Saturday, December 09, 2006

Three deans

There is only one law school in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in an adventure of continuing thought and wonder. Professors are caught -- in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity -- in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A professor, after she has brushed off the dust and chips of her career, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?

When a professor leaves a law school -- whether she dies, retires, or accepts a position elsewhere -- the question is still there: Was her career good or was it evil? Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: "Was she loved or was she hated? Is her departure felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?"

I remember clearly three law school deans. One was the most pernicious dean in the academy. He pandered his way to the front office as a refuge from the rough and tumble of teaching and scholarship. He grossly misspent resources trying to buy the love of the law school's most repulsively selfish faculty members. By that process he conferred great rewards upon those who curried his favor. He demoralized the rest and cast his school into the hellish pit of academic kakistocracy. He did raise money and gratify donors, and the money he raised, quite arguably, more than balanced the evils of his rule. I was at a faculty meeting when news came that he had accepted a deanship elsewhere. The news spread among my colleagues, and nearly everyone (except those who had profited from his corruption) reacted with pleasure. Several said, "Thank God that son of a bitch is gone."

Then there was a dean, smart as Satan, who, lacking some perception of academic integrity and knowing all too well every aspect of human weakness and wickedness, used his special knowledge to warp faculties, to buy power, to bribe and threaten and seduce until he found himself in his coveted position as dean. And once entrenched he determined he would stay. He made no decisions whatsoever; at the first sign of disagreement he ended debate and restored the status quo ante. He clothed his stewardship in the name of collegiality, and I have wondered whether he ever knew that no peace will ever satisfy lovers of knowledge when you have crushed their ambition. A pacified faculty can only hate its pacifier. When this dean left the law school rang with praise and, just beneath, with gladness that he was gone.

There was a third dean, who perhaps made many errors in performance but whose effective tenure was devoted to making the school's stakeholders brave and dignified and good in a time when they were poor and frightened and when ugly forces were loose in the school to utilize their fears. This dean was hated by the few, who successfully prevailed upon university administration to fire him. When he left the people burst into tears in the halls and their minds wailed, "What can we do now? How can we go on without him?"

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty professors and deans want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a faculty member leaves, no matter what her talents and influence and genius, if she leaves unloved her career must be a failure to her and her leaving a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember the eventual ends of our careers and try so to teach and write and live that our departure brings no pleasure to our schools.

We have only one story. All scholarship, all teaching, all service, is built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: Most people entering our profession see themselves writing and teaching. What explains the decisions by these people to be come deans -- especially deans 1 and 2?

I personally cheer the departure of dean number 2. Dean one will go away eventually. Dean two survives by virtue of allowing a faculty to tear itself apart and can stay forever.

12/09/2006 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"if she leaves unloved her career must be a failure to her and her leaving a cold horror."

Unloved by whom and for what reasons?

12/09/2006 9:10 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

This story of course is pure allegory, and we consequently may -- and indeed must -- assume the existence of good and bad actors.

A. Nonny Mouse asks a very good question: "Unloved by whom and for what reasons?" The love of odious, selfish, destructive colleagues is no prize. The active pursuit of such bad actors' love is Dean #1's vice; avoiding these bad actors' wrath is Dean #2's great failing. Bear in mind the post's ultimate optimism, "that underneath their topmost layers of frailty professors and deans want to be good and want to be loved," the love in question here is the love of the vastly greater mass of genuine, properly motivated law school stakeholders, including faculty members.

And yes, Jeff, you are correct that Dean #2 is a formidable threat precisely because his or her instinct for self-preservation is so finely tuned that no countervailing consideration -- and certainly nothing as puny as the best interests of a law school -- can get in the way. The typical person fitting Dean #1's profile harbors too much ambition to linger in any one deanship. But don't rule out the possibility that Dean #1 might secure an internal promotion to the perch of provost or even president within the same university.

"What explains the decisions by these people to become deans?" Isn't it obvious, Jeff? Everyone wants love, or at least the material manifestations of love. The root of all evil lies in mistaking power -- which is easily the most intoxicating manifestation of love -- as love itself and therefore the pursuit of power as a plausible or even preferable surrogate for the pursuit of love.

12/09/2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Speaking as someone who has been a dean at two good law schools, my decision to become a dean was complicated. People shouldn't become deans unless they get their jollies from seeing others succeed, because good deans have to sublimate some of their own careers (not all, unless they want to be career-deans) to spend time helping others achieve. Successful deans really enjoy meeting new people, helping to inspire future and current students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and supporting good ideas. They shouldn't enjoy having to reprimand people, but they should be able to do so when appropriate and in an appropriate manner.

I have no idea what people will say of my time at Nebraska or at Houston, and the true effects of any deanship take a while to notice, long after the dean herself is gone. (I do enjoy hearing that former deans, formerly vilified, occasionally are remembered fondly over time -- sort of the Nixon-as-statesman phenomenon.) I certainly wish both Nebraska and Houston well and will continue to enjoy reading of their many successes.

12/09/2006 1:16 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Dear Mouse:(comment 2 above)

I think love is overrated. If you are part of a captured faculty brimming those who know better and do nothing and have a dean who is there to serve the faculty, your job is to raise the cost of that behavior in hopes of just maybe, at the margin, limiting some of what goes on. Your success may well be measured by the absense of love you receive, at least in that context.

12/09/2006 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is interesting is where a Dean that actually thought for his or herself and acted unilaterally would fall. Your first answer would be that person would never become a Dean. But I suspect your real answer is that no matter how good the Dean's reasoning and decisionmaking skills turn out to be in hindsight, their inability to satisfy individual ambition and give various acolytes and pretenders to the throne a false sense of ownership in every non-trivial decision condemns them to the same fate as Dean #2 long before their decisions can be evaluated.

Thus, under your model, the problem is not the pursuit or appeasement of bad actors, but the lack of respect the faculty have for a position they themselves usually create and control access to. Unless you are arguing that the institution itself imposes a dysfunctional mindset and favors irrational choices and sub-optimal outcomes (a position I would totally agree with for academia, btw), and accept and ADMIT that as a consequence of a hierarchical system with the Dean at the top, there is no point aside from bureaucratic convenience to maintaining that structure, because it clearly, by your own logical model, confers no benefits, regardless of whether a Dean is unilateral or spineless.

12/11/2006 10:45 PM  

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