NINETEEN RULES TO DEAN
by Rodney A. Smolla *
Dean and Professor of Law
The University of Richmond School of Law
nineteen rules to good deaning--some say eighteen.1
In the course of a year
I’ve broken them all at one time or another, several on multiple
occasions, and thus prefer to think of them as guidelines rather
than fast laws.2 Whether understood as rules
or guidelines, here they are:
1. It’s not about
you. To be a dean is to be a
leader and steward. The
“Office of the Dean” is important to the institution, in substance
and in symbol. But
don’t confuse the office with the occupant. You’re a renter not an
owner. Be proud of
others but never yourself.
Brag on faculty, students, staff, alumni, and mean it when
you do, but don’t brag on yourself. It’s the institution that
2. It’s a marathon, not a
sprint. The building and nurturing
of an institution takes time.
The good will of an academic institution, like the good will
of a business, is perhaps its most important asset. It’s human nature,
especially in the breakneck multi-tasking pace of modern digital
life, to think and act in the hyper-speed. I believe it was the New
England Journal of Medicine that recently released a study showing
that the attention span of the average American is twenty-three
seconds.3 As dean you need to do
better than that. A
sense of the future is vital to academic leadership. Thinking five, ten, fifteen
years into the future is critical. On significant matters, it
is more important to the institution for you to think long than to
3. It’s an exhibition not a
competition. The exhibition is an
exhibition of excellence.
Everything a great law school produces, like everything a
great lawyer or jurist produces, should exhibit excellence. This is our professional
ideal. Do not confuse
intrinsic quality with rankings and ratings. We live in a competitive
culture that places great stock in ranks and rates. As a dean you will naturally
do all in your power to improve the reputation and ranking of your
school. But never
confuse the ranking with the reality, and never confuse the nobility
of the striving with the hollowness of a life in which pursuit of
recognition becomes the end of living. Rankings are measures of
quality-- often imperfect and unfair, to be sure--but measures
nonetheless. But rankings are not, in
themselves, the actual stuff of quality.4 Do all you can to inspire
others to be the best they can be. Then let the chips fall and sleep
easy. Remember this
wisdom from Shakespeare:
. . . . Reputation is a most
idle and false imposition;
oft got without merit
and lost without deserving.
You have lost no
reputation at all unless you
Repute yourself a
4. The buck stops
here. If it happens on your watch
take responsibility for it.6 No one admires a shirker,
and you are a role model.
Students need to see what it means to be professional.
Gracefully accepting responsibility when things go wrong is part of
that. And nine times
out of ten when things go wrong it’s better to own up, deal with it,
take your lumps if required, and move on with life. Talk this talk and walk this
5. Don’t take it
personally. This is
an important corollary to Rule Number One (“It’s not about
you.”) The ticket
here is not to take conflict personally. In a healthy academic
environment there will constantly be intense and passionate
exchanges on matters of principle among students, faculty,
administrators, and staff.
Remember, this is a university, built on faith in the free
and civilized exchanged of ideas.7 If at times the civility of
the exchange diminishes, remember to keep your head about you as all
around are losing theirs.8 You’re a role model,
remember. You’ll almost
never make things better by losing your cool.
6. Remember that law
connects with all things.
Celebrate the idea of a
university, and the constant intersection of the law with all that
transpires on a campus.
Law touches life, law touches all aspects of human endeavor
and inquiry. The
academic study of law and the practice of law are central to the
advancement of the human condition. A great law school is a
wonderful intellectual asset to any academic community. Encourage the intellectual
life of the university to course through the law school, and do all
you can to encourage faculty and students to course through the
intellectual life of the university. Teaching and researching law
is a grand enterprise, of vital importance to society, and to all
that is studied and taught on the campus. Venerate those
7. It’s a
law connects to all things, but the law school is not all
things. It’s a
university, stupid. All
parts of it matter, all parts of it are interconnected, and the law
school must do its part for the common good. Learn to see the world as
your president and provost and fellow deans and trustees must. Learn the issues facing the
campus that are of no direct concern to the law school (a
controversy surrounding athletics, perhaps, or the curriculum for
entering freshmen), and participate with thoughtful humility in
Your job is to lead the law school. But you work for the
university. Learn to be
comfortable with this academic federalism and enjoy the constructive
role you can play in participating in the resolution of
8. Money isn’t
everything. Of course it comes in pretty
useful down here--as George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) says to his
guardian angel “Clarence” in It’s a Wonderful Life. As the song goes, it can’t
buy you happiness. Nor
salvation, nor meaning.
Spirit, character, creativity, energy, and soul all mean more
than dough. Do not ever
discount the power of inspiration. Students, faculty, alumni,
friends, and even strangers may do wonderful things for your school
without opening their checkbooks. Many magnificent things may
be accomplished at an institution with little or no infusion of new
resources. (Since deans spend a lot of time fundraising, this is a
rule you may choose to keep to yourself--this explains why some
think there are nineteen rules to good deaning, others
9. Do not be afraid to ask
for money--lots of it.
I never said it wasn’t useful. There is no shame in asking
donors, foundations, the central administration, or the government
for money to accomplish the many worthy enterprises of a thriving
law school. Build
relationships based on truth.
Let the world know, honestly, the great things your school is
about. Touch them with
your vision and then put the touch on them for their help. This is how society is
built, this is how we pass the torch to new generations. Do not be afraid to ask for
money to build the future of your institution, for the generations
of Americans who will be looking to excellent, ethical, dedicated
lawyers for leadership and counsel in navigating the challenges of
10. Be friends with your
development and alumni relations and public relations
teams. Among your
duties as dean you must raise money, cultivate good will among
alumni, and promote the reputation of the school. Poor professional
relationships with the key players on your team who work to help you
raise money, cultivate good will among alumni, and promote the
reputation of the school cannot be a good thing. If you are not clicking with
the people in these positions then you may need to make some
changes. You may need
to adjust, they may need to adjust, or you may just need to assemble
a new line-up. But do
what you must do to make these relationships healthy and
school needs that.
11. Do not micro-manage, but
do pay close attention, to admissions and career services. Admissions and career
services are the two departments within your school that have the
most direct impact on students. Admissions brings them in,
career services places them out. Ideally, the folks in these
two departments will be passionately committed to their jobs. They will often look to you
for guidance and support.
You will often find that your ability to guide them is
limited, because the truth is that they know much more about the
nuances than you could hope to learn or should learn. So do not micro-manage
them. What you are good
at is support. Learn to
listen and try to understand what they are telling you. (I find an understanding
quotient of about 64% works well). You need to understand
enough to be able to exercise some credible judgment in advising
them. Most importantly,
however, you need to understand enough to come to agreement on sound
working decisions and then back them up with moral support.
12. Encourage the school to
connect with the surrounding community. As the Supreme Court has
observed: “Universities possess significant interests in encouraging
students to take advantage of the social, civic, cultural, and
religious opportunities available in surrounding communities and
throughout the country.
Universities, like all of society, are finding that
traditional conceptions of territorial boundaries are difficult to
insist upon in an age marked by revolutionary changes in
communications, information transfer, and the means of discourse.”9 Law schools can connect with
the surrounding community in an infinite variety of creative and
useful ways. Clinics, pro bono services, educational programs,
participation in the forums and councils of government, civic
organizations, the judicial system, the bar--the examples from
around the nation abound.
Make it a goal as dean to strengthen the connections that
already exist and encourage the creation of new ones. Service, giving back, is a
vital part of what it means to be a lawyer, and ought to be a vital
part of what it means to be a law school.
13. Lead more, manage
less. Deaning is of course a
mix of leadership and management. So is being the Governor of
a state, the CEO of a company, the commander of an army, the head
coach of a football team, the conductor of a symphony. In adjusting this mix, the
optimal ratio is 73% leadership and 27% management. (Remarkably, I think I
recently read a report from the Yale School of Management
demonstrating that this mathematical rule holds true across the
board--in government, business, the military, athletics, and
14. Encourage character not
caricature. Negative caricature is
endemic to humanity, especially humanity inhabiting a university
sociologists understand this, and they’re not talking. As dean you will run into a
lot of strident opinion, and conspiracy theorists of all sorts. Pseudo knowledge often
abounds, often grounded in a shifting collage of half-truth and
misconception. There is
a natural tendency for various groups to draw hyperbolic negative
portraitures of those with whom they deal primarily from a distance.
Faculty members are instinctively distrustful of the “central
administration,” and are generally convinced that those who inhabit
headquarters do not appreciate their hard work and constant
contributions to the common good. Those in administration have
their own pet caricatures, as do alumni, trustees, students, and
staff. A big part of
leadership is to challenge and inspire others to judge each other on
the well-earned attributes of character, to engage in candid yet
constructive dialogue, to see the world from the perspective of
others, to resist trafficking in rumor and caricature and instead
seek authentic interaction and common ground. As dean it is generally
perilous to be caught in the middle between forces trading
fire. It is far better
to use the fulcrum of the middle to sue for peace and facilitate a
sense of shared destiny and common enterprise.
15. Love it or leave
it. If you love
the job, it will love you.
You ought to love it.
It is rewarding, interesting, challenging, meaningful. You’re doing some good in
the world. But if it
just doesn’t click for you, or when it ultimately begins to wear you
down, or loose its magic, leave. You do nobody a favor by
hanging on when its time to go. Longevity in office is not a
free-standing virtue, and continuity in institutions is only a
positive when what is being continued is working well.
16. Observe the importance of
ritual, symbol, and promiscuous pomp. Remember the circle of life,
Simba.11 Academic life is rich in pomp
and circumstance. So is
the life of the law.
Symbols and rituals matter. Professors and judges
and students all at various times wear robes. They confirm our deepest
values and mark precious rites of passage and achievement. The banquets and
receptions of student organizations, scholarship lunches, endowed
lectures, the opening and closing of conferences and symposia,
convocations and graduations—all of these mean a great deal to a
great many. People look
to the dean at these moments. The public life of deaning ought not
be empty and rote. It
ought to be rich in feeling and values. Embrace these times. Make use of them as moments
to teach, inspire, build institutional pride and community.
17. Be out and
about. More good
things happen for the institution when you are out of your office
than inside it. Be
visible in the building, on the campus, in the community, be visible
among students and faculty, alumni, the judiciary, the bar. You can accomplish more
connecting with others away from your desk than behind it.
18. Collaborate, consult,
communicate. There is a lot of debate in
academic leadership over whether academic leaders such as deans,
provosts, or presidents ought to be hierarchical “top down” leaders,
following a business CEO model, or whether they are the “first among
equals” in a democratic enterprise, in which values such as
collaboration and consultation and democracy are sovereign. This is a false debate and a
false dichotomy. In any
organization there are decisions for the leader at the top alone to
make. This is true of a law school dean. In a university there are
also many decisions uniquely suited to the faculty, or to the
student body, or to a provost or president, or board of
trustees. A university
is a complex governance organism filled with checks and balances and
And of course, not all universities are the same in their
approach to governance, either in their formal rules or their
traditions. But the
point is, it doesn’t matter.
No matter what the formal governance rules are, you will be a
better academic leader if you freely and constantly collaborate,
consult, and communicate.
What makes you think you’re so smart? The odds are that if you
float a decision by others first, somebody will see something you
missed, spot a potential problem or embarrassment, see a possible
improvement. And remember, a large part of successful deaning is the
building of consensus.
How you gonna do that if you don’t talk to folks? How you going to get people
to buy into a program, to own it, if they have not been approached
in advance for honest and authentic conversation over its
merits? Indeed, perhaps
the most important people to consult with are often those that you
anticipate, in advance, will be opposed to your proposal, or at the
very least, highly skeptical.
This is an especially hard rule to observe, and I often have
to steel up the gumption to do it, but it usually pays off. First, they will often
surprise you, and be supportive. But even if they are opposed
to the program, the fact that you had the leadership confidence and
grace to get their views first will usually improve the civility of
the subsequent discussion and deliberation. Don’t forget, we’re supposed
to be university professors, trained in the value of civil
forget, we’re supposed to be lawyers, trained in the value of
reasoned discussion and conflict resolution. Consult, collaborate, and
communicate--with your provost and president, with your alumni, with
your faculty, with your students. It’s not always easy, but
force yourself. It’s
your job. And it’s not
the sign of a weak leader, but a strong one.
19. When you think about the
big picture, think big.
everything, it’s the only thing. The “vision thing” may be a
cliche, but it’s a tried and true one. Just because something’s
hackneyed doesn’t mean it’s right. A leader must not be afraid
to lead. Your most
important job is to inspire the extended law school community to
formulate with you a vision of the future, to create a plan to
achieve that vision, and to work tirelessly on the joyous mission of
seeing it through. This
is not the job of others; this is your job. Yes, the buck stops
here. Sometimes that’s
a good buck. Enjoy and
revel in the concentration and creativity that it takes to lead a
community through the conception of a vision, the formulation of an
implementing strategy, and the execution of the plan. Leadership is the satisfying
and meaningful part of the job. Do not feel guilty about it
being fun and fulfilling.
The fun and fulfillment is part of your pay (remember Rule
Number Seven: “Money isn’t everything.”). Do not feel guilty about
delegating a reasonable amount of management to others. In delegating you are not
selling the institution short, but investing long.
Dean and Allen Professor of Law,
University of Richmond
T.C. Williams School
In this sense good deaning is like good writing, which has a
similar catechism. In the words of Mark Twain: “There are nineteen
rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction--some
say twenty-two.” Samuel
Clemens, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” (1894), reprinted in
Cleanth Brooks, R.W.B. Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, American
Literature: The Makers and the Making, vol. II at 1329 (1973).
The ordering here is capricious, and connotes no priority of
importance. See, e.g,,
III, V. (The Third Amendment
(prohibiting the quartering troops) is not by sheer dint of
numerical priority superior in importance to the Fifth Amendment
(with its Due Process Clause, Self-Incrimination Clause, Takings
Clause, etc.), at least in the context of deaning).
My attention span is too short to be able to remember if this
was the median, mean, or mode, nor do I have a footnote for this, so
please don’t cite me.
See generally Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1984).
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of
Venice , (Act II, scene iii, 256-61), reprinted in
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (
Text) (William Aldis Wright, ed.) (1936).
See Daniel Morrissey, Harry Truman and the Joy of Deaning, 35
Tol. L. Rev. 153 (2003).
See Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v.
Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) (“The University may determine
that its mission is well served if students have the means to engage
in dynamic discussions of philosophical, religious, scientific,
social, and political subjects in their extracurricular campus life
outside the lecture hall.”); Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of
University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 835-36 (1995) (“The first
danger to liberty lies in granting the State the power to examine
publications to determine whether or not they are based on some
ultimate idea and, if so, for the State to classify them. The second, and
corollary, danger to speech is from the chilling of individual
thought and expression.
That danger is especially real in the University setting,
where the State acts against a background and tradition of thought
and experiment that is at the center of our intellectual and
philosophic tradition.”), citing Healy v. James, 408 U.S.
169, 180‑181 (1972); Keyishian v. Board of Regents of Univ. of State
of N.Y., 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967); Sweezy v.
Hampshire , 354
See Rudyard Kipling, “If--” (“If you can keep your head when
all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”), in Rudyard
Kipling, Complete Verse 578.
Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin
System v. Southworth, 529
See The Lion King (© Disney 1994).