation varied according to the size and complexity of the organization. The deans in top ranked schools of nursing had expertise in dealing with political forces in their institutions, in obtaining resources for faculty and students, and managing financial and human resources.

The deans of top ranked schools of nursing had national prominence and were considered leaders in nursing. They were well known for their scholarly activities and publications, their political savvy and their work with numerous professional organizations. The deans were visible both nationally and internationally. "The dean has had an impact on the image of nursing nationally." The leadership abilities of the deans enabled them to attract leaders in research and education to their nursing programs. They sought out well-qualified persons for administrative and faculty positions and supported them to use their talents creatively and productively. "The dean is an excellent role model, she sets the climate for faculty to pursue their own scholarly activities."

The deans in top ranked schools of nursing were accessible to faculty and students. There were specific mechanisms for students and faculty to have access to administration. The dean in one nursing program had breakfast with the undergraduate students once a month, while in another the dean taught the first required nursing course in the undergraduate program. Administration was available to faculty and students and open to their suggestion and concerns.

'Administration cares" is a theme used to describe the personal characteristics of the dean. Deans in top ranked schools were sensitive to the needs of faculty and students and receptive to input from both. They had good communication skills and faculty felt free to discuss their professional goals with them. "The dean is very supportive of me in my job." The deans provided prompt feedback and kept lines of communication open. They were able to challenge students and faculty to pursue their individual goals. The deans of top ranked schools of nursing promoted and rewarded excellence and productivity in their faculties. They were not threatened by excellent faculty but rather recruited and supported them.


There was an atmosphere of freedom and challenge in top ranked schools of nursing that facilitated learning and professional growth. There was freedom to be a "risk taker" in pursuit of ideas. The environment was challenging and encouraged creativity. Innovation was promoted and rewarded. There was a commitment to development of faculty as scholars.

The top ranked schools of nursing were characterized by freedom and respect for the individual. They had a positive "can-do" attitude. Faculty were encouraged to be independent and pursue their own scholarly activities. The mission of the parent institution, the organization of the school or college of nursing, and the nursing program administrators all facilitated this creativity and productivity The environment was stimulating and challenging to students. "There was direct attention toward assisting students to fulfill their individual potential." Students received a realistic picture of the nursing profession. They learned to set their own goals and develop a sense of valuing their own professional accomplishments. There was an element of flexibility for both students and faculty. Both felt that their interests and concerns were listened to and if they had sound rationale, administration would support their scholarly endeavors.

Inherent with this respect for the freedom of the individuals to pursue their own professional goals, the environment provided a challenge for creativity and innovation, thus laying the foundation for learning and productivity. These schools have been pace setters in various areas of nursing education, research, and practice. The environment was a continuous stimulus for individual and collective professional growth and development which further contributed to the exciting and stimulating atmosphere. Being on the faculty of a top ranked school of nursing "was a development and growth job, not a maintenance job. There is a lot of latitude to try out new things and we have strong leadership to support us." Faculty and students were attracted to top ranked schools because of the stimulating and challenging environment.

Faculty remained at top ranked schools of nursing because they were supported to pursue their own scholarly interests and were rewarded for their accomplishments. "I came because I wanted to do clinical research and maintain my private practice. I stay because I can continue to negotiate those things." There was a commitment from nursing administration to work with faculty to develop their career plans. There were assurances from administration and senior faculty that these were schools where faculty could be productive. Deans were not threatened by excellent and productive faculty; rather, they promoted and encouraged these people. "This is a place where a very successful faculty member doesn't threaten the dean."

There was a strong emphasis on developing the research capabilities of faculty and students. New faculty and graduate students were encouraged to become involved in an already established research project. "We have excellent mentors here, persons with long-standing research reputations." Other supports were provided, such as the services of a research center and monies for research assistants. Faculty also felt free to request additional funds, services, or time for research. Dissemination of research results was considered a priority by faculty in top ranked schools of nursing. They presented their research findings at numerous meetings and conventions as well as published thenstudies in research journals. Funds were available for faculty travel for these purposes. Graduate students had many opportunities to become involved in research endeavors of the faculty. They were encouraged to pursue their own research interests and to write research reports and scholarly articles for publication. Many of the doctoral students had pre-doctoral fellowships or other grants to facilitate development of their research potential.

There were numerous avenues for growth and development that faculty could pursue in addition to research. Faculty taught in their areas of specialization and were involved in curriculum revision and evaluation. There were opportunities to teach in both the graduate and undergraduate programs and to develop new courses, programs, or specialties to meet the needs of students. While mechanisms for faculty practice differed between the schools, faculty practice was promoted and supported by nursing administration. For faculty without doctorates, there were opportunities and support to pursue graduate education. Numerous faculty held offices in state and national nursing organizations, were active in state and national health policy issues, and were involved in providing service and education to their local communities.

Students described the environment as positive and challenging. They viewed administration as open and flexible. "I feel comfortable going to administration, nothing is impossible to ask for." The environment fostered professional growth and independence on the part of the students. "I am challenged to think about where nursing is going and what contribution I can make." They were excited about their education and viewed their school as a leader. "Our school is in the main stream - we all want to be the best that we can be."

Another factor often mentioned by all groups within top ranked schools of nursing was honesty and trust. Students trusted faculty and administration and viewed them as being open and honest. There were good working relations between faculty and their administrators; they worked together toward common goals, and there was mutual trust. "I stay because this is a faculty who deal with issues not personalities, the dean is like that too." Faculty were trusted by administration to carry out their responsibilities which promoted creativity and productivity of faculty. Conflicts were confronted openly, utilizing input from those concerned. All groups valued the honesty and trust within their school or college of nursing.

Administrative Expectations of Faculty

Expectations for faculty in top ranked schools of nursing were high. There was an acceptance of people where they were but an expectation for growth for all ranks of faculty and administration. Within all nursing programs, there were high expectations for faculty in the areas of research, teaching, and service, with research having the greatest emphasis- "Research is the major emphasis; teaching excellence is expected but not rewarded." While schools vary with regard to the number of funded research projects and scholarly publications, all were very involved in promoting and supporting the scholarly activities of faculty and graduate students. There was a conscious effort in these schools to develop a "network of scholars" who would perform at their highest level for the benefit of the school or college of nursing.

Expectations for faculty in top ranked schools of nursing were clear and made explicit during the interview process. There was a clear distinction between responsibilities of administration and those of the faculty. "The organization is very specific, we all know what is expected of us." Faculty were expected to develop yearly goals and discuss these with the department chairperson or dean. One school used an evaluation form they developed which yielded an objective picture of what faculty were expected to do. Criteria for promotion and tenure were clear, and the administration worked with the faculty to meet those expectations or pursue other career options.

The administration's commitment to support faculty research was reflected in faculty workloads. In various ways, time was allotted for faculty to be involved in research; approximately one day per week free from other responsibilities for scholarly activities. One dean commented, "The greatest thing we've done is allotted time for research, approximately one day per week. It costs us money but it's worth it!" Faculty who were actively involved in research had lighter teaching loads, especially in the clinical area. Another administrator commented, "It is rare that anyone is doing research, advising, and also teaching more than one course." Special consideration was given to junior faculty so they could develop their research projects. "The highest priority is given to new faculty - they have a lighter teaching load and are assigned research assistants so they can do research." Workloads were negotiated between faculty and department chairs in many schools. Faculty commented that being able to negotiate their workload on an individual basis was a real strength. They were able to negotiate time for research as well as teaching assignments that reflected their research interests. Many students and faculty commented on the benefits of the low student/faculty ratio at their school or college. Student/ faculty ratios for clinical undergraduate courses ranged from 1:6 to 1:10, whereas most schools maintained a student/faculty ratio under 1:5 on the graduate level. Some schools had formalized mechanisms for determining workloads that incorporated objective measures for each area of faculty responsibility. Common to all top ranked schools was the trend of allowing time for research while decreasing the teaching load for faculty engaged in research.


The organizational structure in top ranked schools of nursing provided autonomy for the school or college of nursing and was consistent with the mission of the parent institution. Similarities among schools included administrative positions, department structure, faculty committees, and various informal groups of faculty across departments. There was clear separation of administrative and faculty responsibilities which was known to both groups. The complexity of the organizational structure as well as the amount of delegation by the dean increased with the size of the nursing program. Communication between faculty and administration was facilitated within these organizations. The roles for faculty were clearly denned but there were mechanisms for faculty to work together toward the goals of the school. One faculty commented, "This is a very complex organization and it would not work if it were not so well organized and had good administration." Faculty viewed differentiation of administrative organization and faculty organization as a strength. Faculty understood the role they played in decision making and appreciated not being burdened with administrative responsibilities. As one administrative commented, "If faculty are going to make all decisions, then they don't need administration." The organizational structure in top ranked schools of nursing fostered working toward mutual goals - those of the faculty and of the school or college of nursing. As one faculty described this, "The organizational and program goals are in line with the goals of the faculty." There was mutually consistent planning for organizational and individual growth which benefited both the faculty and nursing program.

The department structure was very evident within top ranked schools of nursing. Departments were usually organized around clinical specialties and the department chairperson was responsible for managing the activities and functions of that area including faculty assignments. One administrator explained the different roles as, "Administration had primary responsibility for planning and organizing while managing occurred at the department level." Department chairpersons were given the authority to manage what was assigned to them. Faculty believed that the department structure contributed to planning and implementation the various curricula and facilitated their own professional growth. There were many positive comments about the role of department heads, including "They do a good job of management, setting priorities, and coordinating." Another school viewed their department chairs as "strong leaders and national role models." The position of department chair was seen as a beneficial and necessary part of the organization in top ranked schools of nursing. Both undergraduate and graduate students commented on the value of the departmental structure. "I can go to special areas for needs and/or information." Graduate students were more aware of the department functioning due to their involvement in various research projects with faculty in their areas of interest. "I'm impressed with the level of collegiality within the departments and between departments; not departmentally territorial." The competition between departments was viewed as healthy by the faculty and administration.

There was a well-defined committee structure within top ranked schools of nursing although they were in the process of reducing the number of functioning committees as well as the number of committee meetings. This had improved the efficiency of the organization and provided more time for faculty to pursue scholarly activities. Faculty had opportunities for input without excessive meetings. "Committee meetings were held for a purpose, which was professional progress." Another faculty commented that committees were more "growth and development oriented rather than maintenance oriented." Students were represented on all faculty committees within top ranked schools of nursing. Students believed that faculty and administration wanted and listened to their input, and they valued working with faculty in this capacity, "I have an active role in the school of nursing, I benefit from being a member of a standing committee."

The informal organization consisted of various task forces, committees, and a few curricular specialties that cut across department lines. Research interest groups involving faculty from different departments were common in top ranked schools of nursing. There was a willingness to work together for mutually shared goals. Faculty were involved in various groups depending on their research or curriculum interests. "Our informal organization is not a matrix on paper but pragmatically has structured cross-line groups." Faculty were cognizant of the different mechanisms available for collaboration with their peers and took advantage of these opportunities.

There was good communication within the formal and informal organizations found in top ranked schools of nursing. There was collegiality among faculty and administrators which promoted sharing and trust within the organization. Faculty and administrators were committed to the goals of the nursing program. Although there were clear roles and expectations for each, there was the flexibility to work as one body that promoted and fostered achievement of both individual and organizational goals.

The findings presented included many of the elements and characteristics of administration that were identified by participants in the TRSN project as being significant in their being cited as top ranked. The most frequently cited characteristic, and perhaps the most significant, was the role of the dean which was viewed as a single element while recognizing that it promoted all other administrative elements and processes of the school of nursing.


  • Chamings, P.A. (1984). Ranking the nursing schools. Nursing Outlook, 32, 238-239.
  • Wandelt, M. A, Duffy, M.E., Pollock, S.E. (1985). Profile of a lbp Ranked School of Nursing. New York: National League for Nursing.


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