Below are short profiles of nine Law School Deans who can be credited with "transforming" the institutions they led. (I omit from eligibility any of my current or former Deans--Bill Powers and Larry Sager at Texas, and Saul Levmore and Mike Schill at Chicago--though I do think even an observer more objective than I am would want to include one or more of them on this list.) Being clever at tricking U.S. News is not a criterion for inclusion, though arguably a few of the Deans noted below also excelled at that. What counts is changing the school, meaning especially, changing its intellectualy identity and scholarly profile, the aspects of an institution one can most reasonably adjudge without being an insider. Here are the nine who, it seems to me, stand out for the work they did during roughly the last decade:
Michael Fitts at the University of Pennsylvania. After a contentious and failed Dean search, in which several outside candidates withdrew amid faculty acrimony, Mike Fitts was chosen from the inside in early 2001. His nearly decade-long tenure (now extended for a thrid term) has been marked by a remarkable increase in the Law School's endowment, which has funded an expansion of the faculty by about 40% (maybe a bit more), as well as an end to faculty acrimony. Schools used to successfully raiding Penn now found Penn winning some of those battles (e.g., Stephen Perry [torts, jurisprudence] and NYU; Edward Rock [corporate law] and Columbia; Chris Sanchirico [evidence] and Chicago).
Heidi Hurd at the University of Illinois. Although she was made the "fall gal" for the dysfunctionality of Illinois politics after her tenure (aided and abetted by ignorant journalists), the fact is that in her single term as Dean she transformed Illinois from a fairly traditional (and certainly good) doctrinal school to one at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary work in multiple areas.
Elena Kagan at Harvard University. She brought the famously dysfunctional "sleeping giant" of legal academia back to life, causing headaches for Deans everywhere else as HLS under Dean Kagan went on a lateral hiring spree that hadn't been seen in Cambridge in decades. Her free spending apparently left even HLS in somewhat tighter straights, though the pace of lateral hiring has slowed everywhere the last couple of years, not only at Harvard.
Kenneth Randall at the University of Alabama. Dean since 1994, he parlayed improved U.S. News rankings since 1999 into more resources for the Law School, which he then used shrewdly to improve the faculty and raise the national scholarly profile of the school with a series of strong junior and lateral hires.
Daniel Rodriguez at the University of San Diego. During his seven years as Dean, he broke the deadlock on faculty appointments that had for a long time prevented USD from fully capitalizing on its attractive location and institutional resources. USD went head-to-head with top law schools, like Northwestern, and won battles for faculty talent during his tenure, and USD solidified its status as one of the regional law schools from which top law schools regularly look for faculty hires.
Kent Syverud at Vanderbilt University. With strong university support, Dean Syverud expanded the Vanderbilt faculty and rejuvenated it during his eight-year tenure (1997-2005), pushing the school into the "top ten" in some measures of scholarly impact. He won faculty recruitment and retention battles against schools like Northwestern and Texas, and left Vanderbilt with a strong empirical legal studies presence as well.
David Van Zandt at Northwestern University. His 15-year tenure was controversial, as longtime readers know, and it got off to a rocky start with a large exodus of leading members of the faculty. But in the end, Dean Van Zandt put a stronger imprint on his school than perhaps any of the Deans on this list, establishing Northwestern as a major center of empirical legal studies in particular.
Donald Weidner at Florida State University. Dean or Interim Dean at FSU since 1991, he has been a succesful fundraiser and skilled navigator of Florida's choppy political waters, at the same time presiding over some of the best faculty hiring by any regional law school in the country, as reflected in periodic raids of FSU by top ten law schools. Yet even with occasional losses, Dean Weidner has sustained the scholarly momentum of the law school
Patricia White at Arizona State University. During her decade as Dean at Arizona State, Dean White displayed an eagle eye for faculty talent, bringing a host of prominent scholars to ASU (including Robert Clinton and Michael Saks from the University of Iowa, and Kenneth Abbott from Northwestern University, among others) and making the school competitive with the University of Arizona for the first time. She also established strong relations with bench and bar, and conceived the brilliant idea of naming the school for esteemed Arizonan and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The Deans to watch in the coming years: Erwin Chemerinsky at UC Irvine; Kevin Johnson at UC Davis; Larry Kramer at Stanford University; Kent Syverud at Washington University, St. Louis; William Treanor at Georgetown University; Patricia White, now at University of Miami; among others.