Decanal Legacies

This blog was originally published on Jan. 6, 2008 by Professor Russell L. Weaver.

The best deans leave enhanced institutions and positive feelings in their wake. In other words, they leave strong “legacies” on which their successors can build. At the University of Louisville, even though he has been dead for several years, many faculty still speak with reverence regarding the deanship of James Merritt. Lots of other deans have left, or are in the process of creating similar legacies at other institutions. Don Polden, Tom Galligan, Steven Smith, Ian Holloway, Bruce Elman could be mentioned.

What do these successful deans have in common? Jim Merritt and David Parlett (formerly of Washington & Lee and now at Emory) provide good examples. Both individuals display (or displayed) visions for their institutions, tremendous interpersonal skills, a healthy emotional balance, respect for their colleagues, and an ability to build a working consensus among their faculties.

When I arrived at Louisville, my more senior colleagues frequently told me that Dean Merritt was never taken by surprise by a faculty vote. This was no accident. Jim regarded himself as a “first among equals,” rather than as an “emperor” or a “dictator” or a “boss,” and was in constant communication with his “faculty colleagues.” In other words, Jim actively sought to work with his faculty to find ways to push the institution forward.

Of course, an important aspect of all successful deanships is core self-esteem. A dean who lacks self-esteem is more likely to make decisions based on personal, rather than institutional, considerations. In addition, a dean without core self-esteem is less likely to do what is right for the institution. As a result, relations with ‘faculty colleagues” (if, indeed, the dean regards his or her faculty as “colleagues”) are likely to be strained or dysfunctional.

Dysfunctional deans ultimately pay the price, as (unfortunately) do their law schools. In addition, they leave a tattered legacy in their wake. Instead of throwing a “going away” party when the dean steps down, the faculty throws a “gone away” party.

At the new dean’s workshop, or so I’m told, the following joke was circulating at one point. A faculty member goes to the dean’s secretary and demands to see the dean. The dean’s secretary expresses sorrow at being the bearer of bad news, but explains that the dean died last night. The faculty member goes away, but comes back the next day demanding again to immediately see the dean. Even though the secretary is a bit perturbed at receiving the same request, especially in light of the conversation of the day before, the secretary patiently explains again that the dean has died, and that a meeting is not possible. The faculty member goes away, but returns the following day with the same request that is made somewhat more emphatically. In frustration, the secretary reminds the faculty member regarding the prior conversations, and inquires how it is possible to convey the fact that the dean has died. The faculty member responds, “Oh, I got it the first time. I just wanted to hear the good news again.”


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