DEAN AND THE WEB: CHARLOTTE'S WEB
A DEAN'S PARABLE.
had an entirely different, more conventional, essay to contribute to this
collection by law school deans. But
I derailed it. I submit this essay
after one year as the Dean at Syracuse University College of Law. I had 10 years
or so of Associate Dean experience at
and the good fortune over my career to meet many
deans and to observe many more. I
decided that I could make a more authentic contribution to this collection than
the one I had sketched out over the last year.
So I dug out a copy of Charlotte=s
classic which carries with it Eudora Welty=s
rave review from the New York Times Book Review with it.
of you have read Charlotte=s
Web, if book sales and personal
observation can be believed. I know
I read it repeatedly to the point of memorization as a child, and read it out
loud to my children. It was a relief
to re read it and find that my memory of it was accurate enough to allow me to
proceed with my literary analogy to deaning.
I do, I disclaim any literary critique credentials, and I also recognize that
Web is not a story about being a law school dean. The story is rich in many
ways, the overwhelming majority of which I will ignore.
Instead, I find in it a rather powerful and whimsical (those need not be
irreconcilable characteristics) parable for a law school dean.
the first section of the essay I outline the basic story of Charlotte=s
Web. In the second section I elaborate
on the story in order to create a richer context for my spin offs on the story
for law school deans. (I also
believe a similar analysis would serve corporate executives equally well.)
Story In Outline
those who have not read Charlotte=s
Web, the outline of the story is
simple. A young girl saves a runt
pig from her father=s
axe, and is allowed to keep it.
The pig is sold to her uncle, and the girl spends her time in the barnyard of
story focuses on Wilbur the runt pig as he grows up, learns about the barnyard
and its animals, and comes to form a deep friendship with Charlotte, a spider
who lives in the barn.
When Wilbur learns that he is destined for slaughter, he is (understandably)
horrified, and turns to Charlotte for help.
She promises assistance and she delivers on that promise by weaving words in her
web that refer to Wilbur.
the farmer and his family, then the neighbors, and townspeople, and ultimately
Wilbur himself become convinced he is a pig extraordinaire.
At the state fair, Wilbur receives a super special award which includes a cash
prize for the farmer and Wilbur=s
long term security (at least in relation to slaughter for food) is implied.
Along the way, the barnyard animals must cooperate, Charlotte orchestrates
rescue and Wilbur becomes self-reliant.
life is over, and Wilbur must return to the barnyard and live without her.
Story and the Law School Context
the Spider-law school dean
(all inclusive reference to Arables, Zuckermans, and Lurvy, Zurckermans=
Central administration (or other appropriate central office of control, power
and oversight outside the College)
buzz makers, those who create reputation and interest, also including potential
applicants, potential faculty, potential employers of
Law school graduates, faculty and powers that be at other law schools, even
students at other law schools.
Animals (e.g., the Old Sheep, the
and the Goose, the
Cow, the Goslings etc, and including Templeton the Rat)Ca
wide variety of law school stakeholders: alumni, contributors, faculty, staff,
current students and, perhaps, students at other law schools.
arbiters of value (A.K.A. US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, PULSE TAKERS AND DETERMINERS
law school to contend with if you are Wilbur
The Mise en Scene:
our purposes, there are two setsCthe
overall Zuckerman Farm (the University) with most action occurring in the
Zuckerman Barnyard (the College of Law campus and its extended connected
passageways in and through which non college based stakeholders reside and
participate), and THE FAIR GROUNDS where ultimate judgment will be passed on
Wilbur and other pigs.
noted, the Dean is Charlotte, the law school is Wilbur the runt spring pig, the
barnyard animals are various law school constituencies, the Zuckermans ( the
farm family) is the University administration (or the Board of Trustees of the
University, the Board of Regents, the State Legislature, supply your own
character with the power if not of life and death, then feast or famine,
recognition or banishment for the law school), the neighbors and townspeople are
the opinion makersCthe
press, the outside buzz, the deans and faculty at other law schools, supply your
own buzz makers), and the judges at the state fair areCthe
US NEWS and WORLD REPORT Rankings. Obviously
this is a crude character assignment, and in fact there are a variety of
different ways to assign the characters, including assignment that doesn=t
involve the rankings at all. I just throw that in as an indication of the out of
the realm of the ordinary which the rankings have assumed in our lives.
does the story work for the law school, and what relevance can it have to a
dean. I thought it had a great deal to commend it as a lesson in deaning.
See what you think. For the
most part, I will restate the story focusing on the themes I think are most
clearly related to the Dean, the Law School, the stakeholders, the University,
the Buzz makers and the rankings. I will then extract and list specific morals
from the story, and ultimately distill those to 10 important principles to apply
in situations where a specific lesson doesn=t
the Pig is a truly wonderful spring pig. True, he is a bit self-centered, a bit
naïve; he doesn=t
really understand the ways of the barnyard at first. Wilbur enjoys being a pig.
He has been petted and loved by Fern, the little girl who rescued him
from the fate of runt spring pigs, and he does have some sense that he is
many pigs get to spend their formative first weeks fed by a little girl from a
bottle, get to be pushed around in a doll carriage and get a name, particularly
a name like Wilbur.
Wilbur moves into the barnyard, he is subject to all the demands of the other
animals (the stakeholders, various groups of graduates, students, faculty, staff
etc.). Another way to describe Wilbur at this point is to say that Wilbur is not
truly aware of the roles of the other animals and what they can do for him, or
how they can harm him. The animals
pay attention to Wilbur, but often find him a disturbance.
the Dean (or Spider as she presents herself in the book) watches Wilbur (the law
school) from a distance before she decides to speak up and befriend him when he
is in a low moment. She and Wilbur
become friends. She develops affection for him, and while some of that is
because of what Wilbur is (a fly attractor who provides her with the food she
needs to catch in her web and eat) some of it is attributable to his character
(he tries to spin a web, and Ashe
was proud to see that he was not a quitter and was willing to try and spin a web
hen one of the barnyard animals tells Wilbur he is destined for bacon and pork
roast, Wilbur turns to Charlotte for salvation.
She ponders the situation, and assures Wilbur she will figure something
create additional anxiety for Wilbur. She thinks carefully about what talent and
abilities she has that she can employ on Wilbur=s
behalf. Wilbur, on the other hand, needs a lot of reassurance that Charlotte=s
plan is in progress.
She can spin webs. She considers the human beings she must reach and
decides that they are easily influenced if the communication is proper.
So she works hard and spins words in her web.
first phrase she chooses to call attention to the pig she wants to help is ASOME
does not make an extraordinary statement about Wilbur. She doesn=t
weave, GREAT PIG or BEST PIG, or SMARTEST PIG or TALENTED PIG, or RANKED NUMBER
1 PIG. She chooses a phrase that is completely honest.
In fact, one could say it is a universally true statement. Every pig is
SOME PIG. But Wilbur has Charlotte
and her web, and the Zuckermans are taken with it, seeing it as a miracle. In
fact it is an eye opening experience that begins to change perspective on the
special animal they have had in the barnyard and not really noticed except to
throw slops at it periodically, the leftovers of the family (other areas of the
university, academic or not).
think you had best be told that we have a very unusual pig.@
Charlotte is happy and Wilbur is >pleased
to receive so much attention@.
The Zuckermans see Wilbur differently. Where once he wasn=t
worth attention, now they declaim: AHe
is a solid pig@.
is quite a pigYHe
is SOME pig.@
gets out, Wilbur is mentioned by the minister, and the townspeople (the
influence makers) come by and stare at Wilbur.
knew that the Zuckermans had a wondrous pig.@
The Zuckermans start paying more attention to Wilbur, they feed him more
(better slops--specially prepared, and more feedings a day). They spend a lot
more time paying attention to him, and less to other aspects of their farming
is astute enough to recognize that Wilbur can=t
be a one-web wonder. And she knows that although she has begun to build momentum
around Wilbur in her campaign to save him from becoming the featured ingredient
in a year=s
supply of ham sandwiches, she has to continue with her web spinning. However,
she realizes that she can be more effective if she gets help from the other
barnyard animals. She calls a Meeting (Chapter XII) to get help for the next
slogan in her campaign. She has to
exercise real leadership in this meeting, and she gets the support of senior
barnyard animals. Indeed, the Old Sheep (a.k.a. the Associate Dean for Academic
Affairs???) convinces the most loathsome of the barnyard creatures, Templeton
the Rat, to assist Charlotte if needed. Templeton is only guided by his
immediate self interest, and the old Sheep quickly shows him that Wilbur is the
slop king of the barnyard and a great source of food for Templeton. If Wilbur
saved and becomes pigs=
knuckles, Templeton is down in his steady food source.
Templeton in agreement to help out when needed,
adopts the barnyard animals consensus for the
Before Charlotte spins this web, Wilbur is reluctant to have the word >Terrific=
applied to him. He says to Charlotte: ABut
I am not terrific, Charlotte. I am just about average for a pig.@
Charlotte disagrees: AYou=re
terrific as far as I=m
that is all that counts.@
is hard work for Charlotte, especially a word like >Terrific,=
but she gets energized and lost in the work of spinning her web.
the crowds gather to see the new web, Wilbur stands beneath it. He hears the
over and over as the crowds repeat the message that Charlotte wove on Wilbur=s
who really felt terrific, stood quietly swelling out his chest and
swinging his snout from side to side.@
gets into the newspaper; the Zuckermans treat him even better than after the
first web experience. They clean him up, the cow manure is moved away, his
living quarters improve, and he gets even better food and more attention from
the Zuckermans. They begin to build
him a special crate for transportation to the State Fair. Painted on the crate
in pretty lettering is AZUCKERMAN=S
a change for Wilbur--From disregarded runt to the penthouse suite of the
barnyard. From no attention from the farmer to a proudly proclaimed ownership
broadcast for all to see. Charlotte
has perceptively gotten Wilbur into the very good graces of those who had no
particular respect for him, except as ribs for the fall barbeque.
Charlotte is sophisticated enough to know that Wilbur=s
place is not fully secure. She must do more so that the Zuckermans know that the
just a flash in the pan pig, but a pig to be cherished and taken care of for his
has to turn to Templeton the Rat, who is motivated by his stomach and the slops
pail to make trips to a dump and return with words he cuts out of the trash he
finds. Charlotte recognizes,
however, that the words she spins in the web must be authentic, and certainly
cannot be inappropriate to her mission of saving Wilbur.
She has to exercise the judgment to reject some of Templeton=s
do and >crunchy=
is definitely not a word you want to use in a web to convince people not to kill
a pig. Crunchy sounds very much like pig cooked to a fine crisp turn.
Templeton returns with a soap ad that contains the word >RADIANT=.
Before Charlotte is comfortable weaving >RADIANT=
into her web, she has to see if it is a credible word to describe Wilbur. She
puts Wilbur through some paces. She asks him to run, jump and do a back flip.
At the end of his performance,
positive that Wilbur is >Radiant.=
But...WILBUR is convinced! The pig
who just a few weeks earlier thought he was just an average pig says: AI
decides she has been pushing the envelope and might as well go for it.
night, in addition to weaving a new web, Charlotte has to comfort Wilbur by
telling him stories and singing him songs.
the word >RADIANT=
appears in the web, the reader is reminded that Charlotte=s
web work is not simply bringing many hundreds of people to see Wilbur, it is
also transforming Wilbur.
was now the center of attraction on the farm.
Good food and regular hours were showing results: Wilbur was a pig any
man would be proud of. One day more than a hundred people came to stand at his
yard and admire him. Charlotte had
written the word RADIANT, and Wilbur really looked radiant as he stood in the
golden sunlight. Ever since the
spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation.
web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig.
web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific.
And now the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself
is not easy to look radiant, but Wilbur threw himself into it with a will. He
would turn his head slightly and blink his long eye-lashes. Then he would
breathe deeply. And when his
audience grew bored, he would spring into the air and do a back flip with a half
twist. At this the crowd would yell
spite of all the hoopla, AWilbur
was modest; fame did not spoil him.@
Despite his anxieties about possible pork and beans futures, AIn
the daytime, Wilbur usually felt happy and confident.@
He was Alooking
to the State Fair so that he could impress the judges, win money and essentially
ransom himself from the slaughterhouse.
the day to go to the fair approaches, Charlotte is unsure she can handle the
trip. She is about to spin her egg sac and isn=t
much up for long distance travel in the pig crate labeled ZUCKERMAN@S
FAMOUS PIG. But Wilbur needs her and
she goes, after pushing Templeton to go too despite his unwillingness to make
the effort. Again Charlotte is
assisted by the Old Sheep who describes the culinary delights that await the rat
at the fair.
is spruced up for the fair. He has a
buttermilk bath, feeling radiant and when the bath is done he is the Acleanest,
prettiest pig you ever saw.@
Off they all go, after Wilbur has a
fainting spell when the word >BACON=
is used in reference to how much he will produce for the farmer when he is sold.
the fair, Charlotte continues to advance Wilbur=s
cause. She spies on the pig next
door (Uncle), and sees that he is enormous-- much bigger than Wilbur-- but crude
and unappealing in personality. He is also very complacent.
knows that Uncle=s
sheer size will make him difficult for Wilbur, runt of the litter, to beat at
judging time. She doesn=t
hide the truth from Wilbur, she confronts him it with and but reminds him that
everything. Nevertheless, she knows these contests; the judges will be impressed
by Uncle and so she has her work cut out for her.
also knows that AI
shall be writing for the last time@
as she tells Templeton he must go and find a word for her.
The word he brings back is >HUMBLE.=
Charlotte considers its meaning and decides that is the perfect word for
and weaves it into the web. She then works on her egg sac.
next day, >HUMBLE=
is in the web. Attention flows to Wilbur. Everyone is impressed and alert.
Even though the first place blue ribbon is hanging on Uncle=s
crate, the Zuckermans are so invested in Wilbur and believe in him so much they
continue to scrub him, and focus their attention on him. They don=t
give up. The crowds begin to notice that even though the Uncle is enormous,
Wilbur is clean and nice and he is HUMBLE. A
flurry of activity follows the announcement that Zuckermans and Wilbur are to
come forward in a few minutes for a special award. As they stand in a special
judging ring, the loudspeaker proclaims the judges are awarding a special prize
for Wilbur. The events of the summer are summarized for all to hear as a prelude
to and explanation of, the award. Somehow
Wilbur, the runt of the litter, is SOME PIG! RADIANT and the Judges who give
this prize, including cash, to the Zuckermans, owners of Wilbur, in recognition
of all the special qualities Wilbur possesses, and all he has brought to add
excitement and interest to the community and the fair.
so, Wilbur is saved by Charlotte, and by his own strengths and potential which
she recognized and he began to demonstrate so others could see them too. Now
Wilbur, in the closing pages of the book, shows strength, independence, loyalty
and intelligence as he convinces Templeton to help him get Charlotte=s
egg sac into the crate for the return trip to the farm. Charlotte is about to
die unable to move back to the crate. Although Wilbur mourns her, he is pig
enough to stand on all fours and rescue her children. Wilbur lives and graces
the Zuckerman farm for (almost) ever.
Morals in the Story for
about the Spider, it is about the Pig. The Web proclaims the Pig, not the
Spider. Attention to the Spider is dangerous to the Pig.
Know the Pig before staking your career on it.
Pick a Pig that matches your enthusiasm, talents and abilities.
Charlotte needs a soulful Pig like Wilbur.
spin the words until you know the Pig.
Check frequently on the Pig=s
evolution into a better Pig. The right Pig will discover the qualities the
Spider sees in it.
The Spider must tend to the PigCattention,
assurance, challenge, and story telling. The Spider makes sure the Pig takes a
break, even when the Spider cannot.
The Spider should know its readership.
The Spider only makes claims that fit the particular Pig..
Sometimes the Spider=s
understanding of the Pig is beyond the Pig=s
but sometimes the Pig knows itself and its capabilities better than the Spider.
Usually the Spider knows better.
Have evidence before publishing, and believe it. (Okay, sometimes the
Spider can stretch it a bit if the Pig believes and the Spider can see the
possibility that the Pig is right, or soon will be.)
just about the word in the web. It=s
also about catching the pesky flies.
The Spider cannot do it alone, no matter how intelligent, level headed,
industrious and dedicated it is. The
smart Spider will ask for advice from the other barnyard animals, know what a
team means and understand that sometimes even a loathsome and reviled rodent can
provide an important contribution with appropriate service. There will always be
RATS, try and get them to help, not harm. But no matter what, in the end, the
Spider will have to make her own decisions in context.
Within the group of barnyard animal stakeholders, some are more wise and
helpful than others.
Motivate but don=t
sell the family farm in the process.
The Spider recognizes what the Pig does for the Spider. In addition to
attracting flies, the Pig provides the Spider with the satisfaction of a job
well done. It is even better when the Pig appreciates the Spider. In fact, if
the Pig doesn=t,
the Spider had better find another PigYquickly.
The Spider is confident of who it is and what it does. It knows its
talent, enjoys its work, and takes pleasure and pride in it. If it is only a
burden the Spider should get into another line of work, or find a different Pig
The Spider is not apologetic about its traits--its many legs, its ability
to spin, spell, persevere and don=t
forget the way it can catch a fly, anesthetize it and eat it.
The Buzz makers have short attention spans for the Good Stuff.
The Spider must keep its focus and plan ahead.
The Spider cannot afford to get distracted by barnyard antics.
The Spider knows that calling attention to the Pig only works in the long
run if there is something authentic to call attention to.
A Pig does better with additional food, better facilities, regular
grooming and positive attention from the Farmer.
The Spider contributes to all in the barnyard, catches flies which bother
all the animals. Once the Pig is noticed, EVERYONE in the barnyard has a better
Once the Farmer recognizes the true wonder of the Pig, the Farmer will
become engaged, energetic, and helpful, the Farmer will not get easily
disappointed in the Pig once the Farmer believes in the Pig.
A strong, recognized Pig helps the Farmer win recognition, satisfaction
and PRIZE MONEY.
The Spider observes before it acts. It thinks first, but makes a decision
and follows through on it.
The Pig will never get to the State Fair if the Farmer doesn=t
The Spider knows the strength of the Pigs but remember there is no Pig
quite like her Pig.
The Spider is honest with the Pig, but doesn=t
feed its anxieties. It remembers it
is the Spider and the Pig is the Pig.
The Spider encourages the Pig to be the Pig it is, not some other PIG.
Wilbur cannot be Uncle, but Uncle can never be Wilbur.
Remember the Spider is more than a web spinner for others. Charlotte
knows she has to pay attention to her own personal agenda. In her case it is an
egg sac with more that 5,000 spiders. But it could be other things.
The Spider isn=t
picky about the source of its inspiration, a soap flakes box might have a
useable message. The Spider is
careful because using the wrong word is worse than having no word at all.
The Spider doesn=t
give up until the job is done, even when it is tired.
The Pig lives; the Spider dies. The Spider won=t
be there very long; the Pig will, if the Spider does the job well. The Spider
should leave the Pig better, more confident, realistic, self-reliant than when
the Spider first arrived.
When it is time to depart, the Spider shouldn=t
belabor the point. Cut the PIG loose with minimum fuss, the PIG is ready for
what comes next.
Principles from the Morals.
1. Remember it isn=t
about your power, your glory, your achievement. It is about the College.
2. Your task is to find
the true potential of the College and to work to advance that potential. Don=t
disregard other law schools, but don=t
be intimidated by what others already have done.
3. You have to work
with all constituencies, even those you (and others) find greedy and completely
4. Your job ends, the
institution goes on. Leave the College better than you found it, and on its way
to achieving more than it could when you were around.
5. A strong College is
a contributor to its constituencies, and an asset (not only a source of funds)
to its University.
6. Make sure promises
and claims are rooted in your context. Don't make silly, self-defeating or
grandiose claims for your College. Believe in your College, and advocate for it.
quit till you are done, but have the sense to know when it is time to go. Leave
then, and without a fuss.
8. Enjoy your work,
appreciate what you do, don=t
ask for attention for it.
9. You don=t
do it alone.
Professor and Dean, Syracuse University College of Law.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952).
Id. at 79. N.B., Mrs.
Zuckerman says in response to this: AIt
seems to me you=re
a little off, it seems to me we have no ordinary spider.@
Id. at 80. Luckily for Wilbur, no one else does.