Advice From the New Deans Boot Camp
Robert K. Walsh*
More than a decade ago, I was sitting in the offices of James P. White,
the then Consultant of the Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
of the American Bar Association in Indianapolis, Indiana. With me were Jim
White, Tom Read, Americaís "serial dean," currently at the South
Texas College of Law, and Peter Winograd, longtime Associate Dean at the
University of New Mexico School of Law. The four of us were discussing the rapid
turnover of deanships of the 1980s and early 1990s. The average deanship was
between three and four years and there were far too many deanships of two years
or under. We all agreed that the rapid turnover of deans was not good for
American legal education. While there was a one-day new deans program at the ABA
midwinter meeting in February each year, the four founders of the New Deans
Seminar agreed that this meeting, while useful, offered too little, too late.1
We had heard about a school for new college presidents at the Harvard
Business School. We obtained the syllabus for this presidentsí school, and the
four of us sat down and sketched out what became the ABA Seminar for New Law
Deans. The first seminar occurred at the Graylyn International Conference Center
of Wake Forest University in June of 1993. The New Deans Seminar has been held
there each June now for ten years.
The New Deans Seminar usually begins on a Wednesday evening and lasts through
Sunday morning. Wednesday evening is an orientation. The new deans are given
their notebooks of materials and assignments for the next three very full days.
Meetings thereafter take place from morning through dinner. Because it is
intensive throughout each of these days, the program has been dubbed "The
New Deans Boot Camp." Because it takes place at Graylyn Conference Center,
which is a very plush executive conference center formed from a mansion and
grounds with outlying buildings given to Wake Forest University some years ago,
it has also been called "The Velvet Boot Camp."
The faculty-student ratio for the New Deans Seminar is the only program in
American legal education that approximates the one-to-one student-faculty ratio
of Americaís medical schools. Subjects covered include priority setting,
relations with faculty, working with senior staff, long range planning,
development and alumni relations, relations with central administration, student
services, dealing with the budget, managing technology, the personal side of the
deanship, and relations with the bar, the legislature, and governing boards.
The theory of the program is that if the new deans discuss these issues with
senior deans before taking office, it will help avoid some potential mistakes in
the early months of a deanship. Also, the New Deans Seminar establishes an early
deans support network. The intensive nature of the New Deans Seminar quickly
creates bonding that provides a network of support and advice whenever a new
problem arises, with a response being a quick phone call or e-mail away. It also
creates great camaraderie and a sense of community in the class of new deans.
There have been new deans class reunions at ABA meetings, both formal and
The record of the New Deans Seminar is good. The average tenure of law deans
is up. The number of extremely short deanships is down. I would estimate that
three-quarters of the articles written in the first two issues of the University
of Toledo Law Review devoted to leadership in legal education were written
by authors who have been either faculty or students at the New Deans Seminar.
Many of the thoughts contained in those two issues had their genesis in
discussions at the seminar. At the June 2002 New Deans Seminar, we began the
practice of giving out these past symposium issues of the University of
Toledo Law Review to the new deans. These articles will contribute greatly
to the education of future law deans.
Indeed, these law review issues can perform an important educational function
leading to better and happier future deans in a way that the New Deans Seminar
cannot. The students at the New Deans Seminar have already accepted deanships.
The rubicon is crossed. Every now and then, a new student dean at the seminar
will jokingly comment that if the new dean had realized the daily regimen of a
law dean, he or she might not have pursued the job so ardently.
A number of years ago, I was at a conference with a dean who told me that he
was resigning at the end of his second year, because he really disliked the job.
He was a wonderful human being and a first rate academic. He had accepted the
deanís position thinking it was "the dean of the faculty" position
that it might have been in earlier times when the prime job was to give internal
academic leadership to the faculty, like the provost of a university. He
indicated that he left practice because he did not like it and that his daily
life as a dean was closer to practice than to his life as a teacher-scholar on
the faculty. In the end, after it was too late, he finally did arrive at a more
realistic view of the duties of a modern law dean.
One great potential use of these law review symposium issues would be to send
them to dean search committees first to review and then to pass on to every
finalist in their dean search, so that when the new dean arrives at the ABA New
Deans Seminar, he or she already has a good view of what the job is and is not.
With that background, here is some fairly basic advice that has come out of
past New Deans Seminars.
Setting Priorities and Managing the Inbox
For ten years, the first program of the new deans workshop has been an inbox
exercise in which the new deans are asked to set priorities and manage a dayís
inbox consisting of a great number of memoranda, telephone messages, and other
communications setting forth a dizzying array of problems. The new deans are
asked to discuss and categorize these problems in two ways: one, by
"urgency" as to whether or not some action needs to be taken by the
dean that very day and then by "importance" to the long run success of
the deanship. While we counsel the new deans that these problems are not usually
going to arise on the same day, we have found that when we meet graduates of the
seminar a year later, they all attest that similar problems have arisen at
various points in their first year as dean. They also frequently give us some
new problems for the exercise that we had not thought about before.
A number of years ago I was having dinner with two deans, one of whom had
been the academic associate dean under the otherís leadership. The associate
dean who had become dean commented that even though he had been an academic
associate dean for five years, he had never realized the volume of paper,
e-mails, and telephone calls and the concomitant number of people problems and
deluge of decisions that had to be made by the dean until he was actually in
that office. I am a list maker. Each evening as I leave the office, I prepare a
list of about ten things to do the following day. I inevitably accomplish more
than ten tasks the next day, but I am fortunate if half of them were on the
original list when I came in to the office that morning.
One great piece of advice that I received from a senior dean at the midwinter
deans meeting early in my first deanship was that as to 90 percent of the great
volume of decisions that pass over the deanís desk each day, it is more
important that you make a decision than that you make the "right"
decision. Hamlet would be a perfectly terrible dean. If you agonize over each
and every decision at length, you are doomed. The art of being a successful dean
is to recognize that 10 percent of decisions that you need to get right.
How do you recognize those truly important decisions? First of all, you have
to reflect on the core mission of your law school. Then, you would do well to
follow the advice of Vanderbiltís outstanding dean, Kent Syverud.
Effective deans devote most of their effort to the very few major things
that make a school get better. At most law schools at the beginning of this
century, that means hiring extraordinary faculty and administrators,
obtaining major gifts, securing a budget that assures institutional health,
and creating an environment in which students and faculty can thrive better
than at competing schools. If one looks to any law school over the past
fifty years, and honestly appraises what has made it thrive or drift, most
of the success or failure of the school will result from success or failure
on these four things. Test this against your institutional memory of your
own school: Odds are great that the key steps were a handful of faculty or
administrators who came or left, major gifts or budgeting support that
enabled progress or programs, and development of an institutional strategy
superior to those of competitors. These are the priorities on which deans
should spend their time.2
If you look at everything that crosses your desk and evaluate it in light of
the strategic mission of your school and Kentís four priorities for a deanís
time, you will be well on your way to identifying that 10 percent of decisions
which are really important matters. The rest you should decide or delegate
Deans have different methods for handling the flow of the inbox. I use
stickum notes attached to letters and written material and e-mails or voice
mails to key colleagues to delegate matters. I also have a senior administrators
meeting once a week and have a file for that meeting in which I place material
that I want to discuss at greater length. I go through my inbox each day in this
way and keep a very small percentage of the material. Most I never see again.
One other strong admonition is to make certain as early in your deanship as
you can that the deanís administrative assistant and associate deans or other
senior administrators that work directly with you are a good fit with your
priorities and are performing their function well as part of the administrative
team. If you keep a key aide too long, both the school and you will suffer. It
is personally unpleasant to tell someone that they are not performing their job
well enough for you to keep them in it, but sometimes it is your duty to do just
The Dean as an Evangelist
For many constituencies, certainly the alumni, central administration, bar
leaders, and most students, the dean speaks for the law school. Even for the
most independent minded faculty, what the dean says is important. With that in
mind, you need to be careful about what you say and how you say it.
First of all, you need to stay on message with great constancy, relating your
message as much as possible to the strategic mission of the law school. You also
should err on the side of optimism. The glass is always half full. Some humor
and cheerleading is great. If the dean is down about the law school, it is as
bad as Alan Greenspan saying something is wrong with the economy or the stock
market. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A little religious fervor never hurts. All of us who have been deans over the
last decade consider John Sexton, former longtime dean and now president of New
York University, as dean of deans, capo di tutti capi?4 John was such
a success as dean because he always kept his eye on the strategic mission and
was the master mythmaker of NYU. You understand a lot about Johnís approach if
you realize that he has a Ph.D. in religion and has a background partially
formed at religious schools. If you have heard John talk, you recognize the
religious fervor he has for NYUís mission. And he conveyed it with evangelical
force. Moreover, in fund-raising, John was not above using a little guilt in his
preaching to donors that it was the license NYU provided that led to their
financial good fortune.
Especially internally, people do hang on the deanís words. At the New Deans
Seminar, I talk about what I call the "Henry II Syndrome." Henry II
was an English king who said to his henchman "Will no one rid me of this
turbulent5 priest?" Whereupon, the henchman killed Thomas aĘ
Becket, and Henry claimed that the murderers had misunderstood his wishes. He
later said that he did not intend to have Becket killed.
Related to the problem of ambiguity of language is the phenomenon that I
remember from college parties where one person would whisper a short message in
the next personís ear and then it would be relayed many times until it got
back to its origin, almost unrecognizable. A number of times over the many years
that I have been dean, I have said something that has come back to me as a
completely different message by the end of the day. You need to be careful what
you say. You also need to have avenues of communication that will permit you to
learn of and correct the misconstruction. The worst thing is for a misconstrued
comment to be out there, its author unaware and thus unable to set the record
Your Constituencies and Relationships
At base, all the varied decisions of a dean are about people and
relationships. About a decade ago, a popular bestseller was entitled All I
Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.6 At the seminar, I
tell the new deans that if I wrote a book it would be entitled All I Needed
to Know, I Learned from my Mother. My Mother is 90 years old and as smart as
any person I have ever known. She is intuitive in her judgments in dealing with
people. As part of our early education, Mom would repeat familiar folk sayings,
which I have dubbed "Momís Maxims." I recommend the following three
to the new deans in dealing with personal relationships, whether they be with
central administration, faculty, students, alumni, staff, or other people in the
(1) An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (2) You catch more
flies with honey than with vinegar. (3) If you canít say something nice,
donít say anything at all.
Mom repeated her maxims to me over and over. Maxim three was her absolute
favorite. Often, even today, I hear her saying it in my mind. I cannot say that
I have never violated this maxim. I have. I can say that when I have, I have
usually regretted it. If you think that you have to violate this maxim to be
true to principle, I would suggest that you violate it in private with the
person affected and not in public.
Pat Borchers, Dean at Creighton University School of Law, summarized Momís
maxims in his first principle of deaning: "Be Nice."
As a dean, you get plenty of chances to be unnice. And sometimes you have
to be unnice. But that shouldnít be your default approach.7
In talking to people, sit behind the big deanís desk as little as possible.
If you are meeting in your office, sit out in front of your desk with your
guest. Preferably, go to the other personís office to talk or arrange informal
Finally, always give other people credit they are due, if not more.
At the New Deans Seminar, we always have had a panel on relations with
central administration. Most of the discussion focuses on relationships with
presidents, provosts, and financial vice presidents. I urge the deans not to
forget personnel in other departments of the university that affect the life of
the law school: the controllerís office, physical plant, human resources,
security, and the like. I have been the dean of two law schools. At each when I
came from the outside, the law school community had been at war with at least
one or more of these support departments for years. Relationships were bad.
Service was bad. I made it a priority to meet the heads of these departments
early and establish a personal relationship.
One device I have used is to put on a series of lunches for law school
personnel and the personnel from other departments that deal with the law
school. These lunches are to thank them for what they do for the law school and
to get to know them better. The investment has been bread cast upon the water
that has come back manyfold. I recommend that you consider something similar. A
number of graduates and faculty of the New Deans Seminar have told me that they
have had similar lunches at their schools with wonderful effects.
Conclusion: Be Yourself and Enjoy
Of course, every law school deanship is different. The focus can be different
at the same school at different times. Moreover, you are who you are and should
remain so. You must always be true to yourself. I have cited John Sexton as the
dean of deans. Nevertheless, while I think that you can learn much from John,
you cannot emulate him entirely. John, like all of us, is a product of his
background and the deaning context at NYU during his tenure.
While I was dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law,
we held a trial advocacy CLE course featuring a model closing argument by two
great trial lawyers, one for the plaintiff and one for the defense. The
plaintiffís lawyer, Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, was very down home and
country. When asked by one of the students how he adopted this style, Bill
replied "thatís just me. I was born and raised in Waldron, Arkansas, and
I am down home and country as a person." The defense lawyer, who had a
wonderful deep voice somewhat like James Earl Jones with a Southern accent,
retorted: "Thatís right. You must always be yourself. I could not be like
Mr. Wilson, down home and country. And he could not be like me, logical and
Certainly, there are bad days to be the dean. Dealing with plumbing and
parking is not very interesting. There are stressful times. The deanís job has
been described as herding cats.8 However, if you read most of the
articles by deans in the first two symposium issues of this law review, you will
come away with the strong impression that, while they find it stressful, the
authors enjoy the job and find it very worthwhile. Before my first deanship, I
was a tenured faculty member at a wonderful place, Villanova University School
of Law. Then, I shared the belief of many faculty that I would never want to
leave my position as a full-time faculty member to be a dean. As Chair of the
Faculty Appointments Committee, however, I went to Columbia University School of
Law to interview their LL.M. students and had lunch with several Columbia
faculty, one of which had just received a deanship offer and was turning it
down. The other, more senior faculty member who later became a dean, said:
"If you care about legal education, you should consider being a dean some
time in your career. The dean can affect the progress of a law school more than
anyone else." Or as stated in the introduction to this symposium issue:
Realistically, however, leadership is primarily the province of the dean,
and this is so for many reasons. Individual faculty members rarely have the
ear of university administrators or major donors, and often they are
necessary for meaningful change. Similarly individual faculty members or
even groups can seldom manage to produce complete consensus on an issue, and
what might have been an initiative can become simply a faction fight.
Further, the devil is in the details, and execution of any serious project
nearly always involves administrative details beyond the resources and
patience of individual faculty or even groups.9
John Feerick, who has just completed 20 years of deaning at Fordham
University School of Law sums it up well.
As you see, a deanship at a United States law school is a unique experience.
It is not a place for someone looking to relax or paddle in calm waters. It is
demanding beyond belief but the rewards are many, making it an interesting,
challenging and even exciting way to live part of your life as a lawyer!10