TRUMAN AND THE JOY OF DEANING
"Being president is like riding a tiger.
A man has to
keep on riding or be
I have two confessions to make.
First, I am a Harry Truman fan. I
think he would have been a great president but for a "do nothing"
Congress and a little problem on the Korean peninsula.
President Truman was a pretty ordinary fellow (a farm boy and a failed
businessman) who was thrust into a wartime presidency, having to follow one of
the greatest leaders of our time.
he grew to like the job, enjoying the challenge of adjusting the rules of
government so that for once they would, in his plain-speaking words, "give
the little guy a break." And
he became a legend himself in American politics with his astounding come from
behind victory in the 1948 presidential campaign.
As to my second confession, I'm what we call in this business a
recidivist dean, just finishing my second year of my second deanship.
Like Truman, I enjoy my job and consider myself a lucky guy to have it.
But I didn't always have that sense of satisfaction.
At the end of my second year in my first deanship I was telling an old
friend about all my problems. It
seemed like that year I had been the victim of a sophomore jinx with a different
crisis erupting each week. After
listening to my woebegone tale for some time my friend finally asked me:
"Is there any part of being a law school dean that you like?"
And I was hard pressed to give her an answer.
But with a little perseverance things turned around and I soon felt like
I was hitting my stride. Just about
a year later I found myself part of a "sensitivity session" with a
bunch of other deans. My colleagues
were complaining bitterly to each other about their terrible situations.
As one dean after another went on about the constant stress they all felt
and the pervasive ingratitude they received for their dedicated efforts, I felt
compelled to share President Truman's pithy advice about the need for mental
toughness in leadership: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the
kitchen." I also reminded them of his realistic take on the nature of human
relations: "If you want a
friend, get a dog."
A few years later, after some decent accomplishments in my first
deanship, I decided to step down to explore other opportunities.
My initial decanal tenure was not only good, I believe, for my old school
in the contributions that I made to its development but it was also a success
for me personally in terms of my own growth and fulfillment.
And despite a few bumps along the road, things seem to be going pretty
well at my second deanship too. Attitude,
as they say, is everything and "Give-em-hell Harry" had plenty of it.
So let me share with you some of the approaches, Trumanesque and others,
that I find helpful in making this job a gratifying experience.
Buck Stops Here
of course was the famous sign that President Truman stuck at the front of his
desk in the oval office. As
a law school dean you are the institution's chief executive officer and have an
unlimited job description. So
I would presume that anyone who seeks such a post would have a highly developed
sense of responsibility.
those lines, I think it's very important for a dean not to loose touch with
what's going on at the school.
Harry Truman shocked
by taking daily strolls around his White House
many beautifully designed new law school facilities, like mine, have the dean's
office tucked away somewhere in the back of the building.
So several times a day the dean should get out and about to take the
temperature of the faculty, staff, and students.
It's also not a bad way to exercise your important role as
cheerleader-in-chief, offering words of appreciation and support where
sessions and evaluative surveys of your performance as dean are also helpful.
Ed Koch, when he was Mayor of New York City, used to go around asking
people: "How am I doing."
Chances are if you ask that question of your faculty colleagues, you may
get some answers you won't initially like.
But if you give some serious reflection to their responses you may learn
how to be a better dean. Harry
Truman bristled when the Supreme Court rebuked his actions in the steel seizure
case, but he later admitted the Court was absolutely right.
a Dirty Job
dean you have to do a lot of difficult things that no one else can, like holding
your faculty colleagues accountable for deficient performances.
Irish diplomacy --the ability to tell people to go to hell so that they
look forward to the trip--is the ideal way to handle such matters.
But it's a high art and even when practiced with perfection it often
doesn't succeed. So unfortunately,
in many instances, more direct and forceful measures are necessary.
fact it often seems that enduring a myriad of distasteful events is part of a
dean's lot. You have to
explain tuition increases and other unpopular policies to students.
Then there are the roller coaster rides that go with the annual
appearance of bar exam results and the U.S. News rankings.
And of course it's part of your job to take the heat when the central
administration decides that it's necessary for across-the-board budget cuts.
In such times, probably the best advice you can give yourself is:
"Suck it up" and "Gut it out."
school deaning, like legal practice itself, is often a messy business.
Recent scholarship has been coming to grips with that unpleasant reality.
Charles Fried has written that lawyers who have often been held up
idealistically as the architects of society might be better describes as its
As a complement to that grim outlook Pierre Schlag has called for the
development of a "jurisprudence noire."
It was probably no coincidence then
that after a few years as a dean I became a big fan of Raymond Chandler novels.
Like his heroes, it's best for deans to consider "Trouble"
their middle name and to take a certain existential relish in trying to make the
best of things in an imperfect world.
in getting those disagreeable tasks done, deans should consider virtue (or at
least internal satisfaction) its own reward.
"This job is like vacuuming," one fellow dean told me. "If
you do it well no one notices." Or
as Lao Tzu put it many centuries ago: "A
leader is best when people barely know that he exists…. Of a good leader who
talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will all say
'We did this ourselves."
Lose Your Own Voice and Don't Beat Yourself Up for Being Human
dean, of course, you'll see yourself as a dynamic leader with a mission to
improve your institution. But
chances are there will not be universal approval of your proposals for reform,
particularly by your faculty colleagues.
Tact and diplomacy are essential and veteran deans give classic counsel
such as "Never take anything personally."
Yet it's hard to maintain such a consistently sanguine outlook in the
face of frustrations than can occur in multiple doses almost every day.
Harry Truman famously wrote an intemperate and profane letter to the
music critic of the Washington Post who had panned a piano recital by his
daughter Margaret. He received a lot
of criticism for that outburst when the Post published his communication,
but I'm sure Harry felt better for writing it.
Sometimes a little passionate indignation can't be helped and may even
promote your effectiveness by letting people know what you really care about.
Be Ashamed to Beg
gave that instruction to his followers.
Of course they were doing the work of the Lord.
But so are we in our "noirish" way.
And more than ever we need outside financial help to alleviate some of
our tuition dependency in these days of escalating costs.
when wealthy alums tell you that you're doing a great job, just reply with one
of President Kennedy's great lines. "I'm
touched by your support, now it's my turn to touch you."
is also necessary and appropriate when dealing with other funding sources such
as the university's central administration, legislatures, and foundations.
That's another aspect of this job that isn't pretty, but once again
someone has to do it.
can get additional inspiration from St. Francis for another part of their work.
They say he could talk to anyone, even animals.
Such a skill comes in handy when we have to mix in at gatherings, meeting
all types of people on behalf of our schools.
are at the epicenter of the rough and tumble of legal academics.
As such we are exemplars for our students, whether we like it or not, as
they prepare for a career dealing with difficult and contentious matters.
As a counterweight to what many see as the increasing nastiness of our
profession there is a much needed emphasis now on the importance of civility in
law practice I would hope that
we in legal education could even go beyond that by nurturing an ethic of care
and concern in our students.
Such an attitude may
seem to conflict with the hardened outlooks that I have advocated earlier in
this piece. But if we are to
be true to our essential humanity we have to teach our students how they can
temper the harsh realities they will meet in practice with empathy and
often a great challenge for me to evince such genuinely benign feelings, but
leading by example is the only effective way to communicate the need for our
students to put such a kindly attitude into practice when they become lawyers.
Paradox of Success
was ego, I must regretfully admit, that at least in part led me to become a law
school dean. Then again, I suppose
one shouldn't be ashamed of his ambitions. After
all, a nun in the third grade told me I had to duty to make something of myself.
If that wasn't the voice of God, I don't know what is.
by contrast, I've learned that the essential attribute you need to do this job
well is humility, not self-importance.
Harry Truman stated forthrightly that perhaps one million Americans of
his era could have been a better president than he.
I doubt that was true, but he showed great wisdom in acknowledging his
anecdote demonstrates Truman's admirable lack of pretense.
After he ended his term as president, Truman and his wife Bess returned
to their home in
and finished unpacking their luggage.
The former president then told his wife it was time to put their
suitcases back in the attic and he took them up there himself.
Truman had done his work. He
had restored peace to the world and given working Americans a better share in
the prosperity of their land. Not a
bad reward for one's labors. As the
former president would later reflect: "There is enough in the world for
everyone to have plenty to live on happily and to be at peace with his
neighbors." Could such noble
ideas ever be put with more straightforward logic?
our tenures as dean will some day come to their ends.
(Sooner rather than later if you look at the short life spans of most
deanships.) But then our
real gratification, like President Truman's, will come from being involved in a
project greater than ourselves. It
will result from having supported our faculties in their important work of
teaching and scholarship and helped our students get launched in their careers.
Through their efforts we will have contributed, I hope, to a just society
where people live together with peace and mutual understanding.
maybe we will also have had a little fun doing it.
Dean and Professor of Law, Gonzaga University School of Law.
Georgetown University, 1971; J.D. Georgetown University Law Center, 1974.
Commenting to reporters the day after his accession to the
presidency, Truman said: "When
they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, stars, and
all the planets had fallen on me."
Charles Fried, Jurisprudential Responses to Legal Realism, 73 Cornell L. Rev. 331,
Pierre Schlag, Jurisprudence Noire, 101 Colum. L. Rev. 1733 (2001); See also Pierre
Schlag, The Aesthetics of American
Law, 115 Harv. L. Rev. 1047, 1060 (2002).