THINGS THEY DONíT TEACH YOU AT DEAN SCHOOL
and Professor of Law, Creighton University
title is misleading. Actually,
they do teach you a bunch of this stuff at Dean School, or at least at the
ABAís excellent annual workshop for new deans, which is the closest thing to
a Dean School that exists. But, I
couldnít think of another short title, and Iím bound and determined to
write something with a shorter title and fewer footnotes than my first
I finish up my first year as a dean, I thought it might be useful ó
particularly for those considering walking this same path ó to share some of
my thoughts about the job. If
you, dear reader, think too that it might be useful, continue reading;
otherwise stop here and go on to some other activity.
those who have made it this far, a disclaimer or two. Not all of this applies to my current institution, the
Creighton University School of Law. Some
of what I have to say, of course, draws on my thus-far brief tenure at
Creighton, especially the stuff that draws on mistakes Iíve made.
Some though comes from having worked for different deans at my prior
institution. Some were great;
others werenít so great. I learned from all of them, however. My observations, I should also point out, arenít in any
particular order. In particular,
one shouldnít assume that the first ones are the most important.
Rather, they just appear in the order in which they occurred to me.
Finally, as I indicated in the previous paragraph, my deaning
experience consists of one (1) year as a dean, and a few years before that as
an associate dean at another school.
with that out of the way, here are ten observations about deaning that I hope
prove useful to someone. 1.
a dean, you get plenty of chances to be unnice.
And sometimes you have to be unnice.
But that shouldnít be your default approach. It especially shouldnít be your default approach when it
comes to dealing with your predecessors.
Fortunately for me, I have two great predecessor deans on my faculty,
and they are invaluable sources of information. But anyone who does this job for a while is bound to attract
a few critics. The fact that your
predecessor(s) might have a critic or two is not license for the current dean
to be petty. If you look petty it
will diminish your moral authority, and sometimes thatís all you have as a
dean. Remember: your time as a
former dean will come.
be-nice presumption applies to faculty, staff and students as well.
Especially if you are coming in from the outside, there will always be
a few people who will be identified as problems.
Sometimes they are problems; sometimes theyíre not.
Give everyone a chance. Youíll
know when you have to be unnice to someone, and youíll be in a better
position for having given that person a chance.
Honesty is the Best Policy
sounds trivial, but it isnít. As
a dean, you get lots of chances to lie. Some
of them seem like they might be little, harmless lies, but it doesnít work
that way. Suppose, for instance,
that the staff raise pool is such that you give out raises from 2% to 6% in a
particular year. Especially if
your raises arenít subject to public disclosure, itís mighty tempting to
say, for instance, that staff raises that year ranged between 1% and 6% so
that the people who got 2% donít feel like they were left at the bottom of
the heap. Resist the temptation.
The people at the bottom of the heap should know it, even if it makes
them feel bad. Moreover, people
have a way of figuring out that you arenít telling the truth, and itíll
kill your credibility later on.
can be a hard one sometimes, but it pays off in the end.
If you are having a problem with someone, speak to that person
directly. Donít speak to
someone else, hoping that the message will get back to the source of the
problem. The message will get
back, but probably not in the form youíd like and not with the results for
which you are hoping. Of course,
this doesnít prevent you from consulting with others ó especially
Associate and Assistant Deans who are paid in part to give you advice ó
about a problem before taking action. But
the problem person ó student, faculty member, alum or other ó is entitled
to hear it from you, not from someone else.
Learn About Your Institution
is especially true for deans, like me, who come from the outside.
But, I suspect, itís not completely inapplicable to insider deans.
Every institution is peculiar, but it probably has reasons for its
peculiarities. The urge can be
overwhelming sometimes to treat foreign customs with a conclusive presumption
of wrongness. Of course, as a
dean, you are going to want to make changes, and you will make changes.
But, Iíve found from both sides of the fence, those changes are much
easier for the affected constituencies to accept if the dean has some
appreciation for the practice being displaced.
Moreover, you might actually learn something in the process.
Your new institutionís way of doing things may shed some different
light on a problem and cause you to reconsider your own thinking, even if only
partially. Highhanded attitudes
lead to very bad results.
Pick Your Spots
a dean, you can only take on so much at one time. Moreover, you find that your effectiveness diminishes if you
are spread too thinly. If you
communicate effectively that you have a couple of top priorities for a
particular year, I think youíll find that your faculty, staff and student
colleagues are likely to support you, but they might well balk at ten
priorities. Of course, that may
mean that you have to live with some things that youíd eventually like to
change. But, in the grand scheme
of things, you have to consider whether itís more important to attempt to
rearrange a schoolís faculty committee structure or try to get excellent
faculty hires. In principle the
two shouldnít be related. But
if your energy as dean is going into a controversial plan to rearrange the
faculty committees, you might just find that your influence on the hiring
process is diminished.
Let People Know What You Are Doing
a dean is a multifaceted endeavor. You
have a large number of constituencies: faculty, staff, students,
central administration, other units within the University, alumni, the general
public, and on and on. Because
you deal with all of them as dean itís easy to assume that they all
communicate with each other, and that each knows what you are doing all of the
time. It doesnít work that way.
If you are out of the office a lot (and you will be) let people know
whatís going on. This doesnít
have to be a constant excuse for self-glorification, but you should
communicate successes. So, if you
had a development trip to Southern California and made some successful calls,
thereís nothing wrong with letting people know.
But, at a minimum, your various constituencies will find your absences
easier to accept if they know that youíre working on institutional business.
And if youíre out on vacation, thatís fine too; it doesnít have
to be a state secret.
Donít Get Away from the Things that Made You Successful
of the harder decisions that I faced before taking my new job was whether to
teach a course my first year. Most
of the advice I got was in the ďnoĒ camp, but I went ahead and taught a
section of Civil Procedure anyway. Iím
really glad that I did. First
there are professional reasons that Iím happy I taught Civil Procedure.
As a newcomer to the school, it gave me a connection with students that
I never wouldíve had if I hadnít taught.
There are, of course, many things that your students (i.e, the students
in your class) will tell you that they probably wouldnít tell you if they
didnít know you from class. It also helps give you credibility with the students and with
your faculty colleagues. Somehow,
I think, it seems comforting to know that the Dean is slogging through a stack
of bluebooks as the grading deadline approaches.
Iím happy I taught Civil Procedure because teaching has always been my
favorite part of the job. It
wouldíve been alien for me to spend a year in a Law School without teaching
any students. Now, my point is
not to argue that every dean should teach in the first year.
Institutions have different customs and deans have different
preferences. But donít give up
the things you like and do well. Neither
you nor your institution will be better for it.
You Donít Have to be an Expert on Everything
donít have to be an expert on everything, which is good because you probably
arenít (I know Iím not). If
you think about all of the challenges that face law schools ó from
admissions to fundraising, from building projects to information technology
issues ó nobody could know all of this stuff.
Sometimes itís easy to get the impression that youíre supposed
to, and probably some people will even have the unrealistic impression that
Fortunately, you have
help. The most obvious source of
help is your Associate and Assistant deans and immediate administrative staff.
Particularly if theyíve been around for a while, itís amazing what
these folks know. Depending on
personalities, they may or may not be reluctant to share it with you without
invitation. The easy way to solve
this problem is to invite them by asking.
outside the School can be incredibly helpful as well. If you havenít had responsibility for finances and a budget
before, it makes sense to talk to the University financial people on a regular
basis to see where you stand. You
can build up lots of goodwill by staying in regular communication, and it can
avoid misunderstandings later on.
word of warning on this observation, however.
The fact that youíre not an expert on everything doesnít absolve
you of liability for subjects about which you arenít expert. If, for instance, you havenít had much experience in the
admissions process and the School comes up 20 students short in the first year
class, itís unlikely that the folks in central administration will give you
a soothing pat on the head because, after all, you arenít the admissions
expert. You have to rely on your
experts, but you also have to learn about these critical areas and be able to
explain and defend the decisions that have been made.
a corollary, too, which is that you have to go with your gut instinct.
At the end of the day, youíll probably be called upon to make many
decisions about subjects upon which you arenít an expert.
After youíve gotten the advice you can get, you have to make the best
decision that you can and be prepared to live with it.
Donít Duck the Blame
should come as no shock that not everything is going to go perfectly.
If you wind up in a job like this, there will eventually be failed
initiatives, bad ideas, miscommunications and misfortunes that will come home
to roost. When they do, it can be
agonizingly tempting to point fingers. Donít
do it. Whatever shortrun gains there might be are usually overtaken
by the long term costs. Of
course, if something went wrong, you have to try to get to the root of the
problem so that it doesnít repeat itself.
Part of a job like this is accepting that the lack of your personal
participation in the failure doesnít insulate you from liability.
If you accept this, you and your institution will be better off for it.
Love Your Job
is a lot of fun, or at least I think it is.
No two days are ever the same. Lots
of the people
whom you meet are smart and interesting.
The problems that you get to attack are challenging and will call upon
skills that you probably havenít fully developed. Not
every day is a joy, but on balance it can be a wonderful job.
OK to admit that you love your job. It
is not, in my judgment, necessary to walk around as if the weight of the world
is upon your shoulders. Sometimes
I think that itís a conditioned reflex of administrators to maintain glum,
weary demeanors so that they can communicate that they are Very Important
People with Very Important Jobs. This
is a bad strategy. First, itís
not good for morale. People in
the law school community often take their cue from the dean.
If the dean has a glum, weary demeanor and acts as though the job of
being dean is awful, then somehow everyone has a glum, weary demeanor and an
awful job, and nothing gets done. Second,
there are times when a glum, weary demeanor is justified because there is some
serious problem that needs attention. If the dean is permanently in a glum, weary condition, it may
make it hard for others to distinguish the real crises from the imaginary
the end, itís a wonderful and complicated job; itís both easy to love and
easy to hate. My only hope in
writing this is that one or more of my observations might make it a little
easier for someone to love.
See Patrick J. Borchers, The Death of the Constitutional
Law of Personal Jurisdiction: From
Pennoyer to Burnham and Back Again, 24 U.C. Davis L. Rev.
19 (1990)(544 footnotes). If I
do this right, Iíll come up 543 footnotes shy of my personal record.