Leading a team is a tall order: there is the aspect of empowering students to have a transformative experience while at university, by engaging with them meaningfully. In that same landscape, there is the need to keep academic staff motivated to achieve collective goals. Beyond that, a positive yet realistic attitude and the skill of delegating effectively, are also qualities that make a good dean. Leading seven departments to work close together is an achievement, to say the least.
Newspoint had a chat with Prof. Frank Bezzina, the recently re-elected Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Management of Accountancy (FEMA), about his work within one of the biggest faculties within the University of Malta.
Prof. Bezzina joined the Department of Management in 2005. Back then, he was responsible for teaching Operations Research and Managerial Economics. He was pivotal in developing study-units in areas relating to Management Science, Decision Modelling and Research Methodology. He has also been FEMA’s representative on Senate from 2011 to date, while occupying the positions of Deputy Dean from 2012-2016, Head of Management from 2013 to date and Dean from 2016 to date.
How do you explain your role to someone who isn’t familiar with the structure at University?
I would say the Dean has referent power in that s/he should be a point of reference within the Faculty for assuring that the learning experience of students is of high quality. The Dean should also serve as academic mentor who provides pastoral care; a coordinator between different elements of the Faculty and provide support in conflict resolution.
I personally also view my role as someone to build bridges between students, academics and the business/industry stakeholders.
What are your priorities as Dean this time round?
My updated vision still rests on four pillars: quality, accountability, multidisciplinary, and a participative/vibrant environment. The specific targets that I will continue striving to achieve and consolidate during my second tenure as dean are: better access and links to industry and professional bodies; improvement of the Faculty’s research profile; strengthening of current programmes and developing ones in emerging areas of our economy; becoming a more student-centred Faculty; paying more attention to staff resources and staff issues; working on the internationalisation of our Faculty; and branding.
During my second term as Dean, there will be an added focus on encouraging online teaching where necessary and appropriate and to expand our contributions to other faculties.Currently, we are already collaborating with the Faculty of ICT, the Faculty of Laws, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Social Wellbeing, the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery.
FEMA will also be supporting initiatives to increase participation in international projects. As today, FEMA has signed an international student collaboration project with universities in Belgium, Poland, Kosovo and the Czech Republic.
What has been your biggest achievement yet within FEMA?
During my deanship, I managed to bring all seven departments to work close together and this helped to increase the number of post-graduate programmes in the Faculty including through inter-department collaboration and collaboration with stakeholders.
However, allow me to add another achievement which I greatly cherish; that of putting the students of our Faculty at the heart of our Faculty’s mission.
And what has the biggest challenge presented to you been, so far?
FEMA is one of the largest faculties at UM but also one of the smallest in terms of full-time staff complement. This brings with it a certain degree of tension between wanting to do more to remained updated with the social and economic realities out there and doing what you can, given the limited number of full-time members of staff.
A case in point are the dissertations and allocation of full-time resident academics to mark and assess dissertations. With hundreds of students reading for Master programmes (circa 300), finding dissertation supervisors and examiners is becoming an insurmountable task, particularly when the board needs to be composed of persons in possession of a PhD.
As an example, with nearly 80 students reading for the MSc in Strategic Management (and Marketing/Digital Marketing/Public Policy), the co-ordinators need to appoint a supervisor, a first examiner, a second examiner and a chairperson for each student. This strains the resources to the limit with a full-time typically assessing 13 to 15 dissertations! This also has ripple effects on us such as how much PhD proposals we can accept and it is not uncommon that we had to turn down these because of this resource allocation issue. This is obviously straining the research output we would like to achieve.
How well have you coped with the switch to online learning?
There were no major hiccups as the majority of staff adapted fast while those in need of support were given all the necessary help. Testimony to this is the praise the Faculty received from ASCS, the FEMA students’ association.
How do other roles of yours help you prepare for the one as Dean and vice-versa?
Apart from visiting professor positions at foreign universities [e.g. University of Zagreb (Croatia), Wroclaw University of Economics (Poland), LM Thapar School of Management (India), and Haxhi Zeka University (Kosovo)], my non-executive role in non-academic entities [e.g. Chairperson of Wasteserv Malta Ltd, Director of the Central Bank of Malta] gives me the opportunity to practise my knowledge and to make an impactful contribution.
Additionally, it has given me an immense opportunity to practise what I preach, i.e. to behave as a scientist-practitioner given that the mission of FEMA is the application of knowledge to improve social and economic aspects in the real world. I am pleased to note that this mindset is shared by all my other colleagues at the Faculty and most academics in FEMA adhere to this philosophy.
Like that, we are contributing towards the UM becoming more relevant to today’s challenges by boosting the opportunities for knowledge transfer. At the same time, we are giving students more opportunities for research, internships – providing them with a bridge to opportunities anew.