Matthew L. Spitzer
Congratulations! You are a new Dean. You settle in behind a desk, one which
is probably more impressive than the veneer-over-particleboard desk you had as a
"mere" professor, and look at the pile of papers accumulating in the
inbox. So, what do you do first to "be a Dean?"
What follows is an imperfectly organized set of protocols for what to do in
the process of being handed the Deanship after a very popular Dean steps down
and rejoins oneís faculty. My predecessor, Scott Bice, spent 20 years as the
Dean of the USC Law School, and was very well-liked by students, faculty, and
alumni. This set of advice will not work for someone following an unpopular
Dean, nor for someone who is following a Dean who left the school and will not
The first thing to concentrate on is hiring your Executive Secretary or
Administrative Assistant. If the previous Dean had a good one, and he or she
wants to stay on and help you make the transition, say "yes." You
cannot underestimate the value of someone who knows how the office works. If you
do not have this option, do your best to hire a first rate Administrative
Second, get out of your chair and go see some people.
Start with the faculty. Schedule a 20 minute interview with each faculty
member in his or her office, during which time the faculty member is free to
talk about whatever most concerns him or her. Take notes and pay attention.
Appear to be concerned about each of them. Be clear that it is your goal to
help each of them be the best law professor she or he can be, and also to
help him or her help the school be as good as it can be. If you have some
problem cases, such as people who teach their classes and then disappear
into a consulting practice 35 hours per week, give hints as to what you
want. For example, "I hope to see you more involved in the school. We
really need your expertise and energy." This lets the faculty member
know of your feelings without being immediately aggressive. Of course, later
on push may come to academic shove. But do not instigate any fights while
you are taking over.
Next, go see your predecessor, the exDean. Ask for a tutorial on at
least the following: (1) The Budgeting Process: USCís budgeting
system is, to say the least, complex and not obvious. I presume other
universities have their own arcane systems. The exDean had to learn how the
budgeting system worked, and how to manipulate it to the law schoolís
advantage. See if he or she will share the secrets. More specifically, ask
how much discretionary money you really have at your disposal. Most of us
have very little, despite the huge numbers at the bottom line of the budget.
(2) The Central Administration: If you are like most professors, you
have had precious little direct contact with most of the figures in the
central administration. And, clearly, if you are an "outside"
Dean, you have even less experience. The exDean has a lot of information to
share, on the tensions between administrators, the turf wars, and the
history of the law schoolís relationship with the university. The last
point is particularly important. Your Provost will sometimes tell you that
your predecessor had agreed to some arrangement, or that things have always
been done a certain way. It pays to double check some of these statements
with the exDean. (3) Major Donors: If you take over from a popular,
long-running Dean, you should be prepared for a certain degree of skepticism
from the law schoolís regular, major donors. Many of them will have formed
strong emotional connections to the exDean. The natural reaction of a major
donor to being told of your taking over is "whoís he, and why should
I bother to get to know him?" You should ask the exDean to attend two
or three lunches at which he or she introduces you to the most important
major donors, and at which the exDean vouches for you in subtle ways. Scott
Bice did this for me, and it was a great help.
Donít relax, yet. You now need to go meet the people in central
administration. Impress them with you energy, ideas, and desire to succeed.
Enlist their help. Become their friends, if you can. They control permission
to do things, including starting programs and asking donors for large
amounts of money.
Next, huddle with your Director of Development (also known as fundraising).
In addition to meeting the two or three donors with whom the exDean is willing
to help, there will be 50 to 100 donors, mostly alumni, who are very important
to the school. Not only do they provide the money that is the life blood of your
law school, they also provide crucial contacts and a window into the concerns of
alumni. Your Director of Development should help you set up 50 to 100 meetings
in which the Director introduces you to these people. Prior to each meeting your
Director should give you some background on the person you are about to meet and
brief you about his or her concerns and interests.
After you have started the process of meeting the donors, sit back down at
the desk and make a list of your pet projects for the school. Implement none of
them at this point. Instead, have meetings with the heads of each of the
departments (e.g. admissions, registrar, placement) and tell the department
heads of your hopes and goals for the school (e.g. better admitted students,
better matching of students and classes, improved jobs for students) and ask for
their ideas for how to accomplish these goals, and for explanations of why these
are the best methods for doing so. Urge them to tell you about how things are
done at peer institutions, and at schools that are as good as you aspire to be.
For projects that require extensive faculty involvement, or which have
significant impact on the faculty, convene a committee, with both faculty and
department heads. The committee will study your proposals, and also evaluate
alternatives that will accomplish the same goals. Again, ask for comparisons
with other schools. Do this for at least two reasons. First, you may get some
genuine information which allows you to refine your pet projects enough to give
them a real chance of success. Second, if the administrators and faculty have
genuine input into and responsibility for shaping the new projects, they more
likely will embrace them and help to make them work, rather than ignore or
sabotage the new projects.
Next, schedule meetings of limited duration with a large number of
student groups. Let the student leaders know that you really care about them.
Even if little of substance comes out of the meetings, it will reduce the
perception of a "distant" Dean who cares little about the students.
Students generally have little or no idea of what a Dean does, but they really
want the Dean to worry about them and empathize with them. So, let them know
that you care.
If you have taken all of these steps you have started the transition well. Of
course, before too long you will be more deeply involved in your own Deanship,
and no longer taking over. Good luck with that phase. Iím doing my best
to deal with that right now.