Friday, May 25, 2007

Rethinking a Dean's Role

I doubt I have missed many opportunities in the course of posting to moneylaw and classbias to criticize the deaning I have observed or heard about in 28 years of law teaching. I do not mean all deans all of the time but for the sake of simplicity and avoiding naming names, I will comment in general terms. Too often deans just follow orders – the orders of the most influential wing of the faculty. They hoard information, spin statistics, and avoid transparency except when it suits them. For many deans the first goal is to continue to be dean. The analogy to elected politicians whose decisions or even morals seem dictated by the desire to be reelected seems apt but actually presents a more positive picture that law school deans. At least elected politicians have to be responsive to those who they represent. Law school deans on the other hand, in theory operate law schools for benefit of stakeholders (taxpayers, students, contributors), but are nearly wholly responsive to faculty. Think “faculty as lobbyists” – the NRA -- and you get the picture.

At my School we have yearly meetings with our dean. For the most part they are pleasant exchanges. He is a nice guy and seems actually to be interest in a variety of scholarship issues. In preparation for my meeting I composed a list of things I wish were handled differently at the Law School. I think I came up with 20 in all. The items ranged from minor things like not having a system to avoid scheduling make up classes at the same time for the same group of students to bigger issues like grossly uneven teaching loads and a lack of accountability when it comes to our very generous summer research grants.

Reviewing my list and thinking about Sam’s post asking how much credit should deans get, it occurred to me that except for 3 of my 20 items, these were things a Dean should never have to address. They were general issues of faculty advantage-taking, irresponsibility, externality production, or lack of professionalism. My sense was that in a law firm these behaviors would occur less frequently and would be less likely to be tolerated by peers. Isn't log rolling less likely to pay off and aren't peers quicker to “correct” a fellow worker? If everyone were professional and substantively collegial, most of my list would disappear without a dean saying a word.

This lead to a series of questions. What are a dean’s duties when faculty fail to perform, capture a law school to advance their own ends, and are substantively uncollegial? In these cases, should a dean be expected to act as “the parent” of the faculty? This is an odd role when the children are professionals. Conversely, should deans only be expected to operate as though they are simply working along side of , albeit in a different role, professionals who are focused on the same goal? More directly, how and why should a dean’s job be defined as babysitting?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My sense was that in a law firm these behaviors would occur less frequently and would be less likely to be tolerated by peers. Isn't log rolling less likely to pay off and aren't peers quicker to “correct” a fellow worker?"

I haven't found this to be true in the 15 years I have worked in law firms...in fact, I think inequality in firms is likely far worse than academia, though I could be wrong.

5/25/2007 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Shubha Ghosh said...

I have the impression that some deans, including one based on my most recent experience, care only about the title and trappings of deaning, including the ability to act like a martinet or a mafioso, pick your analogy. The truth of the matter is that I can do without a babysitter and am perfectly capable of pursuing my teaching and scholarship as well as my service to the law school and broader community without the supervision of someone who, in my experience, tends to exacerbate the broader deficiencies of legal education (cronyism, lack of scholarly ideas, poor teaching, etc.) The ideal dean would be one who is a facilitator, a good fundraiser who aids in the creation of a meaningful and rich curriculum and rewards based on merit. Unfortunately, we too often have to deal with failed used car salesmen and misguided academics who turn to administration for a salary boost and a power trip.

5/27/2007 2:14 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

That is disappointing about law firms.

And I think Shubba's requirements for a dean are pretty high, especially rewards based on merit.

All of this leads to the question of whether it is possible to turn around a law school culture.

6/06/2007 5:00 PM  

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