Saturday, March 22, 2008

What's a Dean To Do?

When I first started writing for Moneylaw and for this blog I was very hard on deans. In part as a result of comments I have softened my view and come to realize what a pickle deans are in.

I am not thinking here about a top 10 or 15 school but a School ranked lower, let’s say 50th with little hope of moving to the 30s and unlikely to drop to the 60s. What does a School like that want from a new or old dean? For example, do the faculty want the dean to move the School to a higher ranking? Probably yes if it means doing so by increasing placement rates and entering GPAs or LSATs. Probably no if it means raising bar passage rates by revising the curriculum or increasing national prestige through increased scholarship. What’s the difference? That’s easy. What 50 wants is 39 while making 50 effort.

The dean could hire more productive people. That might work but, unless there is a huge number of retirements or resignations, the dean cannot hire enough at the margin to push 50 to 39. The dean could pay more to more productive people. But, when you think about it, deans do not have much money to play with and it takes more than a few more productive people to move a faculty up. Plus, if they are productive enough to make a difference, they are likely to be targets of other schools. What’s worse is that the group the dean really has to worry about is the 75-90% who are not leaving, ever. Those are the people who must be kept happy if the dean is to keep his or her job. Push too hard and the dean may be looking for another deanship. Thus, to avoid trouble the dean is well advised not to make too many distinctions.

Back to a version of the original question: How do you determine whether the dean at 50 has been successful or not? It cannot possibly be by keeping faculty 50 happy. That’s like telling the Devil Rays manager not to worry about a losing record as long as the players are happy. Moving the school’s ranking up by somehow making the faculty more productive is not in the cards. If that could happen, they would already be more productive. Perhaps it is to move the ranking up with smoke and mirrors. This means all kind of decanal glossies and advertising five-page articles as “meaningful” scholarship. Maybe that is the answer: The dean of 50 keeps his or her job by being a magician who attempts to make everyone, including the faculty at 50, appear to be something it is not. Poof!

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