Friday, November 10, 2006

Deans as Agents

In my Post, "Counter-Preferential Choice, Shirking, and Moneylaw: Part 1," I listed a number of issues I plan to address over the next several weeks. The first question is whether law professors are different from others in terms of a propensity to shirk.

Nancy Rapoport
and Jim Chen have responded with comments about a question that is further down on the list and one for which I am at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to commentary. I have never been a dean at any level (although I secretly – at least until typing the immediately preceding three words – harbored a hope to be appointed as a dean for two hours and then to be led away with a police escort and a new identity).

In my life as a law professor I have served with seven deans. One expressly regarded himself as an “agent for the faculty.” Another viewed his job as “serving the faculty.” “Serving” meant, in some instances, that staff heads rolled if a temperamental, whiny faculty member became upset. Two others behaved that way but never expressed it so bluntly. With one exception, the idea that any dean is an agent of the faculty concerns me (please consult the civility dictionary for what "concerns" actually means outside the world of law professors). Agency seems to slip into doing what you are told and when deans do what they are told by faculty – a persistent behavioral characteristic – it is often inconsistent with serving what I think are rightfully viewed as the stakeholders (another question to be addressed later but, generally, students, tuition-payers, the community) in a law school. Nowhere in the mix do I see faculty as stakeholders. They are a means to an end similar to the library, well-designed classrooms, and access to legal data bases. Sure, they need maintenence and special attention from time to time like other inputs, but it is in the interest of providing the best for the stakeholders. I noted the possibility of one exception. That exception would be when faculty themselves have internalized the values that advance the interests of the stakeholders. Then the dean and the faculty become a team.

As harsh as this sounds, I do not want to judge these deans too severely. The problem, as Nancy alluded to in her early posts about deans, is that deans, especially at mid- level and lower schools, must act as agents for the faculty if they want to last very long. I say mid-level schools because, first, in general, I think top schools may have faculties that include people whose self-interests are consistent with activities that make the school better. Second, deanships at mid-level schools are often attractive to people who have soured on scholarship and want to move to what is, in reality, a different profession at a higher-ranked school than he or she could achieve as an academic.The job description for those folks is “do what the faculty tell you to do or hit the road.” Why someone would take a job that includes a requirement of complicity in faculty shirking in order to keep the position is beyond me. The short tenure of deans as a general matter suggests they too find it intolerable. In fact, all other factors being equal, we might begin to judge a dean's character by the shortness of his or her tenure, at least at some schools.

In short, at a mid-level school, a dean must act as an agent of the faculty to keep his or her job. Yet the interests of many of those self-declared principals may have little to do with the interests of the relatively silent and powerless stakeholders. One more thing: in this untenable mix, where are the Provosts and Presidents of universities?


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi--I've been enjoying your posts, and I thought I'd weigh in w/2 brief comments. First, about the shirking question--I think that any job that doesn't link repercussions to performance will tend to indulge those who act in their own self-interest. (Back-dating stock options, anyone?) Second, I know that there are deans out there who don't cater to any single constituency who last a long time, and my GUESS is that one of two conditions exist: (1) the faculty at that school agree with the general direction that the school is taking, so there's not a lot of temptation to throw stones; or (2) the faculty at that school sets a higher tone for discussions and disagreements so that, when disagreements do occur, they are discussed openly and respectfully.

What do other folks think about this thread?

11/10/2006 11:11 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I think you are right, as usual. The one time I saw a dean serve for several years and make changes was when the faculty or most of it was prepared and even wanted the school to begin having a greater national presence. (Before that was defined by magazine reports.)

11/11/2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger Ann Bartow said...

Well, again I need to qualify my comments because I have never been a Dean, but I have the strong impression that some fraction of the Deans who last the longest do so by selling out the faculty and the law school on certain issues, especially financial ones. Conversely, some percentage of Deans who try to stand up to a central administration with respect to issues like tuition hikes, or resource allocation issues, get fired or "non-renewed" for their trouble.

11/11/2006 11:30 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Ann: I have seen that happen and it may be yet another theory for assessing the character of a law school dean by how long he or she lasts.

11/11/2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ann, that's true, too--deans can sell out in a lot of different ways, including selling out to the central administration. On the other hand, deans who don't compromise w/the central administration on some matters lose the ability to stand their ground on others. One of the things I enjoyed most about being a dean was being able to use some of my skills as a lawyer to negotiate w/the central administration. Often, that meant compromising and "playing nice" w/the other deans--so when I was able to show my fangs, folks knew I meant it.

I was actually prepared to resign as dean around the time that I did anyway, for other reasons, because I believed that the central administration was planning to cut too much from our annual budget. (The nice news for the school was that the central administration ended up cutting much less than it had originally indicated it would.) Deans have to cooperate, but they also have to be prepared to step down when the situation calls for it. Those situations are few and far between (e.g., when central refuses to tenure someone who should receive tenure, budget issues, control issues). Just as when we were lawyers and knew that one doesn't bluff as much as promise a reaction to an act by the other side, deans shouldn't bluff, either.

Whew: THAT was a long-winded jazz riff off the posts that you and Jeff wrote!

11/11/2006 11:57 AM  

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