Hitting for the Academic Cycle
Paul R. Verkuil*
Completing the cycle of professor to dean to president has a
familiar ring in baseball,1 but it is more like a triple play than a
double play since it occurs infrequently. Add in a return to law deaning and
then a trip back to the faculty and you have the makings of a professional
odyssey, a journey that deposited me at the place where I started. In these
circumstances, some degree of reflection is permitted. At any rate, that is my
less than Homeric assignment and I am pleased to fulfill it.
Let us start with the obvious question: Why an otherwise
contented and productive faculty member at a solid place like the University of
North Carolina become a dean in the first place? Not so hard to answer, really.
My dean, Dickson Phillips, whom I admired, had just been named a federal judge
and the search process became entangled in the familiar inside/outside dean
candidate debate. That debate produced a faculty lounge full of arm-chair
experts about the character of the next administration. But participation in a
law school hot stove league has one advantage over the baseball variety -- you
can actually get on the playing field.
Criticism of those in the arena always made me uneasy. Who
knows what pressures and limitations a dean really faced and, anyway, was I
qualified to judge? I was reminded of a poem by the bullfighter Domingo Ortega
that Ted Sorensen wrote was a favorite of President Kennedy’s. It goes like
Bullfight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous Plaza full;
But only one is there who knows–
And he’s the man who fights the bull.2
Could I in fact do any better? It was time to find out.
Fortunately, Tulane Law School was willing to take a chance.
I arrived in New Orleans a determined skeptic. I knew what tough critics law
teachers could be. Could I anticipate and meet some of the faculty’s
objectives? More importantly, could I manage to convince others at the
University to meet some of the faculty’s objectives? And finally was my life
as a scholar over, on hold, or still possible?
I found it relatively easy to organize faculty in productive
ways. In fact connecting faculty contributions to the success of the law school
has an inspirational dimension. The first task is to define faculty productivity
productively. Productivity starts with scholarship and teaching, but it also
includes other valuable services such as committee participation, academic
planning, public service, attending alumni and donor affairs, and so forth. The
trick is to get the right fit between the assignment and the particular
individual’s strengths. The objective is to minimize and ultimately dispense
with the concept of "deadwood". There must be a job for everyone in a
good law school, especially where tenure percentages are usually high. And as to
tenure, going forward, the faculty had to commit to a hiring and promotion
program that projected all new candidates above the mean level of quality
represented by the existing faculty.
Most faculty are open to leadership efforts if they can see a
payoff. With the average term of deans around five years, however, many senior
faculty have been there before; some have become cynical and detached. Thus,
results must follow exhortations in fairly quick order. The big challenge was to
gain support from the central administration. Fortunately, I had Robert Stevens
as Provost and Sheldon Hackney as President, savvy academic administrators with
high standards. While resources were tight, they were willing to listen and to
deliver incremental support if they in turn saw an institutional payoff. They
had their own set of quite reasonable priorities: Greater scholarly productivity
and no close calls on tenure decisions; and (not surprisingly) resource
production from the alumni.
With these understandings in place, it became easier to
mobilize the faculty. My priorities were simple and direct: there are two kinds
of law schools in America, those that are serious about their academic mission
and those that are not.3 Placing scholarly demands on colleagues
clears the air; it creates a joint sense of mission and purpose; and it works to
everyone’s advantage. Generating scholarship both invigorates the faculty and
stimulates the classroom. It is a "free good" in that it yields a high
return in morale and recognition at little or no cost. In fact the only cost is
one any law school would gladly pay—higher salaries to keep talented scholars.
Moreover, scholarship is a non-zero sum activity.4 It does not
produce winners and losers; the entire academic community is made better off by
the knowledge produced through scholarly efforts. This community dimension of
scholarship is also an effective way to reinforce the dean’s position.
Attendance at faculty colloquia and commenting upon drafts of articles are
opportunities for a dean to participate in the law school’s intellectual life
and also to stay connected to new developments.5
Scholarly interchanges bring the faculty together; they
invite broad discussions of the law school’s role and purpose. All law schools
believe they are "different." But it is not easy to encourage
differentiation. Law schools are often classic victims of the law of emulation,
the economic proposition that holds competitive institutions will tend to look
alike. For law schools that means imitating the schools from which most faculty
hold degrees. But discovering what is special about a law school is a necessary
condition for its success and maturation. This is a faculty responsibility that
cannot be delegated. For example, before my arrival the faculty had de-emphasized
Tulane’s unique civil law traditions (courtesy of the Louisiana Purchase) and
gone in the opposite direction—towards emphasizing the more familiar common
law in an effort to appeal to a wider student audience. But this emphasis
resulted in an alienated Louisiana alumni body and an unsure competitive posture
(ultimately, emulation is a sign of insecurity).
By returning to its civil law roots, Tulane achieved a double
win—alumni returned, donations went up and the place became more engaged. New
and broad gauged faculty appointments and a well-endowed center for comparative
law were the early benefits; but new resources helped support scholarships and
other programs as well. The best news was that all this was done without
jeopardizing Tulane’s national stature; indeed its stature was enhanced by the
very differentiation that the civil/comparative law focus offered. The emergence
of the European Community made our programs more relevant, especially at the
graduate level. In a similar vein, the inherent advantage of location, namely,
the Port of New Orleans, led to a commitment to the Admiralty bar and offered an
additional opportunity to develop an elaborated maritime curriculum and the only
LL.M. degree devoted to that subject.
The Tulane experience was also entirely satisfactory from the
perspective of maintaining a decanal academic profile. I found it both essential
and congenial to continue to publish and do research. It was essential in that
it set the tone for the faculty; and it was congenial in that it got me out of
the "dean-think" syndrome. Dean think occurs when deans devote
themselves to the broader problems associated with legal education and too much
time is spent on ABA and bar committees. By knowing when to delegate and when to
duck,6 a dean can make a scholarly agenda possible and compatible
with the office. After seven years as dean I did my scholarship no permanent
injury; indeed, in some ways it was invigorated by openness to new fields, such
as comparative law.
But after seven years, something else happened. While
spending the fall semester on sabbatical in London (a highly recommended decanal
practice), I got wrapped up in a presidential search. This was not any search,
it involved my undergraduate alma mater, William & Mary. Before long this
contented and productive dean was having to ask, why change again? But the
opportunity was irresistible. I eagerly succumbed. The presidential position
allowed me to test ideas about leadership on a larger stage; but it did not come
without misgivings. Law school deans retain contact with their disciplines and
colleagues whereas university presidents rarely have much to do with law schools
and lose touch with their colleagues. I insisted on maintaining my academic
appointment in law and vowed to teach occasionally and to continue some level of
scholarly activity. I fulfilled those commitments but cannot claim to have
generated many new scholarly ideas; rather I was forced to draw upon the
academic capital I had amassed earlier.
Law school deans had in the past not been called upon to
serve as university presidents as frequently as deans of other schools or
Provosts. But during my tenure at William & Mary, presidential law deans
became more prevalent; for example, one half of the Ivy League presidents in my
time were former law deans. While less frequently today, law deans still answer
the call of university service. The reasons (for the call and the answer) are
varied, but at least a few relate to the nature of legal training. Universities
are as much about process as are courts; law deans are the experts in process.
In addition, for a president, dispute management is an indispensable skill,
which law deans are often better able to provide than others. Finally, as a
lawyer, I viewed my institution in a fiduciary way, as a client who needs to be
protected and supported. (If one is fortunate enough to be president of his or
her undergraduate institution, that feeling is only heightened.) This kind of
oversight builds confidence in faculty, alumni and, most importantly, board
members. It gives lawyers an edge as leaders, in my biased view.
This is not the place to describe generally what being a
college president is about except to observe how that experience relates to law
schools. I was fortunate to have the early opportunity to appoint a law dean who
shared many of my academic values (Tim Sullivan); he would later succeed me as
president. The William & Mary Law School was steeped in history but had long
been starved in resources. I was eager to enhance its position, so long as the
Stevens/Hackney commitments to academic quality and resource generation were
honored. But it was a complicated picture. There were many equally justified
calls for increased support on the campus. One problem with a law school in a
largely undergraduate driven institution is justifying higher salaries and other
perquisites. At William & Mary (which had several equally starved Ph. d.
programs) this difficulty had held the law school back and created campus
jealousies that were counterproductive. Bringing the campus closer together on
these issues was an early and unavoidable challenge.
Law faculties have the highest salaries on campus,7
and this grates on the arts and sciences faculty. Insulating law schools from
this resentment is no easy task; the highest salaries always stand out even
though the academic market dictates the differences. Thus, it is not surprising
that the top law schools are almost all located at universities with medical
schools,8which offer insulation against the "sticker shock"
of costly legal salaries.
In order to build alliances between the law school and the
rest of campus, a president must counter the inherent insulation of the legal
community. Law faculty who teach undergraduates, who serve on university
committees and who do interdisciplinary research are allies in this effort. A
law faculty that views the university faculty and students (especially ones with
the talents of those at William & Mary) as intellectual collaborators has a
far better chance of building the disciplinary respect necessary to achieve
differential funding.9 Of even more significance is the tenure
process where arts and sciences committees often marvel at the thinness of a law
candidate’s dossier. A law faculty member who exchanges ideas and even writes
in publications read by his or her campus colleagues (i.e., university press
books) stands a much better chance of prevailing at tenure time and ultimately
of enjoying the stimulation of a dynamic university community.
Clearly, law schools that interact with their universities
make a president’s job much easier, especially a president who is compromised
by his academic specialty. My feeling at William & Mary was that as the law
school grew in stature on campus, it did the same thing in the public eye. And
this is not only because respect and resources often go in tandem. Outstanding
undergraduates are guided to law schools by their professors. Where those
professors feel a kinship with their law colleagues students make choices
accordingly. And even when those students choose different law schools, their
favorable impressions help recruit others. In sum, there is no downside to a law
school that engages with the broader university community.
After taking a professional break from academics for five
years,10 I had the choice to return to academic life as a faculty
member or as a faculty member and dean. I took the latter course, even though it
made me a recidivist dean. Why do it again? There was nothing to prove, after
all. Perhaps the best reason was simply to find out whether my initial instincts
about successful deaning would stand up in another setting. Fortunately, that
setting was Cardozo Law School. Cardozo’s faculty understood (and
internalized) the scholarly values I had earlier promoted at Tulane and William
and Mary. I felt very much at home.
Cardozo is a prime example of a new law school that benefited
from scholarly values established by its founding dean, Monrad Paulsen, and
protected by the faculty he recruited and the faculty they recruited. Tenure
decisions in this setting have been a pleasure to preside over; close calls did
But this did not exhaust my contribution. The differentiation
principle was also pressed in several faculty retreats. Discussion of inherent
advantages led to graduate programs in intellectual property and legal theory.
Also, for a law school under the umbrella of a modern orthodox university, the
role of Jewish law became a natural focus, that could be approached on a
comparative legal system basis.11 In this way my Cardozo experience
was reminiscent of my Tulane experience.
The reassuring thing about Cardozo was that the old tricks
still worked, not because they were tricky but because they were true: law
schools that do it right–that are serious and focus on their academic mission–will
prevail whether they be Cajun or Kosher. To me that was a good reason to have
left the security of the faculty way back in Chapel Hill and to have returned to
deaning in New York.
I must close by acknowledging, as deans always knew, that
faculty prerogatives are what they as deans have been striving to
preserve, which may be one reason why decanal terms are short. I admire my
colleagues who resisted the temptations of academic administration and held to
their positions as much as I do those who succumbed. But, having completed
the round trip, I can honestly say that I would not have missed the journey for
*Footnotes to be supplied