Friday, February 22, 2008

The Dean Thing

I have from time to time written about law school deaning as have Jim Chen and Nancy Rapoport over on moneylaw. When they do it is with a perspective I cannot have. There are things I just do not “get.” In fact, I have four questions and an observation.

Questions 1. Who decides who is an expert on deaning?

Lately there have been books and symposia on deaning. Does just any dean get to participate? Is it like symposia in other fields where someone calls up a bunch of pals whether or not they have anything to say? For example, when I read one of these articles or book chapters they are usually written by a dean at a so-so school which did not distinguish itself during the writer’s tenure there. So, who is qualified to write about effective deaning? Just anyone?

Question 2. Am I imagining it or does Jim Chen seem like the opposite of most deans?

I mean he says what he means, announces his values up front and says he will work for those goals. If this type of behavior will not cut short his tenure as dean, why are other deans so afraid to say these types of things? Or course maybe they do not hold the same values or any values other than maintaining their jobs. That is scarier than just being silent.

Question 3. Can a Principled Person be a Dean for very Long?

When I observe deans closely, and I have only been able to do that a few times, there seem to be strategies for keeping the job. These strategies have little to do with the welfare of the School or students. Here are a few:

1. Do not come even close to doing anything that might remotely mean you could be called racist or sexist. The issue is not whether you are racist or sexist but do you make any decision that opens you to that charge. I have seen too many decanal candidates get passed over on the basis of rumors, murmurs or idle chit-chat dealing with race and gender.

2. Reward those who kiss your behind. Why not? The only people a dean cannot afford to loose and keep his or her job are the butt kissers. Every other person is expendable.

3. Reward the self-promotional. So what if Professor X writes 4 good articles and 17 short pieces in symposia or Professor Y takes 3 articles for which he was rewarded 5 years ago and turns them into a new book or Professor Z has written variations on the same topic of ten years. Numbers, not quality, good scholarship or originality fill decanal glossies. University presidents do not know the difference.

4. Always appease the biggest voting block. So what if you agree with Professor X and believe he or she is right. The critical question for the dean is how many people also agree with professor X.

5. Keep former associate deans happy. Once they go back to the faculty they can be appointed to important committees and given other assignments. It’s like having two layers of associate deans – current and those that act as though they still are working on behalf of the administration.

Is this unfair to deans? Almost certainly it is to some. In addition, to the extent these strategies exist it is result of the bizarre allocation of power within law schools.

This leads to question 4. Why be a dean if it requires any of the above strategies to keep the job?


Nancy Rapoport said...

Jeff, I think it's possible to be true to oneself and still be a dean, and a good one at that--as long as you're working with a university administration that respects you and the law school and with a faculty that doesn't pull dirty tricks.

Jim Chen said...


Nancy is wiser than I am, and she's right. I always listen to her. So should you.


Jeff Harrison said...

Jim: If there is one rule I try to observe it is to listen to Nancy.