ABC’s OF LAW SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION: A GUIDE FOR THE NEW DEAN
a new dean entering the third academic year of a deanship, I write to pass on
some lessons I have learned. A
more experienced dean might find some of them too obvious to mention, but
having just learned some of them, I believe you will find them helpful.
first lesson I learned is that, unless you have served as a dean before, you
are most likely not prepared. You
have no doubt been successful as a lawyer, teacher, scholar and, perhaps,
associate dean. It is that
success that makes this opportunity available to us.
Those roles, however, allowed a higher degree of focus and provided far
more accessible means of evaluating success.
For example, it is possible, with preparation and enthusiasm, to teach
an almost perfect class. It is
also possible, with hard work, to write an almost perfect article or treatise.
Although it is possible to have a very fulfilling day as a dean, there
will always be many things you could have done better.
deanship presents a tremendous opportunity to make a difference to an
institution and to its people. Its difficulty lies in the variety of details you must
master, the breadth of responsibility and the variety of very human issues you
will confront each day. The
following suggestions involve the attitudes and skills that I believe will
help you succeed and enjoy the opportunity.
Awe and Awareness
is important not to lose the feeling of awe that you first experience when you
realize the scope of the job. It
is also important continually to be aware that you have been placed on a stage
and that your actions and words are far more visible than ever before.
is an appropriate reaction to the responsibilities you now have.
Even within the framework of reporting to a University President and
observing the principles of faculty governance, you have been entrusted with
responsibility for a lot. You
must balance a budget in the tens of millions of dollars.
With an independent recommendation on tenure and promotion decisions,
you can affect the future quality and tone of the institution and have a
dramatic impact on people’s lives. With
the final word on student appeals and honor code violations and an important
voice in admissions policies, you will affect careers.
With the ability to influence salary, hiring, curriculum, operations,
research efforts, development and the image and direction of the school, you
will have a lot to think about and much to appreciate.
will find that you have the opportunity to work with some very impressive
members of the faculty and the administrative staff and be trusted with their
confidences. As you continue to
learn more about their abilities and character, your sense of awe and
commitment will be renewed.
It is that sense of awe and
appreciation for the difference you can make that will sustain you through
occasional long hours and the disposition of countless details.
will become aware that your position provides unique opportunities for you to
be involved in outside activities that can affect your school.
You will also learn that staff, students and faculty are now more aware
of your presence and your actions than you are used to.
Finally, you will want continually to be aware that your unique
position gives you the opportunity to make a positive difference.
Dean John Sexton has pointed out, a dean is invited to participate in many
things simply because he or she is the dean.
(John Sexton, however, might be invited on his own merits.)
You will find yourself on panels and at functions with respected
judges, bar presidents, university officials and other leaders of the
community. It is an opportunity
to make your school look and sound good and to gain support as well as ideas
for the future. You will be
expected to be a participating and public member of this new club.
These events will provide you an opportunity to expand your network of
contacts and you should ensure that you meet several new people at every
function. You can never tell when
a chance encounter will lead to a scholarship fund, a guest speaker, an
adjunct hiring opportunity or an idea for curricular reform.
In a world where “who you know” is often important, your school’s
influence will grow as you expand your contacts.
You will also find that you have met many interesting people, among the
alumni, judges and bar leaders, some
of whom will become friends.
also need to be aware that you are under constant scrutiny as people from
within and without the school look for messages from your behavior.
Whether intentionally or not, you can help set the institution’s tone
for the day, the week or the year by your actions.
If you are friendly and positive and spend time greeting people, it
should make a difference. People
want to work at and support a
place where the future is positive and the working and learning environment
cheerful. If your words or
actions set a negative tone, however, or if you complain too much about the
University, the faculty or other elements of the community, your negativity
will be contagious and will make your school a less comfortable place to work
and stay. Your words will be
repeated and will have a far broader audience than you intended.
Actions can speak as well. If
you return from a University budget or policy meeting and put your fist
through the wall, for example, staff members will deduce certain things about
the outcome of the meeting. (They
will also stay away from you for a few days.)
The fact that people now take you more seriously by reason of your
position presents a tremendous opportunity.
As Dean Tom Read has pointed out, a dean is uniquely situated to do
something good for someone else virtually every day.
A timely thank you note or a “well done” can matter a lot when it
comes from your office. Personal
notes to speakers, alumni leaders, faculty members, staff members and students
are a way to tell people that you, and through you the law school community,
value their contributions. We all
like to feel recognized and valued. Too,
you are uniquely situated to sometimes adjust the bureaucratic rules in a way
that makes people’s lives better or their dreams easier to achieve.
It may be that these little things done for individuals will have a far
more long lasting impact than the reforms you lead or the money you raise.
A continual awareness of these chances to make a difference for people
will keep you vital and interested.
you are a former member of a law faculty, it should come as no surprise to you
that not everyone will agree with your vision for the future nor with the
means you propose to achieve that vision.
A University is about checks and balances and your authority is not
unfettered. Some amount of
tension and disagreement is inevitable and healthy and it will be your
bargaining and compromising that will keep your school moving forward.
It is important not to let your ego get in the way of reaching outcomes
that will help the school. If you
can keep your overall goals paramount in your mind and be flexible in how you
are willing to achieve them, you will be more successful than if you are
rigidly wedded to a single solution. If
you can resist the urge to take personally any questioning or opposition, you
will succeed far more often.
advocacy is necessary, preparation is vital.
If you have tables or charts of important facts or trends and can
express your position succinctly and well, you may not need to bargain.
There may be agreement with your position because it appears well
thought out. If you initially
present it in a sloppy or imprecise manner, however, it may incite people to
oppose it. These positions of opposition may be difficult to change once taken
no matter how solid any follow up presentation.
A major key to
successful outcomes in a bargaining environment is good listening skills.
If you are the person with the power in a relationship, you can still
gain a lot from listening. Listening
and asking follow up questions shows respect to the other person and will help
build a future cooperative relationship.
By staying calm and listening, you can often learn something that will
change your mind or find a way to meet some of the person’s needs without
compromising the needs of the school. If
you are unable to grant the request, you can at least explain the basis of
your position and ask for ideas on how to the person’s needs in the future.
This will help ensure subsequent productive communications and even a
small modification can reassure the person that he or she is respected and
all situations of potential disagreement, tension or bargaining, listening and
asking questions will give you insights into the other party’s real needs,
needs that you can perhaps meet without losing progress on your important
goals. Don’t insist on making
all the decisions or finding all the solutions yourself.
If you can reach a joint decision, it will be much more broadly
supported. If you can sometimes
listen without interrupting and resist the temptation to finish others’
sentences, you will learn a lot.
job of law school dean is, at its heart, about communication.
Your communication efforts will affect the school’s reputation, pace
its progress and determine whether you will have a cooperative working
the school’s chief spokesperson, you will be responsible for communicating
the vision of the school for the future.
You have a unique opportunity to affect how the world views your
school. There will be uncountable
occasions to stand up and say a few words about the school ranging from
admissions and orientation events to graduations, dedications, alumni events
and bar functions. As Dean Donald
Gifford has recommended, you should give some thought to why you took the job
and why the school has a good future, reduce those thoughts into a short theme
and insure that you spread this theme as widely as possible.
It is imperative that you be positive, friendly and helpful.
You should also ensure that you are up to date on the recent
accomplishments and publications of the faculty, staff and students.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is telling the world about
the talented people with whom you work. These
positive messages can be conveyed in private conversations as well as in
public talks. Because you will be
“on-duty” at many social events, you will find a clear head and
non-alcoholic beverages provide a tremendous advantage.
the interpersonal level, you will want to try to have face-to-face
communication with people whenever you make important decisions that affect
them. E-mail, memoranda, voice
mail, etc. are poor substitutes that can create misunderstandings.
If you are unable to give them what they want or must decide something
adverse to their interests, face to face conversations at least reassure them
that they have been heard and are respected.
They may not agree with you but are more likely to continue to respect
you if you explain and are accountable for your decision.
If a face-to-face meeting is impracticable, a telephone conversation is
still much better than an impersonal e-mail or memorandum. It allows both parties to exchange ideas and to clarify
messages that might lead to misunderstanding.
The alternative of relying on others to carry your messages runs a
substantial risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding.
You will be amazed by what you are alleged to have said once the
message has gone through two or three people.
Personal communication sends a message of respect as well.
Just as your own words and
actions will be misreported, so will the words and actions of others. Do not spend a lot of time or emotion reacting to reports
based on hearsay. You may hear
that Professor X said something inappropriate or is upset about something or
did something unbelievable and later find out it is not true or the report has
been altered substantially in the retelling.
Wasting emotional capital or time on such reports until you have had a
chance to confirm them is something you cannot afford to do.
Often you will be cast in the
role of mediator between competing groups or individuals.
Where there is disagreement, the best way to resolve it is to get
everyone affected in the same room, listen to everyone, get them to listen to
each other and help them reach a resolution.
Often e-mails, memoranda, hearsay reports, ill founded assumptions, etc.,
have made them think they are more diametrically opposed than they really are.
Too, people are often more inflammatory and unreasonable on the phone or
in e-mail than in public. In the
meeting and in your presence, they may take more reasonable positions.
By helping to expose the misunderstandings and reveal the actual facts,
you can give both sides the opportunity to save face and reach a reasonable
accommodation in light of new information.
faculty meetings and administrative staff meetings will be vital to avoiding
misunderstandings as will be regular meetings with student and alumni leaders.
If you are able to use them for discussion and input, rather than just
for announcements, you will find that they will create a more cooperative
working environment and a much more fertile environment for innovation and
progress. This will be more likely
to occur if you design an agenda to get through simple items efficiently and if
you do your best not to interpret suggestions as personal criticism.
It will also be important to allow a forum in which people can question
your decisions on controversial matters. Dealing
openly with an issue, providing your reasons and taking responsibility for your
actions may sometimes be uncomfortable but will give the institution an
opportunity to reach closure on the matter.
Failing to confront an issue out in the open may allow resentments to
grow and gaps to widen.
are admittedly simple things. Mostly
they are about treating people with respect and trying to be decent in a
position where it could be easy to be arbitrary.
You cannot do this job by yourself and the cooperation of many people
including co-workers and students will be vital to any success your institution
will enjoy during your term.
Working with them and for them will also be what makes the job worthwhile
I have been blessed so far with the opportunity to work with a
thoughtful and productive faculty, a wise President, a committed and
dedicated administrative staff and an involved alumni, bar and judiciary.
It is difficult to imagine getting anything done without their help.
*Dean, Vice President and Professor of Law,
Widener University School of Law, Wilmington, Delaware and Harrisburg,
short essay is dedicated to the memory of the late John W. Stoepler, former
Dean at the University of Toledo. Among
his contributions of wisdom, he reminded us at his decanal installation
ceremony that deans are “installed like air conditioners and other
appliances,” rather than inaugurated or invested. One of the things that
make the job of law school dean rewarding is the opportunity to work with
other deans. I have benefited
greatly from the wisdom and advice of many and am particularly grateful to
Don Gifford, Tim Heinsz, Bruce Wolk and Larry Dessem in this regard.
I also thank Dean Robert Walsh for hosting the helpful New Deans’
Workshop. Finally, I thank
Professor William Richman of the University of Toledo College of Law for
thinking of and organizing this innovative forum.