Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thoughts on helping incoming and departing deans

Richard Morgan
With the announcement of Jim Chen's appointment to the deanship at Brandeis School of Law at the U. of Louisville and the upcoming departure of Dick Morgan from UNLV's Boyd School of Law (as well as my own departure from Houston to Boyd, which will take place officially on July 1, 2007), my thoughts are turning to ways to ease the transitions for the schools and for the people involved.

The comings and goings of deans are major events, even though deans themselves can only do so much to affect what happens at their schools. Schools need to take on the responsibility of marking these times and using them to advance the school's mission.

At the University of Nebraska College of Law, I think we did a good job of marking Harvey Perlman's term as dean by making a fuss over his dean's portrait and giving him a named professorship. Deans may be popular or not, but they are people who have stepped up to the plate to try to serve the school, and that service should be acknowledged.

At the University of Houston Law Center, the External Affairs folks (Greg Robertson & Deborah Hirsch) who worked with me did a fabulous job of rolling me out, including hiring a very good PR/marketing person, Alex Kopatic, to help me with my introductions to various constituencies and to train me on how to work with the press. They planned my rollout very deliberately, and thanks to them, I met over 1,000 people who cared about UHLC in year 1 of my deanship.

Law schools seem to have more difficulty with departing deans. I don't know whether that's because of a natural introvertedness of many professors or the awkwardness that can come with any dean's departure, especially a controversial one. We seem to be much better at celebrating the departures of professors and staff members than we are at celebrating the departures of deans.

For the record, I think it would have been a smart idea to have done more to celebrate my colleague Steve Zamora's deanship when I took over as dean. He served as UHLC's dean for five years, and among other things, he did a lot to improve the morale at the Law Center. Steve's special strengths in building morale were of vital importance to our school, which had had a couple of failed dean searches before Steve stepped up to the plate. He's continued to do impressive work since his return to the faculty, and he's a mensch. He's been incredibly kind to me during and after my deanship, and I'm glad to have this opportunity to thank him publicly.

We celebrate the graduation of our students because graduation marks a turning point in their lives. Celebrating the "graduation" of a school from one deanship to another makes sense, too. That's why I 'm looking forward to seeing how UNLV celebrates Dick Morgan's deanship when he retires. Dick is UNLV's founding dean, and he's built an amazing faculty and staff. I'm quite proud to be joining that group. The departure of any dean marks a major change, but the departure of the founding dean is a (by definition) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My guess is that the William S. Boyd School of Law is going to find the right way to honor someone who has done so much for the school, the university, and the state.

Things that schools may want to consider when welcoming a dean:

1. If possible, try to have some overlap between the incoming dean and the outgoing dean, so that the two of them can share some observations, dean-to-dean. The outgoing dean's views may not mesh completely with the incoming dean's views, but the perspective is invaluable.

2. PLAN A ROLLOUT for the new dean. Give the dean time to shape his or her message. Figure out in what order the dean should meet with the various constiuencies and make sure there's time on the dean's calendar to prepare for those meetings. Even if the dean comes from the school's faculty, he or she is taking on a new role and needs the same prep time that an outside dean should get.

3. That rollout should include meetings with individual faculty and staff members and with the faculty, the staff, and the students in groups. And, of course, the rollout should involve immediate meetings with the school's top alumni and major donors--before the official start date of the deanship, if possible.

4. The new dean is going to need some people who can filter the parade of folks who want to spend time with the dean. I found that my assistant, Kelli Cline, was excellent at making sure that people who needed to get in to see me immediately were able to do so, and she tried hard (despite my proclivity to want to meet with anyone at any time) to keep my calendar in manageable shape).

5. The most difficult time for the new dean is the first six months, when he or she is trying to figure out in whom he or she can confide. Sometimes the dean guesses right; sometimes, she makes mistakes and trusts the wrong people. (Even when she trusts the right people, she has to be cautious; because of her position as dean, those "right people" can be counted on the fingers of one hand.) Confidants, however, are key to keeping a dean (somewhat) sane during the deanship.

Things to consider in helping a dean depart (assuming that the dean hasn't committed some sort of indictable offense):

1. Read Kent D. Syverud, How Deans (and Presidents) Should Quit, 56 J. L. Ed. 3 (2006). As always, Kent has wise advice.

2. Deans get emotionally involved with their schools, and some sort of official ritual is a nice way to ease the separation, unless the dean requests that no fuss be made.

3. It takes a while for deans to get reacquainted with professorial life. DEPARTING DEANS SHOULD GET SABBATICALS. (New deans take note: you might want to put the issues of sabbaticals and professorial salaries in your offer letters. And, if you want to be able to change schools after your sabbaticals, it's helpful to get a written agreement that you won't have to repay that leave after your sabbatical ends. That sure helped me.)

4. Faculty and staff members who like the former dean should tell him or her that directly, especially if the departure was unpleasant for the dean. (Our egos might need some soothing.)

5. To the extent possible, the new dean and the former dean should present a united front, so that the various constituencies can carry on as normally as possible.

Transitions always are emotional, and transitions are healthy for people and for institutions. I've learned a lot from each of my job transitions, and I consider those lessons valuable. (This last transition reminds me a lot of Yeats' Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but that's another story for another time.) Just remember that the incoming and outgoing deans are people, too, and not just representatives of their institutions, and you'll likely do the right thing by each of them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree 100% -- especially with the suggestion for some overlap. I stepped in as Interim Dean this spring when Gerry St. Amand moved into University administration. We planned several receptions in which he very literally introduced me to the various constituencies of the law school. That helped me tremendously, and also demonstrated to the outside world that the transition was a smooth one. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play much the same role when our new Dean, Dennis Honabach, came on board this summer.

Rick Bales

12/16/2006 7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suggestion number 3 suggests that departing deans should get sabbaticals. I agree, but what about sitting deans? It seems to me that law school deanships (and probably many other high-level University administrative positions as well) would benefit tremendously by an occasional sabbatical (no more than 6 months, and probably closer to 3). I see three major benefits. First, deaning requires a lot of hours and can be a very high-pressure position -- an occasional sabbatical would allow deans to re-charge their batteries, and perhaps avoid the rapid turnover that often characterizes deanships. Second, although a huge number of those deaning hours involve detail-work, an effective dean needs to maintain a sense of the big-picture. A lot of innovation at law schools seems to occur in the year or two following a dean change. Perhaps sabbaticals would help deans step away from the detail work every so often and get a better bird's eye view of where the law school is and where it should be going. Third, an Acting Dean presumably would need to be appointed while a Dean is on sabbatical. Whoever serves as Acting Dean would presumably be in a good position to step in if the regular Dean were to die suddenly or became incapacitated. The sabbatical therefore would necessarily create a sort of interim succession plan.

I suspect that Deans (and University administrators) don't ask for or take sabbaticals for at least two reasons. First, I think there's a reluctance to admit that someone else can do the job as well as the Dean can. That's the same excuse CEOs give for not grooming successors -- but plenty of companies have come undone when a charismatic leader died or had to exit suddenly for health reasons, leaving no one who could immediately step into her or his shoes. Second, administrative sabbaticals are very uncommon, so new Deans would naturally be afraid that asking for a sabbatical might be taken as a signal that the Dean was less that 100% committed to the job.

Any thoughts?

12/17/2006 8:26 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Rick, you're absolutely right, and I should've added that new deans should work the possibility of a sabbatical into their contracts, if at all possible. I know that Harvey Perlman took one during his time as Dean at Nebraska, and he returned immensely refreshed.

I took a mini-sabbatical before the Year From Hell, trying to decide over the summer of 2005 whether I wanted to stay on as dean (yes, those folks who wanted me out had been ramping up steadily over time), and between staying in touch w/my staff and it being a slow time, there weren't any real glitches. I kept up with mail--most folks who know me know I'm not quite as good at keeping up w/email--and did any events & meetings that were necessary.

When you're surrounded by talented and dedicated (and selfless) folks, then you can take a sabbatical and everyone wins. You get a rest. Your staff gets to prove how talented each member is, and each of them gets to stretch their abilities and discover new strengths. When your staff is of mixed talents, a sabbatical is still valuable, because everyone learns something useful from the experience.

And I'm not at all surprised that you and Gerry managed the transition so well. He and I were colleagues at Baby Dean School, and I've liked and admired him since then. (Go, Class of '98 baby deans!) And I'm also not surprised that you and Dennis also managed a superb transition.

Isn't it lovely to be a former dean? Life has taken on a whole new (and less stressful) tenor, and I'm remembering how much fun it is to be a professor.

12/17/2006 9:26 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Re last posting: I haven't had enough coffee yet. Should've read "each of the staff members gets to stretch his or her abilities" or "all of them get to stretch their abilities." My bad.

Personally, I think that one of the dean's jobs is to help professors and staff members grow in their jobs and, for the staff members especially, try to move them into positions that continue to challenge them and use their strengths well. One of my proudest moments has been to watch how wonderfully Sondra Tennessee is doing as Associate Dean for Student Affairs. She's a gem.

12/17/2006 9:30 AM  

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