Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Friday, August 12, 2005

What makes a good law school Dean?

A law professor writes:

Having just started as an associate dean, I have been thinking about what makes for a good law school administrator and remembered your comments on your own dean, when the UT president stepped down - "without a doubt the most talented academic administrator I've ever seen: excellent political instincts, shrewd psychological judgment, strong academic and intellectual values, and an outstanding ability to traverse the worlds of 'theory' and 'practice.'" 

Are there other qualities you would add?  How would you expand on these?  Order them?  Where does fundraising come in? Perhaps you would be willing to address this question on your new blog -- I would love to hear your further thoughts and others' comments.

I've opened comments, and invite others to discuss.  I'll weigh in with my own additional comments a bit later.

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Comments

Here is something of an inside/outside perspective on the qualities of a dean.

I am a long-time practitioner who has recently had the time and inclination to get involved in things academic. Among other things I have participated as candidate in deanship searches, and in one instance made it through the two-day campus visit. (I am still working the "non-traditional" brand off my forehead.)

A well-established law professor (a friend), talking about what a practitioner would need to learn about being a dean, observed:

"It would require far more education, because the dean would have to be educated on the kind of entrenched interests academics have, and how tenaciously they hold to them even when it makes no sense to do so..."

The philosopher in me wanted to know: What are the entrenched interests of academics? Even if different in specifics, are they different in their fundamental nature from the entrenched interests to which others, including non-academics, hold tenaciously even when it makes no sense to do so?

My observation was that entrenched interests are not unique to academics. They are the sine qua non of organizational dynamics. In companies, it is line versus staff, or corporate office versus the division, or accounting versus legal. The entrenched interest becomes a problem only when, in the words of my friend, it becomes one “onto which we hold tenaciously even when it makes no sense to do so.” And that, I think, is a sine qua non of human nature.

Getting to the solution is far harder than analyzing the problem, but I think the fundamental breakthrough (and the lesson for the leader) is realizing the problem is not the supposed (or even real) entrenched interest of those being led. (If you don’t make this breakthrough, the best you can hope for is a leadership philosophy best expressed by the executive partner of the law firm in which I began my practice: in speaking of his partners, he sought to keep the troops “sullen but not mutinous.”) Were it possible to be a Kantian as a matter of applied psychology (versus theory), the categorical imperative would say the right thing to do is that which is right despite entrenched interests (i.e., if we would will that entrenched interest to be a universal law, then it is right). One might use that statement as a sword to say to a faculty "it's your entrenched interests that are the problem, and I am the visionary here to solve it." But what is closer to the truth is that I too have entrenched interests, I too hold onto them even when it makes no sense to do so, and the dysfunction arises when each of us sets up our entrenched interests as hypothetical imperatives (“if – then” propositions of what we should do) in active or passive resistance to each other. (I would add we quickly fall into abuse of the second categorical imperative, in which others - autonomous rational agents - become means to our entrenched interests, rather than ends in themselves (or objects versus subjects)).

Finally, my contracts professor friend tells me that even with the best intentions, deans finally tire of herding cats, and resort to command-and-control. I have never led a school, but I have led organizations (and sat on the board of a private school). I truly believe even in the corporate structure we are all volunteers, and command-and-control is an illusion of power. I suspect (and this is a personal challenge for me) the first step is personal humility, and the recognition that before I can tell you your entrenched interests are wrong, I need to be introspective and humble and honest about mine. It means dealing with the paradox that despite all we have learned and all our accomplishments, we are only great teachers (and great leaders) if we continue to be great learners.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 12, 2005 4:30:17 PM

Based on recent experience, some advice to future would-be deans: (1) don't make promises to your faculty, either individually or collectively, that you can't keep and have no intention of trying to keep; (2) don't cook the books.

Posted by: Jeff Cooper | Aug 17, 2005 6:18:49 PM

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