The Truth About Law School Deans

Law school deans have been portrayed in the least flattering terms over the past few years. Most observers probably do not realize how little power the average dean actually possesses.
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Law school deans have been portrayed in the least flattering terms over the past few years. Most observers probably do not realize how little power the average dean actually possesses.

When I was hired as an assistant professor at Howard University Law School, the nation's leading historically black college/university, I thought my dean was all powerful. At the time, Judge Henry Ramsey held the office.

An eminent faculty member and then a jurist, the recipient of every type of honor bestowed by bar associations and civic groups, and deservedly so, Dean Ramsey looked the part -- I know you aren't supposed to see anyone as archetypal, but I mean this with great admiration of him and no disparagement of others. A tall, dark-complexioned African American with a salt-and-pepper beard, he dressed impeccably and radiated gravitas. He looked like a figure out of the Old Testament.

Later, I became a dean elsewhere. I found myself on a campus with a dozen other deans and many more vice-presidents. I realized then to my chagrin that deans are merely middle management.

For example, outside that law school there was a parking lot. I had no control over that piece of property. I was well aware that I was lucky to be granted a reserved space.

No, the parking lot was one of many such revenue-generating operations. It was under the jurisdiction of an administrator with expertise in such matters. She didn't return my phone calls.

When I talk to my colleagues, I realize how different my present situation happens to be. After a stint as a dean, I moved on. I'm Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law now. Among the 200 or so ABA accredited institutions training lawyers, fewer than one in ten are independent, stand-alone schools such as UC Hastings. Almost all of them are embedded inside a much larger structure, with the law school dean reporting to the president or in some instances the provost, a very different arrangement.

The latter situation does not favor the law school dean.

More importantly, with a few exceptions, the law school dean is charged a tax. Although usually designated overhead, it is not uncommon for the amount to exceed what would be, strictly speaking, the law school portion of resources that are shared, such as parking lots.

There are other complications. By and large, law professors publish their scholarship in journals run by students without peer review. Law school deans often find themselves explaining the excellent records of their professors who are up for tenure, to a central committee of chemists and historians whose approval is needed and who are looking at files that seem by their standards to be lacking in scholarship (not to mention that the law professors tend to be younger and better compensated than colleagues in other departments).

Thus the relationships of law school deans to their nominal bosses ranges from cordial at best to contentious at worst. At places where the tax is deemed excessive, law faculties seek a leader who will do battle on their behalf -- and that of their students -- against the very administrators who view the deans as reporting to them, the higher-ups.

From the perspective of the university executives, it is only fair that a unit of the overall business which generates a "profit" be asked to subsidize other parts of the same endeavor that however worthwhile cannot be expected to make money -- say, the classics department.

The problems arise when the law school itself becomes as vulnerable in the marketplace as its erstwhile beneficiaries. It is no wonder that there have been quite public resignations of law school deans who declare that the conflicting expectations cannot be reconciled.

The first law school of the American West, UC Hastings, is unique. Established by the Chief Justice of the state in 1878, we were set up with the type of internal contradiction with which lawyers make themselves comfortable. We were to be part of the brand new University of California system. Yet we were to be autonomous rather than governed by the UC Regents.

Accordingly, we have always used the UC name and still receive a direct state appropriation, albeit increasingly modest. We grant degrees under the authority of the system, meaning a central official is invited to our commencement ceremonies to bless them. We also submit our audits for review, though every contract we enter is stamped with a note that the system is not a party to it. My health care plan is the standard UC issue, like that of every other Chancellor. We are partners in a consortium with UCSF, our sister school across town that is dedicated to the health sciences.

The crucial difference is the tax or lack thereof. We neither remit moneys to the UC president nor receive funding from him. The system has worked well.

There are costs and risks. I oversee an entire parking garage (not directly, but the chain of command eventually stops with me). I have to balance the budgets with no hope of appealing to anyone above me in a bad year.

Hence I have an unusual dual title. I am chancellor of the campus as well as dean of the law school. The campus consists of only the law school. Half of my responsibilities are identical to those of a dean, but another half of the job more closely resemble that of other chancellors.

Even at UC Hastings, I am Chancellor and Dean, not czar and dictator.

I report to a governing Board of Directors. Appointed in a political process, they have fiduciary responsibilities and approve budgets and set policies.

I respect the academic tradition of shared governance; this feature is distinctive to higher education, and does not appear in business contexts. Functioning as a true democracy, the faculty as a whole makes academic decisions ranging from who is hired as a colleague to what courses will be offered to how to set the grading curve.

All in all, I have my dream job.

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