How Does the Dean Resemble the Islets of
Donald G. Gifford
In this essay, I suggest an
admittedly bizarre analogy between the roles played by an effective dean and the
functions of an obscure component of the human body.
My last seven years as a dean -- at the University of Maryland, where the
law school is on a campus otherwise committed to the health sciences -- probably
helps to explain the peculiar choice for this analogy.
I am not the first to suggest an
analogy between an organization or community and the human body, or between the
leader of such a community and a part of the body.
In fact the leader of any organization is often referred as its
Others, probably overly enthusiastic alumni not aware of the true state
of their institution, sometimes refer to a dean as the “heart and soul” of
the law school.
My own analogy is more modest and
therefore, I think, less troubling to those faculty reluctant to ascribe to the
dean any haughty status. Instead
of comparing the dean of a law school to the head, heart, or soul of the human,
I choose to make the analogy to the lowly pancreas, and more specifically, the
islets of Langerhans, the insulin producing cells within the pancreas.
Why such a bizarre analogy?
And more importantly, what can pancreatic islet cells possibly teach us
about deaning? The contemporary law
school dean performs three roles in the law school community that are analogous
to functions of the pancreatic islets in the human body.
the law school community by enabling the “cells” of the law school
body---the faculty, students, staff, and programs---to use resources;
the external environment and leads the law school in responding to changing
balance and harmony within the law school organism.
With the lowly islet cells as a guide, we will examine
these three critical roles of the dean.
Sustaining the Law School Community
Let us begin by examining the most
important and obvious role of insulin in the human body and, by analogy, the
role of the dean within the law school. All
cells of the human body require nourishment, in the form of glucose, to
function. Glucose in the blood
cannot be absorbed through cell walls, however, without the hormone known as
insulin produced by the islets of Langerhans.
Without an adequate supply of insulin in the bloodstream, all cells in
the body would be deprived of nourishment in the form of glucose, starve, and
Whether deans like it or not,
their most important role is to provide nourishment to the cells of the law
school known as the faculty and programs. The
most tangible form of law school nourishment is financial resources. Whatever a
new dean thought her role would be prior to becoming a dean, she soon discovers
that funding is her dominant concern and the one that takes the most time.
Obviously, fundraising from alumni and other donors is a large part of
this mission, but so are negotiations with the university president or provost,
initiating and overseeing a program to increase grant-funding for faculty and
programs and, at least for the public university law school dean, lobbying
members of the state board of regents and the legislature.
For contemporary law school deans at many schools, finding a sufficient
supply of qualified and diverse tuition-paying students also is a major resource
One of my own fields of scholarly expertise is the study of
Yet, after twenty years of studying negotiation and ten years of deaning,
I fear I have very little wisdom to share regarding how best to negotiate with
presidents and provosts. Faculty
understandably assume that if their scholarship, reputation, teaching, and
service to the university are all superb, it should be easy for the dean to
claim an entitlement to a larger pool of funds from the university.
Sooner or later, a dean realizes that the faculty’s accomplishments sometimes affect the allocations of university resources, but are
not nearly as important as assumed by a group of legal scholars who spend their
time studying justice and fairness, entitlements, arguments, and building a
The law school dean’s ability to influence the overall funding of
the university is usually quite limited, so the dean generally competes with her
decanal peers for a larger slice of a fixed pie. It is a rare university
president who comes to the position with a predilection to increase the funding
for the law school. Usually
programs such as computer technology, engineering, and business are higher on
the list of priorities. Many
presidents still remember the days when the American Bar Association (ABA)
accreditation process, in their view, “bullied” them into giving their law
schools more resources than they believe were warranted.
The university president may have celebrated the Justice
Department-initiated attack on the most blatantly mercenary aspects of the ABA
accreditation process and may now seek to even the score.
Further, as a rule it is neither wise nor collegial for the law school
dean to minimize the exciting new programs being promoted by her colleagues in
the schools of engineering, medicine, or biochemistry just because they compete
with law school initiatives. Besides,
how easy is it to claim priority over a new medical school research program
guaranteed to cure cancer or another deadly disease within the decade or a
business school program promising to bring lasting economic miracles and an end
to poverty? Yet the overall level
of funding available to the university and the strength of competing claims for
resources obviously greatly affect the funding available to the law school.
Is there anything the law school
dean can do to further the law school’s prospects in her budget negotiations
with the president? Here a few tips
that might help occasionally:
Every oral or written communication
with the president or provost is a part of budget negotiations.
The dean’s ability to deliver funds at the end of the year depends
greatly on the credibility she has established during the academic year and the
president’s understanding and appreciation of the law school’s contributions
Somewhere during the preceding eleven months, the president will have
hinted in writing, orally or non-verbally at the aspect of the law school’s
programs that most interests him and, accordingly, what he may be willing to
The dean’s personal relationship with the president will influence
considerably the outcome of the budget negotiations. As a dean, it is a critical
part of your job to maintain a good personal relationship with the president,
even when (and perhaps especially so) you are pushing the president very hard to
address the law school’s needs.
When the issue is of major
importance, use your key alumni. One
of the greatest assets of any law school is its alumni.
They have power, influence, and fundraising potential disproportionate to
their numbers. Occasionally, on a
major issue such as the inadequacy of faculty salaries, the dean should arrange
a meeting so that the alumni leaders can lobby the university president on
behalf of the law school.
Make the case in writing. It is
one thing to claim that “our faculty are underpaid and we need three more
professional people in our admissions office.”
It is another thing to present a written explanation with the need,
together with an analysis of how these areas are funded at 10-15 “peer”
Remember, though, this is a negotiation, not an argument in the Court of
Do not express your
post-negotiation frustration publicly. It
is a rare negotiation when a law school dean, or anyone else for that matter,
gets everything she wanted. The
natural human reaction is to lash out verbally at the president or university.
Do not. It will not help
your credibility as dean to let the law school community know that you think you
failed in this important negotiation. Nor
will it help faculty morale, student morale, student recruiting, alumni
relationships, and development efforts if the law school community knows that
you believe the university is not supporting the law school. Further your
remarks will get back to the president, and that will not help you or the
negotiations with the university for most law school deans account for the vast
bulk of their budgets, there are other sources of nourishment for the
“cells” of the law school. Grant-funding
traditionally has not been a major source of funding for legal education.
Increasingly, however, interdisciplinary programs sponsored by law
schools in areas such as law and health care or environmental law are attractive
programs for foundation and government grants.
The dean should identify existing staff or faculty to assist faculty in
writing such grants, sponsor presentations to the faculty on this topic, and
meet personally with representatives of funding organizations considering major
grants to your law school.
Finally, if law
schools lag behind many of the other schools in obtaining research grants, they
often excel at another means of providing nourishment to the “cells” of the
law school---raising funds from their alumni and other donors.
Perhaps no aspect of law school deaning is more important today than
alumni relations and development. Within
the past decade, the amount of time devoted by deans and their professional
staffs to fundraising probably has tripled, and the amount of money raised
probably has increased by at least 1000 percent.
It is not unusual to hear a law school dean, particularly one from an
elite institution, say that she spends one-half or more of her time on
development and other external activities.
Many law school
faculty have little understanding of what a dean does to raise significant
funds, except to note that it must involve considerable amounts of good food and
wine and golfing. For the record, I
do not golf and cannot every remember tasting food during any of the meals when
I raised money for the law schools. The
nature of the assignment is better characterized by the comment of my then
thirteen-year-old daughter -- the second night after my term as dean had ended
-- when she said, in a state of amazement,
“You mean you are going to be home for dinner again tonight, Daddy?”
What is not
widely appreciated is how much work is involved in the development activities of
the law school dean. It is very
rare to ask for a significant gift during a first meeting with a prospect and,
if the dean does so, she is likely to fail or at least receive a much smaller
gift than she should. In addition,
while any dean raising money probably should have a batting average higher than
the Mendoza line, if she receives a gift
every time she asks for money, she does not have high enough goals.
The reality is that there is plenty of money in the alumni and university
bloodstreams of the law school body. Only
the insulin produced by the pancreatic cells (the dean in our analogy) can
convince that money to pass through the cell wells and enrich and nourish the
law school faculty and programs.
Responding to a Changing Environment
aspect of the islets of the Langerhans in a healthy, non-diabetic patient is
that they indirectly read the external environment and adjust the amount of
insulin secretion automatically so that the body is always functioning at peak
efficiency. The islet cells react
to the amount of glucose in the blood, which is affected by a wide variety of
factors including the amount and nature of the food consumed, level of exercise,
and stress. Thus, the islets are
extremely sensitive to changing conditions in the external environment and alter
the metabolism of the body instantly. Similarly, the effective dean must be
constantly aware of the external environment and lead the law school through
changes in its direction, programs, and priorities.
The other cells
in our law school body, the faculty, often are experts in determining changing
conditions in the external world in their own fields of expertise.
For example, the constitutional law professor perhaps can predict how the
next major Supreme Court case will be decided, and the professor teaching
international human rights can tell his colleagues about progress in the
prosecution of war crimes in Bosnia. Yet
some of these professors are not nearly as knowledgeable about changes
profoundly affecting legal education---the new demographics of the applicant
pool, new teaching technologies in an emerging era of electronic distance
learning, and the evolving market for the products of law school education, the
graduates. Even when they are aware
of changes in the external world, sometimes it is exceedingly difficult for law
school faculty to change what they have been doing for twenty years in response
to new realities.
It is incumbent
on the dean, therefore, to guide the law school through the changes necessary to
take advantage of these new realities. However important this role has been in
the past, it will be even more important in the coming decades.
Legal education is approaching a time of unprecedented change.
Yes, there have been remarkable changes during the past generation. Women and persons of color have transformed the academy.
Law is no longer conceived as a monolith, but is seen from a variety of
ideological perspectives. Clinical
education and other experiential learning programs complement classroom
instruction. The legal education industry has grown enormously.
Yet I predict
that the changes of the coming generation will be even greater.
One of the stabilizing---some would say stultifying---forces within legal
education during the past generation have been the accreditation requirements of
the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools.
These standards and requirements mandated, at least in the recent past,
such details of law school organization and structure as how many courses could
be taught by part time faculty, whether classes could be taught at remote sites
or delivered by electronic media, the extent to which the law library could rely
upon electronic media as a substitute for printed publications, teaching loads,
sabbatical policies, and how clinical programs were staffed.
In view of actions by the Department of Justice and the federal courts in
the mid-1990’s, coupled with profound changes in educational technologies now
in use in other disciplines, the handwriting is on the wall.
All law schools
will not look substantially the same in 2025 as they do now.
Sooner or later, an American law school will break the mold.
For example, such a school might end its reliance on a large number of
classes taught by high salaried faculty members teaching 30 students at a time.
Electronic distance learning and videotaped lectures taught by retired
high profile elite school professors might be coupled with precept-sections
taught by outstanding local practitioners willing to teach a course for
one-tenth the cost of a course taught by traditional faculty.
As the citadel of traditional accreditation standards falls, law schools
will respond to the changing marketplace for legal education, regardless of
whether many traditionally-minded faculty approve or not.
more profound changes are occurring in the legal profession itself and will
accelerate in the future. How many
years will it be until the largest law firm in many cities is the legal
department of a ‘big five” accounting firm, or at least a partnership
between a law firm and an accounting firm?
At the other end of the practice continuum, what does it mean to legal
education when routine personal legal matters are handled on the internet, with
or without a live, legally educated professional at the other end of the modem
and more immediately, American business and legal practice, for better or for
worse, became increasingly productive, competitive, and result-oriented during
the past decade. In view of these
transformations in the larger world, can legal education really expect the trend
of the last generation toward lower teaching loads and more generous sabbaticals
issues that many law school faculty members either do not understand or do not
think about much, probably for the same reason that those of us living downwind
from Washington, D.C. do not ruminate about the possibility of terrorist attacks
with biological weapons. It is
incumbent upon the law school dean, therefore, to be aware and knowledgeable
about these issues and to lead her faculty to a greater appreciation of them.
Ultimately, of course, the ideal law school dean needs to lead,
facilitate, and guide the process of addressing these coming profound changes in
the climate for legal practice and in the nature of legal education itself.
Being aware of
the external environment and changes in that external environment requires
effort and conscious design on the part of the law school dean; it does not
happen automatically. Most law
school deans acknowledge the importance of being involved with national legal
education organizations such as the ABA Section of Legal Education and
Admissions to the Bar, the AALS, and the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC),
and the Association of Law Deans of America (ALDA). These organizations provide
the dean with the information and insights of others regarding various trends
affecting legal education.
of seeking the advice and counsel of wise and distinguished alumni is not as
universally appreciated. During my deanships, I instituted and cultivated a
Board of Visitors consisting of the most insightful and influential alumni and
bar leaders I possibly could recruit. It
goes without saying that these Board members were extremely important to our
development efforts, career services programs, and in lobbying the university
president, the board of regents, and the state legislatures.
Less obvious to
me initially were the wisdom and experience that such alumni leaders added to
the School of Law. Then one morning
at a Board of Visitors breakfast, I looked out and realized that those assembled
in the room---managing partners of large law firms, investment bankers,
congressmen, state supreme court
judges, corporate CEO’s, and federal court judges---collectively knew much
more about the future of the legal profession than I would ever know.
Further, they had the capacity to make things happen in a manner that a
mere dean never could. I became a
much wiser and more effective dean that morning.
I recognized that to be a successful dean, I did not need to be the
wisest person regarding the future of the legal system or the most politically
astute leader in the state, any more than I needed to be the best scholar or
teacher on the faculty. I merely
was required to identify those people and motivate them to work for the law
Much of what
has been said about the law school dean emphasizes the external aspects of her
role. That is not an accident.
Law schools obviously inhabit a very complex world today.
In my view, the leadership needs of the law school are much more
externally oriented than those of other educational institutions in other times
during the past fifty years. In our time, it is not realistic to expect the dean
to spend most of her time on faculty development, curriculum, and scholarly
leadership. The leadership
requirements of law schools in the twenty-first century are different than those
of well-endowed private liberal arts colleges in the 1950’s.
In the contemporary law school world, associate deans and other faculty
leaders must assume many of the internal academic leaderships once handled by
To return to
the islet cell analogy, the most remarkable aspect of the healthy body’s
islets of the Langerhans is their ability to be sensitive to changing conditions
affecting the organism as a whole and to respond appropriately.
So it is with the dean of the contemporary law school.
The third and
final comparison between the law school dean and the islets of the Langerhans is
their respective key roles in assuring balance and harmony.
The miraculous islets secret just the appropriate amount of insulin to
keep the amount of glucose in the bloodstream at exactly the right level for the
body’s optimal functioning. Despite
the dean’s critical roles as ambassador and fundraiser, as lobbyist and
negotiator, the true test of the dean is to keep all the parts of the law school
community working together in harmony and law school programs in balance.
Somehow, not even the outstanding workshops for deans
sponsored by the ABA prepared me for the various peacekeeping missions that
deans must sometimes undertake. How
do you tell your leading donor or the editor of the state’s leading newspaper
that his child has been denied admission to the law school?
How do you calm a member of the University Board of Trustees when one of
your faculty sues his company? Somehow,
I think the islet cells have the easier task here.
And what of
balance? The dean must intervene
when faculty members want to offer four courses each year on “Law and Film”
and make it possible by dropping property from the curriculum. Yes, the deans says to the international and comparative law
specialist, I am sure the symposia in Nepal and Belarus are critical to the law
school’s reputation in your field, but you cannot have a half time teaching
load and travel funds in order to attend those conferences.
And finally, when the clinical faculty member on the ABA accreditation
inspection team argues that the law school must add four new clinical teaching
positions, all tenure track, to the eighteen existing clinical teaching
positions, the dean must find balance.
What the islets
of Langerhans do for our bodies every day, without our thinking about it, is
analogous to what sometimes keeps deans awake at night:
balance and harmony within the organism.
Appreciating Islet Cells and Deans
If those of us
in legal education are not overly modest, we recognize that our faculties
include many individuals of “extraordinary”
intelligence. In short, there is no
shortage of the human organ known as the “brain” in legal education.
We are also blessed with many “outstanding” teachers whose commitment
to their students and devotion to their teaching demonstrates considerable
“heart.” No one but the dean,
however, can serve the crucial functions of providing sustenance, serving as a
conduit to a changing world, and preserving balance and harmony within the
organism. Thus, while no one is an
the dean, at least, must serve as an “islet.”