APOLOGIZE FOR THIS ESSAY
It could be my imagination, but it seems that
September 11, 2001
people in the
have become more polite to one another.
Prior to September 11, people would walk down a busy street jostling one
another, bumping into one another, and nearly knocking each other over with an
inadvertent swing of a backpack, without saying a word.
After the terrorist attack of September 11, it is my experience that
people are quick to apologize to one another for the smallest of slights,
inconveniences or inadvertent minor collisions.
It is as if we are saying that, while we really don’t know exactly how
to band together against terrorism, at least we can be a bit more courteous to
On a recent day that required a good deal of walking on the sidewalks of
Chicago, I took account of how many apologies I gave out and how many I received
as a result of the inevitable minor nudges and path obstructions that occur in
pedestrian traffic. The number of
apologies was actually surprising. In
no more than an hour’s time, there were no less than 20 apologies.
Perhaps all for the good, we appear to have become a society in which
people wish to assure one another that the minor mistakes of life should not be
confused with hostility.
to becoming a dean, I did my share of apologizing.
Rarely, however, did the apology come from the authority of my position.
My apologies were much like those of all individuals walking through
society, apologizing for the minor affronts, bumps, collisions, and other minor
infractions that could be construed as rudeness.
True, I did occasionally apologize in my capacity as a law professor, and
usually this was for something that occurred during class.
Perhaps the class ran over, or my assignment turned out to be excessive.
Nevertheless, even these apologies in my capacity as a law professor felt
primarily personal. Never did I feel
like I was apologizing on behalf of the law school at which I held an
Now, after 27 years in legal education as a professor, things are
different for me as a dean. Seemingly
from the first day I assumed my appointment, I was presented with repeated
opportunities to apologize in an official capacity.
Initially, the responsibility to decide when to apologize and when not to
apologize felt somewhat overwhelming. Very
quickly, I learned, however, that an apology was one of the most powerful
preemptive weapons a dean could use. Consequently,
I have learned to use it unhesitatingly, early and often.
Many years ago, when I was practicing law as a litigator, I was counseled
by a senior partner never to apologize in a professional capacity.
He suggested to me that it demonstrated weakness in terms of strategic
position and softness in terms of character.
The closest this mentor ever came to an apology was to state that if
people found him difficult, there was little that could be done about it.
It was, as he would explain it, simply his personality.
This style may have worked for him, but it does not work for me.
Very often, I feel, people in positions of authority are reluctant to
apologize because they want to appear infallible.
While there is much to be said in demonstrating confidence in decisions,
positions, and institutional strategies, human fallibility is inescapably part
of the operation of every institution, including, of course, educational
Recent history is replete with instances in which public figures paid
dearly for their reluctance to apologize. For
example, President Bill Clinton sought to hide behind semantics, and only late
in the game apologized to the American people for his indiscretions in the oval
office. While the delay in an
apology did not cost him the presidency, it seriously diminished his place in
history. In fact those who forgive
Bill Clinton do so on the basis of his human vulnerability, and his human
qualities would have been an even better defense had he apologized sooner.
Trent Lott seemingly waited for the jury of public opinion to return its
verdict before he was prepared to apologize for his remarks at an event honoring
Strom Thurmond. Would history have
been different if very early in this episode Lott had apologized for remarks
that could be construed as grossly inappropriate?
I cannot help but think that people in positions of authority, like my
mentor in the practice of law, believe that apologies carry with them some loss
of credibility or the loss of political capital.
It is hard for me to think of one situation, however, where this has ever
proven to be true. In fact, to the
contrary, the admission of human fallibility, which is inherent in every
apology, only seems to make a person more endearing and more sincere.
One of my favorite film scenes is in the Wizard of Oz when
Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion discover that a small
white-haired man -- not an omnipotent wizard -- is the presence behind
the curtain. Outraged that the
imposter has no powers to reward the quartet’s pilgrimage, the Scarecrow says,
“You are a humbug!” The man
immediately acknowledges the accusation, “Yes, Yes.
Exactly so, I am a humbug.” Then
scolding the man, Dorothy says, “You are a very bad man.”
The man replies, “Oh no my dear, I’m . . . I’m a very good man.
I am just a very bad wizard.”
The ersatz wizard immediately acknowledged his fallibility, and we as the
audience spontaneously forgive him for his fraudulent pretense.
I cannot help but believe that any person in a position of authority does
well by using apologies early and often as a demonstration that he or she, like
the man behind the curtain, is a good person.
Regrettably, Bill Clinton’s and Trent Lott’s belated apologies failed
to demonstrate that they were good people worthy of forgiveness.
Had the apologies come earlier, they might have had that effect.
Rather, because they occurred rather late in the game, they had precisely
the opposite effect.
Beyond simply being construed as weakness and softness, apologies are avoided
because they seem to concede liability, something that we all seek to avoid in a
litigious society. For example, on
May 16, 2003
the Chronicle of Higher Education
reported that the President of the
, Peter Likins, apologized in an e-mail message to his faculty, staff,
and students regarding two incidents in which campus police officers handcuffed
black professors. The president
wrote, “The juxtaposition of these two unrelated events has created a
perception of racial bias, however, ill-founded.
I deeply regret the events that have created this impression.”
One of the victims reportedly replied, “The apology was totally
inadequate,” and I believe he was right. In
my experience, an expression of regret is not the same as an apology.
I regret the sinking of the Titanic, but my statement of regret does not
take ownership or constitute an apology. (For the record, I had nothing to do
with the sinking of the Titanic, and I apologize if I gave that impression.)
Compare the unequivocal apology of Senator Joseph Lieberman who, after
initially declining an invitation to the 2003 NAACP Convention in
, stated, “I was wrong, I regret it and I
In the very same
May 16, 2003
issue, the Chronicle reported a mistake
made by Sallie Mae undercharging 8,000,000 borrowers because of a computer
glitch. In addressing the matter,
Albert L. Lord, Sallie Mae’s Chief Executive Officer, said, “There is no
question that we messed up,” adding that it was, “a genuine mistake and it
won’t happen again.” Taking full
ownership for the error might have been enough, but officials from Sallie Mae
additionally said, “We have accepted full responsibility for our error and are
apologizing to our affected borrowers.” Beyond
taking full responsibility and beyond the apology, the company then expressed
empathy. According to the article,
Kathleen deLaski, the company’s chief spokeswoman, said: “We understand that
any change in the monthly payment amounts may be difficult for some of our
customers, and we are working closely with them to offer repayment options that
best address their financial situation.” The
article stated that some lobbyists and lenders questioned why the U.S.
Department of Education or Congress did not take a more aggressive role in
investigating the mistake. Perhaps
it is because Sallie Mae deterred legal and governmental action by first, taking
full responsibility, second, by apologizing, and third, by showing genuine
Deans would do well to take a lesson from the man behind the screen,
Senator Lieberman and Sallie Mae. Usually
there is little to be lost and much to be gained by apologizing, even when there
is some doubt about fault. The very
worst thing that could happen by apologizing is, perhaps, another apology may be
necessary for apologizing in the first instance.
That is hardly a large price to pay.
Moreover, in addition to defusing an immediate, volatile situation, a
well-placed apology demonstrates that a dean does not perceive himself or
herself as infallible. Ultimately,
it can go a long way in demonstrating that a dean is in fact a “good
Finally, I would like to apologize to the reader for one aspect of this
essay. According to the guidelines
provided to all contributors, this essay was to be at least eight manuscript
pages. It falls short by a page or
two. It seems much more appropriate
simply to apologize rather than embellish and pad a manuscript which, I hope,
has made its point.
and Professor of Law,