Ed Sullivan and I Love Lucy:
Images of Deaning -
Students as a Key Internal Constituency
This article is based on a presentation at the 30th
Annual Deans Workshop, 2001 ABA Midyear Meeting, San Diego, February 15,
2001. The workshop theme was "Balancing: The Challenge of Dealing with
Most deans came into their positions directly from the
faculty or after experience as an associate dean for academic affairs, where
they had focused primarily on curricular development, faculty development, and
the academic program itself. Many fewer entered the deanship from the student
affairs side. I am one of those who did.
Student Affairs as Training Ground
The year prior to entering the deanship at the Brandeis
School of Law, I served as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Special
Programs (with oversight over the University of Houston's six LL.M. programs and
coordination of its many other special programs). My service in student affairs
was much longer. I served for five and a half years at Houston as Associate Dean
for Student Affairs (1988-1993). In that role I had responsibility for
admissions, enrolled students, career services, and student organizations for
the approximately 1100 students attending the Law Center, which has both full
and part time divisions, six LL.M. programs, and a number of specialized
programs and interdisciplinary courses of study.
It is my belief that student affairs is in many ways
excellent preparation for the life of a dean. In this commentary, I will explain
why I think that is so. In addition, I will offer suggestions to deans on how to
ensure that student life is taken care of as well as how to balance attention to
student affairs issues with all of the other things that a dean must do.
First, let me explore why student affairs is such valuable
preparation. When I think of my years handling student affairs, I am reminded of
the Ed Sullivan Show and the I Love Lucy Show. Those of us who are
old enough, recall how every Sunday night, Ed Sullivan would bring to our black
and white TV sets the best of entertainment. The best comedians, the best animal
acts, and of course the Beatles. I have vivid memories of the guy with the
spinning plates. He would take a long pole and start spinning a plate at the end
of it, balancing the pole on some sort of stand on the table. Then he would
start spinning another one, and another, until there were so many spinning
plates, you would hold your breath. Every once in awhile, even on the Ed
Sullivan Show, a spinning plate would fall. Of course, the guy would quickly
get it going again, but we learned that even the best sometimes drop things.
As Associate Dean for Student Affairs, I remember this image
and that every once in awhile, I had too many things going on at once, and one
of the "plates" would fall. We would be trying to deal with an honor
code crisis, while ensuring that a student who had spit on a faculty member was
reported appropriately to the state bar character and fitness committee, while
advising the student animal rights organization that they could not bring caged
tigers to the law school to demonstrate cruelty to animals, while working with
another student group to get them to understand that they could not sell
week-old potato salad in the student lounge, while responding to a last minute
request by a student with exam anxiety to have a take home unlimited time exam,
while deciding whether we could revoke the admission of an applicant who we had
discovered was Hannibal Lecter. (These examples are, of course, not actual
incidents, but exemplify the type of issues that student affairs
professionals deal with every day).
In addition to having too many different things going on,
there was the problem of things happening too fast. That image for me is the
episode of I Love Lucy where she works in a cake-decorating factory. Her
job (and Ethel's) was to put icing on and decorate cakes as they came off the
conveyor belt. There is a similar episode where they have to fill boxes with
chocolates, but I like the cake-decorating image better. At first, Lucy is doing
OK, but then the cakes come faster and faster, and begin falling off the end of
the belt, and Lucy is not able to cope. Many days as student dean it was not
just the number of different things (spinning plates) to deal with, but the
speed required to respond.
I do not discount the heavy responsibilities of academic
deans. They work as hard and long as student deans. But I believe that generally
speaking, student deans have more spinning plates and fast cake decorating. And
this is good preparation for the deanship. Since assuming the role as dean at
the Brandeis School of Law, in August, 2000, I have found that while the types
of issues I must deal with have changed somewhat -- fundraising, faculty
enrichment support, alumni functions, bench and bar functions, crisis management
involving the computer systems, budgetary issues, meetings with the other campus
deans and the provost, attendance at athletic events -- the images of spinning
plates and cake decorating are the same. And the experience of having kept too
many plates from falling off the pole and too many cakes from falling off the
conveyor belt has helped me in juggling all of the things that I must do and in
getting them done on time.
Balancing Student Affairs as a Dean
All law schools have someone responsible for student issues.
It may be the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at a smaller law school (like
University of Louisville) or it may be one or more individuals with
responsibilities over different aspects of student life. Regardless of having
administrators with those responsibilities, a dean still must be aware of and be
involved with student life to some extent.
My general advice on how to balance student issues with
everything else is as follows. Have excellent administrators who have good
people skills, good judgment, and good organizational skills to handle student
affairs. Make sure that both you and they have good relationships with key
campus personnel -- campus police, student disciplinary officers, the
student-counseling center, and the office for students with disabilities. Have
good policies and procedures addressing student affairs issues. Make sure that
these policies and procedures are prospective and that they are well
communicated to students (and faculty). If possible develop handbooks on student
policies generally, another on disability issues, and another for student
Try to get into the classroom to teach or at least guest
lecture on occasion. For me, the best time is summer school, because that is
when there are the fewest potential conflicts requiring classes to be
Be sure to attend personally and participate in a reasonable
number of student activities and be sure that your faculty are similarly
involved. This can be challenging at a large law school where several
organizations have spring banquets or receptions. Alert student groups of the
need to give you ample notice about these events and be prepared to exercise
diplomacy in advising them about why you cannot attend everything.
Try to meet with key student leaders at least once a
semester. These individuals can include the SBA president, the law review
editor, the moot court board, affinity groups such as the Black Law Students
Association, and so on. While the administrator responsible for student affairs
should be meeting with these individuals frequently, the dean needs to meet with
them at least once a semester.
Key Areas for Attention
Because student affairs professionals change and because
student issues can become a crisis if not managed well, there are a number of
things a dean should do at the outset of the dean's or a new student affairs
administrator's service in the position. Attention to these early on may head
off some potential crises.
First, be sure that the student affairs professional
understands your general philosophy on student issues. For example, when do you
want to know about a simmering potential crisis? When do you want to be involved
in setting policy or decision making about student issues?
Second, be sure that some key issues are well addressed in
terms of policy, practice, and procedure. The following are key issues that have
the potential to become areas of crisis. In admissions, does the law school
appropriately use the LSAT score? Does it comply with the cautionary policies
from LSAC so as not to use automatic cut scores, etc.? Does the admission
application impermissibly ask about disabilities or past mental health
treatment? What is the policy regarding the use of race in the admissions
process? If race is used, have the Department of Education guidelines about the
appropriate use of race been followed?
For enrolled students, is there a well-communicated and
effective process for addressing accommodation requests for students with
disabilities? Is there a good process for evaluating documentation submitted
with these requests? Is there a grievance process if accommodations are denied?
How are students with mental health related behavior or performance problems to
be addressed? Is confidentiality of student records carefully maintained?
With respect to bar certification, how are questions from the
bar admissions authorities involving mental health issues addressed? What is
done when the bar authorities request information on how a student was
accommodated on exams in law school?
Student publications can be interesting. How will the law
school address limits on LISTSERVES and other computer generated communications
systems? What if students start putting pornography or racist information out
for everyone to see? Law schools have always had to deal with these issues with
respect to bulletin boards and in student newspapers, but internet communication
only adds new challenges.
Even though we have administrators to spin the plates and
decorate the cakes on student issues, as deans, we also need to be prepared to
spin a plate or two and decorate a cake now and then. Having student affairs
staff with good judgment and people skills and having good policies in place
that are well communicated are essential components of successful relationships
between the dean and students. And always keep in mind that without students, we
would have think tanks and institutes instead of law schools.