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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Comments on FIU's Dean Search

As much of the country seems to now by know, both South Florida newspapers yesterday ran stories yesterday reporting the ten candidates for FIU's deanship (what I have been calling the "medium list"). The stories focus (in headline, lede, and content) on one name--Alex Acosta, the outgoing United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who is described in both stories as a "leading" candidate. He also is listed first among the names, although the list is alphabetical, further demonstrating that alphabetical order is not neutral. Dan Filler at The Faculty Lounge wonders if this could skew the search--by giving Acosta coverage in the mainstream media, it converts him into a favorite. Dan also suggests it could cause political problems for us if he is not hired.

I take mainstream media coverage of a dean search much as I would take most mainstream media coverage of judicial proceedings; I generally find the latter unwatchable because so much is reported incorrectly or inaccurately. And I think the same of these articles. Both stories are trying to convert a niche event (making an academic appointment) into something for mainstream consumption (a political appointment potentially involving a well-known local public official), and as with trial reporting, something often is lost in the translation. In fact, I am pretty sure the papers would not have reported the story at this point but for Acosta's name. I do not believe that mistranslation will affect how our faculty, search committee, or (hopefully) provost will act in the search such that it skews the outcome. I would agree that it might skew some non-academic responses to the outcome--but that is not unlike what happens with media reports of court cases. Acosta obviously also is a unique candidate, which makes his inclusion of some public interest. But what is not discussed in the story is what is relevant to the academic niche (i.e., our faculty and students) that really cares about the story: Acosta brings a very different set of skills and experiences to the position, so his inclusion, along with other experienced academics, suggests something about multiple thought processes as to the school's institutional direction.

And, in the meantime, the discussion over the admittedly strange news stories obscures the fact that we have a pretty good group of potential candidates as the search committee starts to pare them down. Since I do not have to do any real work to do on this at this point, I must admit to a sense of excitement and optimism at the prospects.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 11, 2009 at 03:12 PM in Howard Wasserman, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink

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