DIAMONDS AND DEEP BREATHING
by Matthew Spitzer
Dean and Professor of Law
University of Southern California Law
Stop! Don’t say it; don’t even
hint at it. You may
think it, if you like, but do not ever, ever say it. Instead, breathe deeply,
practice patience and formulate strategies.
What am I talking
about? What is
“it”? “It” are the
things you want to say whenever your (completely reasonable)
reaction is to harshly upbraid someone, possibly by raising your
voice to him or her.
Here are three examples of what you should not say, and what
you might do, instead.
The Reunion .
You go to a reunion of the class of 19XX, and you sit down
next to Ms. Tight. You
know, from pre-reunion research, that Ms. Tight has given no
donations to the law school.
You look at her and notice that she is wearing a string of
diamonds around her neck that is big enough to be a boat
anchor. The value of
that necklace is enough to fund several full-tuition scholarships
for needy students. She proceeds to regale you
with tales of her professional and financial successes in
practice. After about
five minutes of this you want to scream “You ungrateful, selfish
excuse for a human being!
Your successes came from the education you received at the
law school, a law school that was built by the hard work and
charitable contributions of those who came before you. You owe a moral duty to give
back, and you are failing miserably.”
Don’t say it.
You will offend and anger her, and you will not bring her
around to start contributing to the school. And if others hear about
your rant you will appear mean spirited and out of control. Instead, breath deeply and
formulate a strategy. I
suggest something like the following. Gently steer the
conversation around to discussing another graduate of the law school
who has given faithfully to support the school. Explain how grateful you are
for her support. Report
that when you asked her why she gives that she reported [insert your
best pitch at this point].
Then shut up and see what happens. Most of the time nothing
will happen, at least immediately. If you have a confederate in
the class of 19XX, persuade that confederate to ask Ms. Tight for a
contribution to the class fund. You can also follow up, if
you like, and pitch Ms. Tight.
All of these are positive steps that have some chance of
success, and none of them will damage your reputation.
The Faculty Meeting.
You go to a faculty meeting to discuss appointing a
candidate who is doing very good work and whose politics are clear,
either liberal or conservative. A faculty member, Professor
DiSembel, whose politics are opposite of the candidate, speaks
forcefully in opposition to the candidate, presenting an “analysis”
of the candidates’ work that both misrepresents it, and also
proffers some really boneheaded critiques. You know, with certainty,
that Professor DiSembel is much smarter than the analysis would
suggest. There are only
two possibilities: Professor DiSembel has recently sustained a head
injury, or Professor DiSembel is lying for political reasons. Seeing no bandages on
Professor DiSembel’s head, you want to scream “You lying SOB! You are subverting the
climate of genuine, honest intellectual endeavor that we have been
working so hard to create and nurture here at the law school. You are doing this for
selfish, political reasons.”
Don’t say it.
All you will do is factionalize your faculty. Those who are politically
aligned with Professor DiSembel may feel compelled to come to his
defense, despite agreeing with you on the merits. This closing of ranks will
anger the rest of the faculty, who may well close ranks,
themselves. The faculty
is now split on purely political lines, and the quality of the
candidate’s work becomes irrelevant. This is awful. Instead, practice deep
breathing and formulate a strategy. I suggest that, instead, you
respond as follows.
First, stay silent and see if someone else will respond to
Professor DiSembel on the merits, and without political rancor. If so, allow the discussion
to proceed and, at an appropriate time, indicate that you agree with
Professor DiSembel’s critic.
If no one steps forward, you should enter the discussion and
point out your disagreements with Professor DiSembel on the merits,
without accusing him of political motivations. Indicate where he has
misconstrued the candidate’s work, and explain why the attacks on it
fail to carry much weight.
Everyone in the room will see what is going on. If Professor DiSembel’s
political allies rush to his defense, you have a much bigger problem
than just Professor DiSembel.
You need a new, bigger plan than the one from which we have
been working. You may
need to speak with your Provost, assuming that he or she is an
ally. If the other
faculty members do not rush to Professor DiSembel’s defense, you
have “solved” the problem, at least for the
A Simple Request From Students. A delegation of first year
students, Students Urging Relief from Fridays (“SURF”) comes to your
office and makes a simple request: no Friday classes This will be good for
students, SURF explains, because this way the class schedule will
let them get an early start on the weekend. You can feel your adrenaline
flowing. You think
about how hard you worked -- six and seven days per week -- when you
were in law school, and when you were in practice. You want to scream at SURF
“You lazy little wimps!
Law is a profession that requires a lot of hard work, and the
time to start is now.
Maybe you can cut back to a four day work week in about forty
years. Until then, get
Don’t say it.
You will just antagonize the students. They will get the lesson
soon enough. For now, I
suggest (you guessed it) deep breathing. Instead of yelling at the
students, talk to them in soothing tones, and let them know you feel
their pain. “Of course
it would be nicer to have classes on four days. Unfortunately, the law
school does not have enough classrooms or professors to cover all of
your classes in four days.
I would love to have the resources to go to a four day
week. When you have
graduated I will expect each of you to contribute faithfully so that
we can improve our resource base. But, until then, we are
forced to hold classes on five days per week. Be sure to stop by to see me
at any time.” You
have let them know how much you care about them, and turned the
meeting into an early pitch for funds. You might even have sown the
seeds for future fundraising.
By this point I am sure you have the
pattern. When you feel
the urge to yell, fight the urge. Instead, try to formulate an
effective strategic plan.
Often other, more experienced deans can help with the
brainstorming, and also counsel you on the wisdom of deep
Feel free to insert a variant involving a man and a Rolls
Royce, or a woman and a Rolls Royce, or even a man and some