Stephen R. McAllister*
The title of this essay refers to those deans who have some significant
preexisting connection to the school for which they are selected to be dean. In
common parlance, they are "insiders" who assume the mantle of
leadership for an institution with which they are already intimately familiar.
Or, at the least, they have been around the place and its cast of characters for
a while before becoming dean.
Within the category of "insider" deans, there are at least three
sub-categories. First, are deans who came to a school for the first time as a
faculty member, then eventually become dean. Second, are deans who are alumni of
the school, but have never actually served on the faculty. Third, are deans who
combine the first two categories Ė they are an alumnus/a of the school, they
later return to the school and join the faculty, and eventually are chosen dean.
My own history puts me in the third category. In fact, my association with
the University of Kansas School of Law began in my senior year of college, when
I obtained a job as a desk assistant in the law school library. From that
vantage point, I observed much of the life of the law school. I witnessed first
hand the stressful times for law students, as well as their collegiality.
I also began to learn about the law faculty, including the location of
faculty offices, which faculty members hoarded books, which ones actually
checked out books instead of just carting them away to their office, and who
made regular appearances in the reference area of the library. One or two
faculty members I even mistook for students until corrected by librarians.
Immediately after graduation, I became a student at the KU Law School. For
the next three years, I was part of the institution in the traditional student
fashion. I enjoyed my classes and the experience, including participation on the
law review and in a clinic that sent students to work in local prosecutorsí
offices. Of the thirty or so members of the law faculty, I took classes from
probably half, and became acquainted with several others through a variety of
activities. Then I was off to Chicago and Washington, D.C. for almost five years
before I was asked to return to the law school as a visiting faculty member.
Returning to oneís alma mater to teach, especially at a school of modest
size like Kansas, is an interesting experience. Initially, there is some
difficulty just in learning to address colleagues by their first name, rather
than as "Professor Z." For me, since I had graduated only five years
prior to returning, virtually all of my teachers and mentors were still in the
building. The cast of characters was remarkably familiar, though I was on the
opposite side of the lectern.
My one-year visit turned into a second visit and then a tenure track faculty
appointment. In five years I received tenure and became associate dean. Less
than two years later, I was the dean. So here I am, dean of my alma mater and
asked to contribute to a symposium issue on deans and what we do. Many others
already have written about the numerous facets of deaning, the many challenges
that deans face, and the joys that come with the job. I will write from my own
experience as an "insider" dean, because I am convinced that insiders
both face special challenges and have certain, inherent advantages.
The Challenges Of "Insider" Deaning
1. Knowledge Of The Faculty: One of the biggest challenges of
"insider" deaning is the deanís often intimate knowledge of the
faculty. This can be a challenge because, whether from an experience as a
student or as a faculty member, the dean will have impressions of manyĖif not
mostĖof the faculty members. But a dean must be impartial and evenhanded in
order to do the job effectively. That can be difficult either when there is a
preexisting history between the dean and a particular faculty member, or the
dean knows of a history that the faculty member has with the institution and
Such knowledge can tempt a dean to develop "favorites" among the
faculty, or not to engage certain faculty members in specific endeavors of the
school. Those are natural responses to the insiderís knowledge, but aside from
extreme cases, the dean must resist them. Many faculty members are quick to
perceive slights or disfavor, so an evenhanded approach is essential.
Encyclopedic knowledge of oneís faculty, including some of their less
flattering moments, can make impartiality difficult.
2. Respect And Credibility: The perceptions and impressions challenge
is a two way street. Just as the dean will have opinions about the faculty, they
will have opinions about the dean, opinions developed from the deanís time as
a student and/or faculty colleague. Though the dean presumably has been chosen
with significant faculty support, there is no escaping history. Some faculty may
not adjust (well or ever) to the notion of a former student or faculty colleague
setting their salaries or evaluating their performances.
3. Familiarity With The Institutional Environment: Another potential
challenge for the "insider" dean is such familiarity with the
institutional environment that the dean cannot, to use a cliche, "think
outside the box" to develop institutional initiatives and move the school
forward. After many years at an institution, it is very easy to become settled
into routines and ways of thinking that should be challenged or reconsidered.
How many deans have sought explanation for a particular practice or tradition
only to be told, for example, that a "rule" exists "because we
have always done it that way"? It may be more difficult for the
"insider" dean to separate from the institutional environment, to step
back and look objectively at a time-honored but dysfunctional custom. Borrowing
from Yeats, it is important to be able to "cast a cold eye" on the
situation. An insider may be more inclined to write off certain ideas as
"just not possible" or "too much trouble" or "not worth
the fight they will cause."
4. I Am Not Going Anywhere: Insider deans, much more so than
outsiders, are probably less likely to depart the institution at the end of the
deanship. They are less likely to assume a deanship elsewhere, or to leave for
private practice or another endeavor. They may take a sabbatical or leave of
absence for a year immediately after stepping down (a practice that has much to
commend it), but they often resume a position on the faculty. In my case, I have
three former deans on my faculty. (On good days, they are "resources"
and "institutional memory"; I wonít talk about the bad days).
The challenge here for an insider dean can be twofold: First and foremost, a
dean loses some leverage with the faculty and university administrators if there
is no realistic threat that the dean will become a free agent and entertain an
offer from another law school. In other words, an "insider" dean may
be expected to put up with more annoyances and inconveniences than an outsider.
If a school has gone to the trouble to recruit an outsider, there may (at least
for a time) be reluctance to chase the new dean off. An insider can always just
return to the faculty, so my sense is that there is less reluctance to hassle an
insider dean about anything and everything, from the trivial to the substantial.
Another lesser problem may arise at schools that select insider deans with
some frequency. In such institutions, there often will be former deans on the
faculty. So the insider dean not only has to deal with faculty who know the dean
well (and vice versa), but sometimes with former deans who may still have their
own agendas or cadre of loyalists that can be whipped into a frenzy when the new
dean suggests some idiotic change in law school policy or practice.**
The Advantages Of "Insider" Deaning
1. Knowledge Of The Faculty: It can be a terrific advantage to possess
intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of a faculty upon assuming
the deanship. Unnecessary "mistakes" (such as making unsuitable
committee assignments or involving the wrong faculty in alumni and fundraising
activities) can be avoided. The insider can hit the ground running, maximizing
the contributions of faculty members because of his or her knowledge about which
are the most productive scholars, the most effective teachers, the most beloved
by alumni, and so forth.
An insider dean also may know Ė in both positive and negative respects Ė
the effective triggers for particular faculty members. What makes them work
harder? To what rewards do they respond? Or, what will cause them to explode?
What topic or assignment should be avoided at all costs?
The trick, of course, is to exploit this knowledge to the fullest in positive
ways while studiously suppressing any inclination to exact the revenge or
satisfaction that all deans deserve (but should rarely claim) in response to
faculty foibles. But, in my opinion, an insider dean can gain at least a year to
two years head start on an outsider in this respect. An insider dean may have to
spend some time getting better acquainted with a few faculty members, and
certainly relationships with faculty must and will continue to evolve. But
unlike an outsider, an insider already has seen most faculty at their best and
worst, and over a considerable period of time. Managed properly with objectivity
and impartiality, such knowledge is a priceless asset for the insider dean.
2. Respect And Credibility: Though the insider dean may have to work
harder in some ways to maintain credibility and respect as "the dean"
rather than as a colleague or former student, there are significant advantages
to coming from the inside. Insider status lends credibility to the dean with
three other important constituencies Ė alumni, students, and university
Having been a student at the school where I dean gives me instant, virtually
unassailable credibility with my students. I was in their shoes only a few years
ago (well, maybe a little longer than that), in the same building, with many of
the same professors. I took many of the same classes. I lived their experience
and feel that a strong rapport with the students is truly one of my greatest
Likewise, the alumni love having a dean who is also a graduate of the school.
Again, there is a commonality of interests and shared experiences that brings
instant and enduring credibility. That credibility pays off both in terms of
engaging alumni in the life of the school and in fundraising, both of which are
critical to the success of a state institution in the current environment.
Insider status also may help with university administration. At a minimum, an
insider is likely to have some knowledge of university rules, regulations and
practices, as well as the over all institutional environment and culture. For my
own part, developing a relationship with university administration as a dean was
simpler because I already had worked with the provost and chancellor prior to
becoming dean. An insider who meets with the university administrationís
approval in the dean selection process likely has considerable knowledge of the
university as a whole, as well as some relationship with campus administrators.
Lastly, even with respect to the faculty, there are advantages for the
insider. Faculty have to some extent supported the insiderís dean candidacy,
so by definition there must be a significant level of respect and trust. Perhaps
more importantly, the faculty has had time to assess an insiderís loyalty to
and support of the institution prior to the deanship. Thus, there is
proof of the insiderís commitment to the institution.
3. Familiarity With The Institutional Environment: Though insider
deans may have to work a little harder to "think outside the box,"
their intimate knowledge of the institution should permit them to avoid engaging
in impossible tasks that will disrupt the faculty, students or alumni and
ultimately not advance the institutionís interests. Sometimes knowledge of the
history of an institutionís rules and traditions can illuminate for a dean the
path to substantial changes. There may be paths that reach the end goal while
avoiding minefields that could frustrate the ultimate purpose. An insider is in
a better position to know where the minefields lie, and which faculty members
may be crucial to particular policy or institutional changes.
Moreover, an insider dean can and should avoid paralysis by tradition by
taking advantage of opportunities to see and learn what other schools are doing.
Forums such as this symposium are very useful, as is participation on American
Bar Association accreditation teams. There are ways for an insider to see
outside the box, to get ideas for change and progress.
4. I Am Not Going Anywhere: An insiderís loyalty to the institution
can result in considerable power to effect positive change. The fact that an
insider is much less likely to depart for another institution means that the
faculty know they must live with the dean for a long time, indeed even after the
"insider" steps down from the deanship. And not infrequently former
deans can exert considerably more influence with students, alumni and other
faculty than a typical faculty member.
But an insider dean will be powerful only if he or she truly cares about the
institution first, and the job second. An insider often recognizes from the
beginning usually even before the deanship commences many changes that will
improve the institution but, as any dean knows, institutional change often
involves political costs. Changes can be made, but sometimes popularity and
relationships may suffer, because it is rare that an entire faculty agrees on
anything. The insider dean may Ė though I am not certain of this Ė be more
inclined to endure some of the political heat necessary to make important
changes. This depends, I suppose, on the insiderís motivation for becoming
dean. If it is more personal in nature, then the insider may be no more likely
than anyone to fall on a sword. But if the insider has assumed the role because
of the potential for the advancement of an institution that the insider loves,
then falling on a sword may just be part of the job.
Again, it is difficult to generalize, but an insider who has no desire to
dean at another institution, can be less concerned about ensuring that the
faculty will give glowing recommendations about the deanship. Moreover, an
insiderís loyalty and commitment to a single institution can generate
considerable influence with alumni and students. Those constituencies, by
definition, have undivided loyalty to the institution. Smart people will
recognize positive change, even if it is occasionally unpopular with one or more
constituencies. And the support of loyal alumni and students can empower a dean
considerably. In my opinion, it may be somewhat easier for an insider dean to
generate the enthusiastic support of those constituencies.
Lastly, my strong sense is that former deans who return to the faculty from
which they came enjoy a sort of revered status. They do not necessarily get paid
more or get more research support or lighter teaching loads, but typically they
do command significant respect from alumni, as well as their faculty peers.
Former deans are never just "regular" faculty members again, though
they can go on to lead quiet and productive faculty lives, out of the spotlight
and without the headaches of deaning.
Like deaning anywhere, "insider" deaning has substantial
challenges. Indeed, it involves some challenges not faced by outsiders (but then
they have some challenges that do not face insiders). Nonetheless, insider
deaning has significant rewards and advantages.
For my part, I have difficulty imagining myself as the dean of any
institution other than my alma mater, where I also served as a faculty member
and associate dean. I am proud of my school and confident about its future. And
if I get sacked one day for doing the right thing by my students, alumni and the
institution, then so be it. Having the opportunity to lead my school, to
represent it publicly, and to strive to improve it every day is a special
privilege for which I will be eternally grateful. Thus, it is not just my duty,
but my desire, to make KU Law (and no other institution) the best place I can. I
feel fortunate to be an "insider" dean.