Three Principles of Effective
Most deans today are viewed as ineffective by most of their
constituencies, which include the faculty, the students, the alumni, the central
administration, the staff, the professional community, and the regulators of the
school. This is a harsh
observation, but a true one, and it does not necessarily reflect badly on deans. Few human beings could seem effective to all these varied
constituencies, with their often conflicting goals and values.
Yet some deans pull it off. As
a relatively new dean who at times aspires to join that select number, I have
spent some time observing effective deans, in law schools and in other
disciplines. Three principles
suggest themselves from observation of effective deans:
An effective dean acts on the assumption that everyone associated with
the school feels under-appreciated at all times.
An effective dean recognizes that most of the progress of the school will
come from a very small number of key steps, rather than from the hundreds of
less important matters that nevertheless require the dean’s attention.
An effective dean keeps his or her own school, and his or her own role,
in appropriately humble perspective.
The short essay that follows amplifies these three principles.
It is not an attempt to distill the complete essence of management for a
dean. Most effective deans are
first and foremost effective managers of intelligent and talented people, just
as are most leaders of business enterprises, government agencies, and non-profit
organizations. The extensive
literature on private and public sector management is therefore highly relevant
to deans, as is the professional training in management available now in a wide
array of programs and formats. Yet
law schools and universities present unique management challenges that often
defeat the most talented leader imported from success in the profession or
elsewhere. The first challenge is to motivate extremely talented
and fiercely independent people who feel unappreciated. And they all do.
Acting on the Assumption That Everyone Feels Under-appreciated at All
Almost everyone in a law school is desperate for external recognition of
his or her achievements and success.
Law students, who compete aggressively but receive grades only twice a
year and little feedback in between, are particularly starved for attention.
But professors are little different.
Indeed, even in moments when a faculty member is making tremendous
professional strides – the article published to a glowing reception in a major
journal, the class that is going extraordinarily well, the attention of the
media to the professor’s work – that faculty member is likely to be
experiencing discouragement about how he or she is valued by the school.
The administrators and staff are even more vulnerable to discouragement.
They serve demanding students and are ultimately responsible to tenured
faculty who seem to have much greater freedom in their work, and much better job
security, than they do. Alumni
are also prone to feel taken for granted by the school. Many believe they hear from the school only when it needs
money, as a gift or as a loan payment, and that other alumni whose contributions
to the school and the world are less significant nevertheless receive greater
This seems a grim and exaggerated picture.
There are of course exceptions.
Almost all of us, at some point in our academic careers, have felt
treasured and respected by the administration or the dean.
And some have learned to treasure the moments of appreciation that a
harried and busy institution can afford, and to get on with the work the rest of
the time, including during the many instances where a personal sacrifice for the
institution goes uncelebrated. But
most of us, most of the time, feel underappreciated.
We doubt whether the authority of the school, however it is constituted,
really understands what we do for the school, and whether it appreciates us. A casual survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, or
adminstrators will almost always confirm this.
An example may help illustrate.
I once attended a glamorous dinner, at the residence of a university
president, to honor a professor who was retiring.
The food was excellent, the speeches and tributes moving, and the
recognition of a life’s work impressive.
But the professor, enjoying the moment, still confessed to me his deepest
reaction: fury at having been
denied a summer grant by an administrator more than a decade before.
Academic institutions, law schools included, inspire long memories and
injured egos more than most other workplaces.
An effective dean, confronting this reality, learns never to assume that
any constituent feels appreciated and valued in his or her work for the school.
Instead, the dean praises and acknowledges work of students, faculty,
staff, alumni, and administrators all the time, on every occasion, and
constantly creates new occasions to celebrate the people of the school.
can get a little tiring, both for the dean and the few souls who listen to the
dean often. At every
reception, at every commencement, at every faculty meeting, at every alumni
gathering, at every student party, the dean must be prepared to praise the right
people for the right things – for example, acknowledging the people who have
put the event together, or the milestones that have occurred in the school and
the people who made them happen. The dean has to know what people are doing and what
things they are doing well, and has to show that he or she knows that by talking
about it with them in public and private settings.
This requires, among other things, reading the scholarship of dozens of
faculty members; attending manifold events put on by different student
organizations and administrators; visiting classes on a regular basis; learning
details of what alumni are doing and calling or writing them individually about
achievements; taking time in a packed day to stop by the admissions office or
the registrar’s suite to see how things are going; and making an effort to
know staff members and students by name.
The most effective deans do this, apparently effortlessly and always
seeming to enjoy every detail of it.
The reality is that this is work, requiring attention to detail,
patience, and dedication.
The most impressive display of this principle I have ever seen came
during the dedication of a new law school building at the University of
Tennessee. During the remarks
of the Governor of Tennessee at the outdoor ceremony in front of the building,
the automatic outdoor sprinklers commenced spraying part of the audience.
The dean, Richard Wirtz, rose and vanished into the building, and the
sprinklers promptly stopped, to much acclaim for the dean from every subsequent
speaker. Then Dean Wirtz rose
to speak, and in his remarks he took time to thank, by name (and without making
a joke of the incident) the custodian who knew the building so well that he
could get to the shutoff valve in seconds.
A good dean can make light of a difficult situation and apologize on
behalf of the institution; an effective dean also uses the opportunity to thank
by name the person who has performed the rescue.
There is a corollary to the principle that a dean will never go wrong by
assuming someone he or she is working with feels under-appreciated:
a dean must exercise extraordinary discretion in addressing those things
about his or her colleagues, students, administrators, alumni, and staff that he
or she does not appreciate. A
negative comment from the dean about any aspect of a person’s work will almost
always have greater impact, and a wider audience, than the dean intended.
For the student, a criticism in class from the dean will be perceived as
more troubling; for a faculty member, it will be assumed that the comment is
directly tied to next year’s salary increase; for an administrator, it will
produce unintended sleepless nights.
This negative effect will be greatly magnified whenever the criticism is
received second-hand. That
makes things lonely for the dean. Frustrations
with the work of colleagues or students must be kept private, communicated only
directly to the colleague concerned, and then with care and in context.
Confidants must be very few and very discrete, and preferably family
Key Steps To Advance The School
Effective deans devote most of their effort to the very few major things
that make a school get better. At
most law schools at the beginning of this century, that means hiring
extraordinary faculty and administrators, obtaining major gifts, securing a
budget that assures institutional health, and creating an environment in
which students and faculty can thrive better than at competing schools.
If one looks to any law school over the past fifty years, and honestly
appraises what has made it thrive or drift, most of the success or failure of
the school will result from success or failure on these four things.
Test this against your institutional memory of your own school: Odds
are great that the key steps were a handful of faculty or administrators who
came or left, major gifts or budgeting support that enabled progress or
programs, and development of an institutional strategy superior to those of
competitors. These are the
priorities on which deans should spend their time.
None of these priorities will surprise most deans.
What is surprising is how difficult it is to spend much time working on
them. Effective deaning
usually requires long hours. Others
have accurately described the large volume of both routine and unexpected
meetings, correspondence (including electronic mail), telephone calls,
interviews, and miscellaneous writing that a dean must do, and do promptly, in
order to steward a law school.
There is also an extensive speaking and travel schedule.
The speeches require careful writing.
A handful of remarkable deans produce off-the-cuff masterpieces (though I
sometimes suspect part of the virtuoso performance consists of making a
carefully planned address appear unrehearsed).
The travel, which usually includes meetings with alumni and key
supporters of the school, also requires careful preparation.
Upon return, even a dean who aggressively uses email and cell phones on
the road will usually find a backlog of people and problems that require urgent
There are other time demands that necessarily keep a dean from devoting
attention to the key steps that advance the school.
They are teaching, scholarship, and family. Deans have had both personal and professional lives before
becoming deans. Professionally,
those lives l turned upon teaching well and writing meaningful
scholarship. Neither is a skill
that can be once learned and retained forever, like riding a bicycle.
Teaching requires careful preparation, even when a course has been taught
many times before, and the best teachers keep up with both the methods and the
substance in their courses through painstaking effort every day.
Writing is harder still. The
best scholarship in law as in other fields requires a discipline of reading and
writing that must be maintained, week in and week out, or the skill will atrophy
quickly. A dean who takes
pride in his or her accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, and who hopes to
return to full-time teaching and writing at the conclusion of an administrative
career, must somehow maintain a first-hand connection to the classroom and to
the real struggle to produce scholarship.
That is a huge time commitment, and the dean will often be reminded how
much time is required by seeing his or her colleagues in action. Most deans, of course, at some point surrender the
struggle to remain scholars, and many give up on teaching as well, but that also
poses risks, one of which is the increasing distance between the daily
experience of the faculty and the dean.
An even greater priority for most deans is their families.
An academic life is in many ways a blessing to families, because faculty
members often have blocks of unscheduled time, including summers and semester
breaks, when the pace of work relents and there are more opportunities for
sustained attention to children, spouse, or partners.
Not so for deans. Becoming a
dean can thus be a particularly tough transition for family members.
There can be no substitute for the dean’s personal time and attention
to family, particularly during this transition.
For these reasons and others, the amount of time a dean is able to devote
to the key steps to advancing the school is remarkably small.
Effective deans delegate, of course, and if the school is particularly
rich in resources they can delegate a lot.
But the dean of even the wealthiest school will need to be aggressive in
carving out time for the greatest institutional priorities, or else he or she
will never get to them.
How do effective deans keep their attention on the highest priorities for
advancing the school? My
observation suggests that each dean is unique.
Some are meticulous schedulers and prioritizers, who insist upon a
certain number of donor contacts each week, and who consciously choose to
neglect other administrative issues in the pursuit of a key faculty recruit or a
state legislator. Others are
masters at finding the person who is their complement on the faculty or in the
administration – the person who can selflessly, and in the dean’s name, take
care of the manifold important issues that nevertheless might otherwise preclude
the dean’s careful attention to the key steps.
Still others are just lucky. They
have the right personality and personal interest at the key moment, so that they
choose to spend most of their time on what, in retrospect, turns out to have
been a transforming opportunity. Each
dean needs to find his or her own way here.
My point is simply that most deans will fail if they do not have a
strategy for saving the bulk of their effort for the institutional needs that
Lest this all seem abstract, I must invoke John Sexton, the dean of the
New York University Law School. By
almost any measure, he has been the most effective dean of his generation.
His school has grown dramatically in resources, in reputation, and in the
impact it has on its student’s lives and on the legal and scholarly community.
That success is undoubtedly attributable in part to Dean Sexton’s
unique personality and skills, as well as to the work of a legion of talented
faculty and staff at New York University.
But just as certainly, it is attributable to the dean’s keeping his
focus (and most of his efforts) on a relatively small number of priorities,
including major donors and a strategic vision for the school.
A Humble Perspective on School and Self
A third attribute of most successful deans is that they manage to convey
humility about their school when dealing with the rest of the University, and
about their own role when dealing with everybody.
American law schools today are fortunate indeed.
Law faculty salaries rival those of almost all other disciplines, and
most law school facilities are the envy of the rest of the University.
In many law schools intellectual life has never been more vigorous, and
at the best there can be found workshops, courses, symposiums, and debates that
draw upon the best scholars and students the University has to offer.
Many law alumni are prosperous and supportive of their schools; law
deans, unlike most schools of education, music, or religion, have many real
prospects for generous alumni support.
This puts the typical law dean in an enviable position in working within
the University. It can be
tempting to become arrogant, to assume that the law school’s fortunate
position is based entirely upon merit and is one of permanent entitlement.
The effective dean resists that temptation for two reasons.
First, however important and helpful the law school can be to the
University, it is not the core of the University, and should not act like it is.
Law schools are professional schools that primarily exist to train bright
students to practice law and to influence the development of law.
That is a vital mission, particularly in the United States, but it is
only a part, and at times a small one, of the central pursuit of knowledge at
the University. Second, a law
dean who does not manifest an understanding of the broader importance of the
University, and of the law school’s subsidiary role in the University, will
not be effective in University politics over the long run. Such a dean is
destined to receive less support than would otherwise be possible from key
allies of the school in other departments, colleges, and in the central
The effective law dean is also humble about his or her own role.
When a dean steps down, it is often accompanied by a speech or article
describing the huge steps forward the institution has made under his or her
stewardship. Hyperbole is the order of the day; the listener is
often left thinking that, like Moses, the dean came upon his people in debased
servitude and led them to the Promised Land.
The vocabulary of deaning can sometimes reflect this misleading model:
deans are described as “running” their schools, and they can be caught
saying “I hired Professor Smith” or “I raised $2 million”.
No dean is Moses. Law
schools are remarkably stable, long-lived institutions that change slowly and,
often as not, are the product of the efforts of many deans and their colleagues,
over many lifetimes. Few
constituents are impressed by, or willing to sacrifice for, a dean who manifests
the belief that he or she is the one most responsible for the accomplishments of
An effective dean realizes and
communicates an understanding that his or her role is most often that of
facilitating the triumphs of others – of colleagues, alumni, students, and
staff. The dean’s is the role of
steward rather than prophet, most of the time.
When a dean is appropriately humble about the role of the school within
the University, and about his or her own role as dean, he or she can credibly be
boastful and exuberant about the vision for the school and the importance of
supporting it. Effective
deans are boastful and exuberant in this way, and their enthusiasm is attractive
deaning were a science, this essay would have identified the three defining
traits that distinguish the species of effective deans from all others.
There are surely other traits that I have neglected, and just as surely
an exceptional dean who has succeeded despite never showing appreciation, never
attending to major donors or faculty hiring or strategic vision, and always
evincing arrogance. Nevertheless,
I believe the three principles described are in fact practiced by most effective
deans, and that most ineffective deans violate at least one and often all of
them with regularity. This
correlation may not be causation, but it is strong enough that it ought to give
new deans pause. Deaning is
an honorable and important occupation, and it gives tremendous satisfaction to
those who are willing to work hard on the right things, and who can take
satisfaction in sublimating their personal glory to that of the success of their
school and the people who comprise it.