Friday, November 23, 2007

Moms, Dads, and Deans in the World of Elites

I have been pretty critical of deans in my blogs and I may have been unfair. My sample is small. I have only worked closely enough with 8 deans to have any standing with respect to criticism. In that 8, I have seen only one dean who tempted to reshape the work ethic of the faculty. He was canned by a sorry University President who was shortly thereafter canned but not before appointing a dean who knew about as much about law schools as I do about brain surgery. The difference being that if I were asked to do brain surgery, I would decline.

What’s up with deans? Again considering my small sample I have never had a dean who would have been sought after as a lateral hire. Thus, to some extent they have been overplaced and paid substantially more than they would have been paid as a teacher/scholar. This leads to defensive deaning and means that it is foolish to expect a dean to tend to much more than managing the deanship.

BUT, even if my small sample is not representative and even if all the deans I have had were equal to the worse one, the cannot possibly be expected to teach faculty what their moms and dads evidently did not teach: do not take what is not yours without paying for it, tell the truth, share.

On my faculty and I assume most or all others, most faculty do these three things. When a critical mass does not, however, other faculty tend to look the other way or begin to take on the character of those whose moms and dads failed. Here is what I mean:

1. Don’t take what is not yours.

This comes up in the context of tenured professors who do not write or write infrequently. Whether they ignore the obligation, wring their hands over it and still do not write, or refuse to write as a protest, it’s taking money that they have not earned. Isn't this stealing? Some will teach extra to make up the difference but many do not. I guess the lesson around the dinner table at those houses was “It’s OK to take what you want as long as you can get away with it.” If their parents did not teach them not to do this, does a dean really have any chance?

2. Tell the truth

In law teaching there are elaborate ways to avoid telling the truth. The bad NYT rule – do not write what you would like to deny having said later – is an example. The use of words that are deliberately vague. Puffed up resumes. Tenure letters written that are not truthful or omit important information. Claims by a Harvard professor that a candidate she is pushing has 28 call back interviews. An appointments committee that promotes a candidate on that basis knowing it is nearly impossible. Where were the parents on this one? Was the dinner conversation actually, “Only say what benefits you and if it is truthful that’s nice too.” The best dean cannot change this.

3. Share

Evidently a number of people in law teaching had this experience. You are 6 and on the playground with your mom and dad and using the only swing. Five other kids are waiting and your parent says “Don’t worry about them Johnny. You got here first and can use the swing as long as you want.” Those must be the same people who now demand to teacher the fewest classes as possible. Unnecessarily cap classes. “Volunteer” to teach in an interesting summer program before anyone else knows the opportunity exists. Again I am not sure the best dean can change self-dealers into considerate people.

The fact that I do not think most of the deans I have known have done a very good job remains true. It is also true that I may be expecting them to reprogram faculty when it is not possible. Mom and dad had the chance but also failed.

Still if you are at a school where the bad actors have enough clout to affect the culture then a Dean could at least stop facilitating bad behavior. I have seen little of that. And I have never seen a faculty do anything but make nice.

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