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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dean as Hercules or hegemon?

Brian Leiter's virtual interview with esteemed evidence scholar and Northwestern law teacher, Ron Allen, about the Van Zandt era at NW Law makes for compelling reading.  DVZ is tagged with a reputation somewhere between Machiavelli and Macbeth among his detractors and (*pick up your favorite literary hero*) among empiricists grateful for his machinations and muscle.

Striking to me, however, is how much power Professor Allen claims DVZ wielded during his many-year reign.  Though wholly an outsider (of course) to events at NW Law, I ask nonetheless:  Is it plausible to suppose that one dean could, first, cajole a diverse, accomplished faculty to buy into a "radicalized vision" by succumbing to programmatic and personnel decisions and, second, commandeering the faculty writ large into further ventures both "narrow minded and exclusive?"  The question I raise, independent of the merits of the intellectual & pedagogical program, is whether and to what extent this account of relentless agenda-pushing can be wedded to a modern account of a dean as impressario, leader, and, in ways that faculty occasionally minimize, agent of the university and its myriad constituents.  Or, to put the question less clumsily:  How is it that one individual can accumulate singular power in a structure that it inextricably requires collaboration?

To take the focus off of DVZ in particular (noting, again, that Ron Allen's perspective as a NW faculty member will be light years better than any outsider), query whether a dean armed with a powerful vision and the energy to implement that vision with extraordinary tactics and relentless fortitude can move more than incrementally.  My friend and co-author Mat McCubbins always reminds me that a dean cannot credibly move a law school very far off the equilibrium path in the short or even intermediate run, where the path is set by an admixture of university priorities and personalities, the state of the economy, evolving faculty sentiment, student anxieties, disciplinary cultures and trends.

An intriguing question raised by the Leiter-Allen interview is why DVZ (or any other dean for that matter) would expect reality to be otherwise and, moreover, why would any faculty faction likewise fear or hope that the dean's "power" (an odd enough label for what s/he has available for use) could be directed toward reconfiguring unilaterally the objectives of an established law school. 



Posted by dan rodriguez on March 22, 2011 at 04:04 PM | Permalink


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I think the equilibrium account offered by McCubbins is probably more accurate. Which leads me to think that the Allen account is just that-- the Allen account. One professor's feelings on the departure of a dean that he didn't agree with. Shocking, a professor not agreeing with a dean and then attributing all sorts of ills to that dean... and doing so publicly as a dean search is underway, perhaps to make it clear that those picking the dean shouldn't repeat the "mistakes" of the prior dean.

Posted by: barristers | Mar 23, 2011 12:39:58 PM

Dan, i thought the reason DVZ was able to secure buy-in to his vision was because he was literally rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies financially, apparently with impunity...

Posted by: Anon | Mar 22, 2011 8:42:19 PM

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