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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Dean as batting coach: is Moneyball in the law school possible?

Thinking more about Paul Caron's Moneyball review, which analogizes a law school dean to a major league baseball general manager, I wonder how much authority, either structural or practical, a dean actually has. Perhaps this comes from teaching at a large law school in a huge university, but I think bureaucratic structures, from budget to tenure to existing law school "culture," work pretty strongly against significant administrative authority – or at least against the use of that authority in a way radically different from prevailing institutional practice.

It would take some combination of factors – a long tenure in the position, an accident of significant faculty turnover within a brief window, a large growth spurt, a huge influx of alumni donations (or some other infusion of new funds), an extraordinarily close relationship with the central administration and/or important alumni to immunize the dean from faculty resistance – to provide the conditions for the kind of departure from existing practice that Beane’s work initially represented. Unless a dean also had remarkable management skills, such that the entire bureaucracy and a significant number of law school stakeholders embraced the dean’s approach. In which case the dean is combining the role of field manager and general manager; in which case I’m not sure Beane, or even baseball, is the proper model.  Deans make a difference, but I'm not sure they can depart from longstanding norms without significant support from various conservative (small-c) institutional  structures that are endemic to academia and law schools specifically.

Posted by Mark Fenster on September 20, 2005 at 07:27 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Al seems to be speaking from his personal experience and, while it is not unrepresentative, it is not the only model under which law schools are governed. There are law schools in which the Dean has power over committee appointments, salaries, research budgets etc. There are also law schools in which the school is run by an executive or management committee elected by the faculty, which makes committee appointments, salary decisions (including retention offers), etc. The dean either votes or sits ex-officio on that committee, but the power is obviously much smaller. The Dean may write a tenure letter, but sometimes the Dean simply signs off on a committee report as genuine, without actual veto power or input. In the latter situation, the Dean is much more of an external power, doing fundraising and negotiating with the central administration. To be sure, the latter governance structure gives the Dean the ability to shape the law school by making resources available and limiting their use to particular areas on his or her agenda (through named chairs in particular subjects, central administration funding for particular programs and centers, and budget cuts affecting teaching/research differently) and by establishing a marketing image and brand for the school, but it is different than the ability to influence the school in the former governance structure.

Posted by: anon | Sep 21, 2005 12:18:55 PM

Mark - This is a thoughtful and provocative post. I have two reactions. The first is that Sexton's tenure as NYU dean is perhaps the law's most prominent recent "Billy Beane" transformation, and he had some of the advantages you mention, but gets a good chunk of credit for creating some of those advantages (i.e., the alumni contributions didn't just appear; he went out and raised all the money, which gave him lots of flexibility to transform the institution.) (He also had the advantage of leading a school in Manhattan.) The second is that law school faculties themselves run the gamut from extremely deferential to extremely "activist" when it comes to scrutinizing the dean's policy judgments. On my faculty the professors don't care much about any administrative issues other than appointments, and we are quite content to delegate decisions about admissions, fund-raising, rennovations, and everything else to our capable dean. We're like the Russians, we love strong leaders; and it means more time for research, virtually no time wasted in faculty meetings, and substantial flexibility for a visionary dean.

Posted by: Lior | Sep 21, 2005 12:16:18 PM

Mark - if there were historians here, I think they would say this resembles the perennial "great man" debate with respect to historical change. In any event, I tend to agree with you that law schools can be large and complex institutions, and it takes either a large rudder or lots of time to make them change course.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Sep 21, 2005 10:55:03 AM

Professor Fenster has some characteristically thoughtful things to say about deans' roles in law school culture. I think he underestimates, however, the power of deans. They often shape hiring and perhaps even more importantly tenure committees; they often have extraordinary power in setting salaries and research budgets. Much of the dean's power is in the form of vetoes, of course--I have never seen a faculty candidate hired (or a tenure candidate granted tenure) whom the dean did not pretty warmly support. But deans can also have a large hand in shaping the more positive aspects of a school, such as the selection of new faculty and students. And, given the well-known tendency of people of hire like minds, the faculty may begin to replicate itself (and the dean) soon.

There's a popular saying, "deans come and go, but tenure is forever." And while there is much to that aphorism, you may notice that it has nothing to say about the untenured, nor about candidates for a position.

Larger law schools may be even more susceptible to dean's prerogatives, because they necessarily delegate much decision-making to committees (who can be shaped, in my experience, to the dean's taste).

I have been surprised over the years to see how much positive good can come from a dean with a vision, working toward well-identified goals. And I've been surprised (mostly pleasantly) by how much power they wield, particularly in shaping hires.

Posted by: Alfred Brophy | Sep 20, 2005 8:10:52 PM

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