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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Two Thunderously Trivial Thoughts on "Transformative Deans"

Thanks to a colleague's tip, I came across Brian's interesting post  where he identifies nine transformative deans during the last decade. (I guess it's the mid-summer doldrums that prompt this collective navel-gazing!) Anyway, as usual, he has some acute observations about who's been able to shake things up effectively, and certainly he's correct in his assessment of FSU's wunderkind dean...unlike Brian, I am happy to be objective without being neutral :-)

But I want to register a small point of caution related to something I wrote last year about one of these transformative deans (whom I happen to love). While it's true that effective deans can do a lot to win faculty retention challenges, I think we need to avoid overstating how much credit deans can take regarding the hiring of high-quality faculty.

Faculty hiring at most schools is a very collaborative process, and in most cases, it should be. While deans at some schools can appoint who sits on the hiring committee, other schools leave that decision to the faculty itself to vote on.  Even at schools where the dean appoints the appcomm, the dean cannot be assured that the committee will read/invite/approve those people the dean wants (assuming the dean even specified who she wants).  Nor can the dean, at most schools, expect to have all the non-appcomm cats herded on voting days and have them vote as she wants. This may not be true in DVZ's world, where he is said (on what I take to be spectacular authority) to have fined people who didn't fall into line with his vision, among other aggressive tactics. But most schools do not have deans that are so, um, empowering of (or susceptible to) the unitary executive...and at least in some cases, the deans who assert such authority are regarded as rapscallions and worse.  In light of this complex sausage-making reality of faculty hiring, one has to be cautious with praise in this dimension, just as one should be careful with criticism that deans are "responsible" for the failure to hire libertarians or women or any other group. After all, and put simply, faculty hiring is a they, not a s/he.

A second minor point worth mention: when it comes to noting the spending habits of deans, one has to also be aware of whether the successors (and the other stakeholders) are as thrilled with the resulting balance sheets as those who made the decisions. A law school's transformation that is built on shaky financial ground may share the same half-life as an O'Connor or Brennan opinion.

Last, Brian didn't open up comments on his post. So feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts here, but bear in mind the usual rules of the road here. 

Posted by Administrators on July 19, 2011 at 11:50 PM in Blogging, Funky FSU, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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While it's good to see outstanding deans get recognition, it might be more helpful to see a list of destructive deans to watch out for.

Posted by: Jim Milles | Jul 20, 2011 9:34:18 AM

The transformation at Penn State Dickinson has been pretty significant. I don't see why Dean McConnaughay isn't on any short list.


Posted by: J | Jul 20, 2011 8:37:26 AM

Well, as long as we're involved in navel gazing, I'm going to nominate Larry Kramer at Stanford, who has been transformative in at least two ways: (1) a fairly radical re-conception of the curriculum in the second and third years, which involves significant inter-disciplinarity with the rest of the university, and which required the shifting of the academic year from semesters to quarters to align with the rest of the university, and (2) promoting the idea that Stanford would not be a slave to LSAT scores as opposed to other indicia of a vibrant and diverse student body, which is the primary reason (as I understand it) it doesn't jump to the top of the US News list (just take a look: on faculty reputation, Yale is 4.7, Harvard is 4.8, Stanford is 4.7, but on LSAT scores, Harvard and Yale are 171-176, while Stanford is 167-173). Trust me, Stanford as well could fill up its class to the 171-176 level, but it chooses not to. That to me is an indication of transformative leadership.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 20, 2011 6:46:04 AM

Both true -- and not inconsistent with what Brian says, either. As for the first point, Deans have some choice as to how much to get involved in hiring, and then what kind of priorities to have if they do get involved: This means both that some Deans deserve credit or blame for their schools' hiring, and that other Deans won't have much responsibility at all for it.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 20, 2011 1:32:01 AM

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