Stranger in a Strange Land: Baptist Dean of a
Jesuit Law School
Mack A. Player
In early 1994 when I was first approached by Santa Clara about
being dean of its law school, I had to do basic, very basic, research before I
returned their call. [This predated Web pages and my ability to access the
technology that then existed] A university guide book gave me the basics.
"A comprehensive private/Jesuit university. Founded in 1851 (oldest
university in California). Liberal arts emphasis. 4000 undergraduates. Law
school and graduate programs in business, education, and engineering. Location:
Santa Clara, California."
This sent me scurrying to an atlas. Where is Santa Clara? As
it is to most non-Californians, the profusion of California communities (and
universities) with the "Santa" or "San" prefix was
bewildering. Santa Clara is not to be confused with nearby Santa Cruz,
[University of California at,] or Santa Barbara, [University of California at, ]
nor with the communities of Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Santa Rosa, etc. etc. I
was relieved to spot Santa Clara in northern California, adjacent to San
Jose, about 45 miles from of San Francisco, as opposed to southern
Herein foretold one of the principal issues that would
confront me as dean, namely the lack of national identity or even basic name
recognition of Santa Clara. In addition to the absence of an immediate
geographical name hook (e.g., South Dakota or San Francisco), Santa Clara has no
football team. And as a small university, it rarely finds itself in the national
sports spotlight. With its undergraduate emphasis, Santa Clara has no major
research presence on the national scene. Its graduates tended to come from and
settle in California. A few years ago Santa Clara even had to change its name
from University of Santa Clara (USC) to Santa Clara University (SCU) to avoid
confusion with the large, well-known USC in Los Angeles.
Now the Jesuit part. My childhood was spent in a very, very
Protestant area of southern Missouri. Attorney General John Ashcroft and I
attended the same high school, one year apart, which gives one a flavor of the
theological bent of the community. I was reared as a Baptist, but in my hometown
"Baptist" was considered "high church." Catholics were
scarce and kept to themselves.
At the time of Santa Clara’s call, I had spent my
professional life in state law schools. And while over the years through
experience and education I had learned a bit about Catholicism, my knowledge of
Jesuits did not extend beyond a vague impression of black robes in the Canadian
wilderness. So, the guide book description of Santa Clara as "Jesuit"
sent me to a third reference work, the Encyclopedia Britannica. What I read
there that was the extent of my Jesuit education prior to my first discussions
with the administration of the university.
In my initial interview with the president (A Jesuit, of
course), wanting to make sure there was no misunderstanding, I raised the
religion issue. "Father" I said, "Do you know that I am not
Catholic?" His tongue-in-cheek response: "I assume you are not
virulently anti-Catholic?" For him that was the end of it. My religion was
not an issue with the university administration. But it was, at least a little,
with me. Notwithstanding a residue of cautions about Catholicism from my Baptist
youth, an agnostic’s view of many of Catholic theological positions, strong
disagreement with some of the Church’s ethical/political stances, and an
almost complete ignorance of Jesuits, my feelings over the years had by then
evolved into a generally positive perception of the Church. Even so I was not at
all sure I would be comfortable as a Baptist dean of Catholic/Jesuit
institution. Would institutional religiousness be pervasive beyond my personal
comfort level? When it came to discussion of reproductive freedom or gay rights
would there be battles over academic freedom? Would there be awkward
religious-like intrusions into the faculty appointment and tenure process? As a
religious "outsider," would I be so treated and assigned to the
My interview visits to the University put to rest many of
these concerns. Aside from a beautiful, historical mission church, there was no
overwhelming (to a non-Catholic) presence of religious symbols on campus.
Indeed, the general absence of religious symbolism has been said to make some
Catholic traditionalists uneasy. In Santa Clara’s law school, for example, the
sole indication of the School’s religious heritage was and remains a discrete
crucifix in a corner of the library.
Interview conversations with the law faculty and senior law
school staff further eased my concerns. I discovered that academic freedom,
promotion, tenure, hiring, etc. had never been an issue at the school. Indeed, a
written "Constitution" insured the School’s autonomy in these
matters, and I have found that the Constitutional guarantees were honored
without challenge. Even a Jesuit attorney or academic would be appointed to the
faculty only following procedures applicable to any other faculty appointment.
Then, as now, it is my impression that there are on the
faculty at least as many non-Christians as Catholics. That no religious census
is taken spoke volumes about religious tolerance. Certainly there was no
informal Catholic quota in operation. There were gay and lesbian faculty
members, a recognized gay student organization, non-Christian organizations, as
well as a wide range of ethnic and political diversity on the faculty and in the
student body. As in any American university issues surrounding reproductive
rights, legal protection for sexual orientation, euthanasia, the death penalty,
and cloning were discussed and written about from all perspectives at university
sponsored conferences and in law school publications. Clearly there was a
separation of church and education. Church doctrines quite simply were not
intruding into the academic institution or limiting in any way full and open
debate. Indeed, my experience now is that there are greater more frequent
attempts to intrude into academic freedom in a state school by political leaders
(often) than I have found in my seven years as dean at a Jesuit school (never).
I have seen deans at other schools being forced to defend academic freedom
actively and to protect faculty from retaliation. I have never had to go on the
defensive at Santa Clara.
To the extent religion is present, I have found it positive.
There is an ethical underpinning and a social commitment that is a part of daily
life. Such focus and attention often had been on the margin at state
institutions. (It is, for example, no constitutional sin at Santa Clara to ask
for divine guidance at a university event. By tradition, however, such prayers
are non-denominational). Religion is present for those who want the comfort and
support it provides (chapel, campus ministry, religious counseling), but
religion does not intrude into the lives where it is not welcomed. Certainly, my
background would make me ultra sensitive, if it were otherwise.
By coincidence one of my interview visits to campus coincided
with a university awards ceremony to which I was invited. One of the honorees,
receiving the highest award of the University, was an openly gay physician who
had dedicated his career to serving intercity victims of AIDS. He and his
partner were present and were embraced by a standing ovation. That suggested in
strong terms that theological doctrine did not infect the business of the
As a closer, I asked myself, could a University be bad if it
not only served wine at official functions, but had its own wine label?
The more I have learned about Jesuits and their view of
education and their active involvement and commitment, the more I suspected
there was a distinction between "Jesuit" and "Catholic."
While all Jesuits are Catholic, and committedly so, clearly, at least to my eye,
not all Catholics seem fully comfortable with the tolerant, "liberal"
view of "theology" and the social activism practiced by many Jesuits,
a liberalism that fits quite well in most law schools and their faculties. I
could see that one might feel a bit ill at ease in a Catholic institution, yet
be quite comfortable at a Jesuit university.
This observation seemed to be confirmed anecdotally soon after
I became dean. At a "Red Mass," a celebration organized by the Thomas
More Society, a representative of the Society described the Society as one of
"Catholic lawyers." He quickly corrected himself by saying that the
Society was open to all, and that in fact many members were not Catholic. The
President of the University followed, issuing his general welcome to the dinner.
He continued by stating that he was quite sure the Thomas More Society welcomed
non-Catholic members. Tongue in cheek he opined that knew that at least a few
members of the Society who were Jesuits.
So, seven years ago, making my Baptist mother somewhat
nervous, I was very comfortable, even excited about undertaking this new
experience. A first time dean, a first experience in a private law school, and a
first exposure ever to Jesuits. In the seven years that have followed I have not
regretted that decision.
Since their founding by Ignatius Loyola, Jesuits have been
committed to secular engagement. They were never cloistered, but are of the
"real world." From their inception they were committed to education,
and founded some of the oldest and most academically rigorous universities in
the world. The education they envisioned, revolutionary at the time, was to be,
not for scholastics, but "real world practical", drawing from and
providing it to people who lived in society. Coupled with this real life
education of engagement was a commitment to improve the quality of life for the
Jesuits are thus trained for the secular world: astronomers,
physicists, biologists, mathematicians, political scientists. The president of
Santa Clara University, for example, in addition to his theological training,
has a doctorate in accounting, and was a professor in the school of business
before moving into administration.) Jesuits become lawyers (a dangerous
combination); one currently is on the law faculty. This fundamental commitment
to engaged education for a just society provides a beacon that removes much of
the ambiguity about the role or mission of the law school in a Jesuit
university. Such a law school does not have to search for an answer to the
question, "why are we are here?"
Then there is the historical Jesuit commitment to academic
rigor. Pushing policies of rigor will never raise an official eyebrow. Indeed,
any step that compromises rigor is frowned upon. Most deans that I know are
comfortable with that.
The Jesuit tradition of independent thinking demands that we
examine critically, question, challenge, probe and inquire. This is precisely
what we in legal education believe we do in training lawyers. So another
comfortable fit between legal education and Jesuit philosophy.
Because a critical approach to education is part of the Jesuit
tradition, the administration of the university, and even the order itself,
defend and protect academic inquiry from interference regardless of the source.
In my experience Jesuits are academic freedom’s ultimate and strongest
advocates. Thus, a dean at a Jesuit law school (at least this one) is not
forced, as are deans at some law schools, to defend the scope of their faculty’s
inquiries and the dissemination of their ideas. Academic freedom is not an issue
here, and if it became an issue, that freedom would be defended much further up
the chain of command than from the dean’s office. It’s nice for a dean not
to have to worry with that.
There is a comfortable consistency between legal education and
the Jesuits’ view of real world engagement, teaching and learning through real
life experiences. As we know, there is nothing more "real world" than
the study and practice of law. And today with the increased emphasis on
experiential learning in law schools, the Jesuit models of education fit
precisely what we are about in the modern law schools. Again, a comfortable
Santa Clara, as many other Jesuit law schools, was founded
about a century ago in large part to provide access to the legal profession for
the children of recent immigrants. For reasons of culture, language, economics,
and no doubt prejudice these first generation children of the Irish and Italians
could not secure admission into the then existing "elite" law schools.
The Jesuits responded by creating law schools to educate those new minorities,
many of them with evening classes to allow them to live while going to school.
In Santa Clara’s case, the early law classes were predominately the children
of Italian farmers and merchants who had settled in what is now "Silicon
Valley". As succeeding waves of immigrants came to the area, the
demographics of the school changed. Greater numbers of Santa Clara law students
had parents from Mexico and Japan, and now, most recently, from Southeastern
Asia and the Middle East. This defined role, with its unambiguous commitment to
broadening access to education and greater diversity in the legal profession, is
another fixed beacon that is inherently part of being a Jesuit institution.
When reviewing concrete factors of being a dean at a Jesuit
Law School, perhaps the greatest to my mind is the virtual absence of
"politics" in the worst sense of the word. Having spent years in state
law schools, occasionally in administrative roles, and having observed from a
safe distance at other times, my hat is off to every dean of every state
institution in the country. I couldn’t deal with it. I will leave it to them
to describe their jobs, but it seems to me that the posturing, blustering,
threatening, and bullying by elected officials (executive and legislative),
forces deans to spend a great deal of their time protecting the school and its
community from the ravages of neo- know-nothingism. This critical political
constituency in control of not only purse strings but existence requires of such
deans a high tolerance for nonsense and diplomatic skills that would put to
shame the skills of the pin striped crew at the State Department. Many of my
colleagues rise to the challenge and are good at it. I would abhor it and would
do it terribly.
To say that there are no politics in a private school would be
untrue. Certainly, there are faculty, alumni, a board of trustees, university
hierarchy, et al. But these folks are well informed, well meaning pussy cats,
genuinely concerned about the institution, which stands in stark contrast to the
self-serving, half wits in state legislatures who pander to the lowest level of
their constituents playing the "let’s kill all the lawyers"
theme. Dealing with them, even being nice to them, would drive me mad.
One might ask, are not the Jesuits or the Catholic Church a
remote and meddlesome constituency that must be served? In my experience, No! In
my seven years as dean at Santa Clara I have never, not once, received any
criticism of the School, faculty, students, or staff from that quarter. My
appearances before the University Trustees, a few of whom are Jesuits, have
produced from them informed, well-intended, supportive questions and comments. I
have never received a call, note, or cross word from the local bishop, much less
The second minefield of public schools I had found to be
admissions. Given the fact that admission to a state law school is the
functional equivalent of a multi-thousand dollar scholarship, not to mention an
envisioned entre into the political world, tremendous pressures were brought on
the dean by those in power to intercede in the admissions process. The politicos
wanted to be able to deliver law school admission to important constituents (or
contributors), a form of political pork. They frequently flexed their purse
string muscle to work their will. The request for admission not quickly granted,
was often followed by threats (thinly disguised, if at all) that a political
quid pro quo would be in the offing. In one case I recall, a rebuffed state
senator retaliated by calling a committee hearing to examine all of the law
school’s admissions decisions. Inherently this places the dean in an
intolerable position. On one hand the school is totally dependent on the good
will of the political branches of government. But to retain that good will the
dean is often asked, not only to subvert the system that would deny admission to
a more qualified but less well connected applicant, but to hand over a valuable
benefit based on a quid pro quo that is little short of combined bribery and
blackmail. The great debate was often, should the dean have a number of
"wild card" admissions to relieve these real world political
pressures. Some deans wanted this safety valve that permitted trading of
admission for political good will. Others preferred not to have them. As a dean
of a private school I am largely relieved from having to face this very ugly
dilemma. No alum who wants an admission favor has the power to disrupt and
destroy that even approaches that of a determined politician.
Yet another contrast to state schools is bureaucracy, or lack
thereof. I recall from my state school experience red tape so thick it could
provide a seismic refit for the Golden Gate Bridge. Budget lines, personnel
requisitions, expense forms and regulations budgets that went on for pages,
fiscal year spending restrictions, reports that made the ABA seem restrained. I
recall, for example, trying to pay expenses for distinguished visitors based on
reimbursement rules unchanged since 1955. The political leaders actually
believed that academics could, or should stay in hotels costing no more than
$55.00 and that no dinner an academic would eat should cost more than $10.50.
Liquor on an expense account – forget it! (You had to set up dummy private
foundations to get around such nonsense) Paper work, the bane of deans!
A private school that is relatively small has enough
flexibility to be reasonable. It keeps current with economic reality. Therefore,
the amount of bureaucracy, red tape, silly rules, unrealistic monetary
restraints, and obsolete policies (perhaps necessary in public institutions),
meaningless reports, is small.
And in many other small ways there are subtle differences.
Religious orientation and smallness create a campus ethos of "family"
and of friendly support that often is lacking in public or mega universities.
Staff members are informally given their birthdays as a "holiday."
Family emergencies warrant bending personnel rules. Campus safety officers seem
to emphasize "service" in contrast to officers at larger institutions
who often affect an attitude akin to a municipal police force. (i.e., parking
rules are flexible, and violations often are met with a gentle warning note
rather than an officious summons). Reports and expense reimbursement forms do
not contain warnings about perjury.
Smallness, architecture, and a tradition of open
relationships, creates an open access among administrators and between faculty
and administrators. If I have a beef with some bureaucratic nonsense, I can walk
into the office of the vice president responsible, or if necessary, the
president, and within a day, cut through it. It is not unusual for the provost
to drop by my office. Administrators all are on a first name basis. By contrast,
I recall deans waiting weeks to secure an audience with the university president
on Olympus, and they met the provost only at official functions or to resolve an
When I look back over this list of positives I believe that I
have perhaps the easiest, most enviable of jobs in law school administration. I
am free of so many of the most troublesome issues that harry my colleagues in
state schools. And being a dean of a Jesuit law school has many positive aspects
that may be lacking in other institutions, such as clear historical context and
compatible well-defined missions. In short, if one is going to be a dean, I can
imagine no better place, even for a Missouri Baptist.