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I've been speaking English since I was 4 so I'm pretty confident with my English skills. However, when I visited my former university, I talked to one of the professors and found out she is now the 'Assistant to the Dean'. I started a conversation and asked her if she's in fact the current Assistant Dean. She corrected me saying, "No, I'm the Assistant to the Dean." Her reply felt more like an admonishment. I think she finds being called 'Assistant Dean' as insulting.

What's the difference? Did I do something wrong? Thanks for the help in advance.

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    In fact Assistant Dean should be higher than Assistant to Dean in the hierarchy, so the admonishment, if any, was just as a way of correcting you. Assistant Dean would be someone helping the Dean and typically at the same level or just one level lower in the hierarchy (sometimes standing in for the Dean too). Assistant to Dean can never stand in for the Dean, because they are not at that level in the hierarchy. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 5:42
  • The OP's is talking about a professor. If the professor's full title was, say, University Professor of Chemical Engineering and Assistant to the Dean of the School of Engineering, that would be more impressive than Assistant Dean in the School of Engineering. An AD might not even have a PhD or be an engineer, depending on exactly what her/his job entails. In general, I would agree with @alwayslearning, but hierarchies are always tricky and assumptions risky when you don't know the institution.
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 6:08
  • @ab2, can't agree more on "hierarchies are always tricky and assumptions risky when you don't know the institution". Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 6:30
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    In most corporate environments, and the university ones that I'm familiar with, the Assistant To <position> is the person who performs most of the administrative tasks of that position, whereas an Assistant <position> is someone who performs some of the management functions of that position but does not have the ultimate responsibility for it. In a bank I used to work for, there was an "Assistant to the General Manager" who was basically the GM's PA, and an "Assistant General Manager", who was one level below the GM in the hierarchy. It used to cause no end of confusion.
    – Charl E
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 8:39
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    I aggree with @CharlE completely. In my experience, the Assistant <position> has some management tasks delegated, and stands in for the <position>, while the Assistant to the <position> is the primary administrative assistant (but not a decision maker for any but the most routine issues).
    – Davo
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:12

2 Answers 2

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Assistant Dean is presumably a position in the university's governance hierarchy -- the relationship between a Dean and Assistant Dean is comparable to that between a President and a Vice President.

Assistant to the Dean is an administrative position, perhaps a secretary who works for the Dean; in modern times, the term "secretary" has fallen out of fashion in many organizations, and these roles are often called "administrative assistants". The Assistant Dean could also have their own assistants, who would be the Assistants to the Assistant Dean.

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Yes, you accidently did something wrong, but the moment is over.

Your faux pas was that you insulted the professor by reminding her that she is not the Assistant Dean, a step away from acting as the Dean, but only an administrative helper.

In fact, neither Assistant to the Dean nor Assistant Dean is an insult. However, if you suggested her position is lofty when it is not, well, she let you know that hurts.

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