Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dean Frank Wu: So You Want To Be A Law Dean

This post is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Here is my advice about becoming a law school dean.

So the reader can assess my advice for herself, as advice should be more personal than generic, allow me to open with an observation that establishes my worldview. I am a contrarian. Now is a great time to be a dean. I could not imagine circumstances better for someone serious about the prospect.

The reason is that there is an unprecedented opportunity to lead. The bench, the bar, the general public, even the President are demanding legal education reform. Many of those external observers are attempting to impose their own changes, and some are offering guidance without understanding what they are criticizing.

For all that, it is rare to be given such support for wholesale reinvention of institutions. As never before a leader who has potentially worthwhile alternatives will find an audience willing to consider her model.

Professors who would shy away from a deanship during downsizing of the entirety of all of legal education likely underestimate the tremendous stresses even during periods of growth. If you intend to last for any significant stint, the challenge is even greater: it is all too easy to make mistakes in market trending upward that you come to regret when the cycle turns.

First and foremost, have a reason for wanting to be a dean -- not any reason, but an irresistible reason. I refer to a private reason, not the public one. You need both. (In a later blog, I'll discuss the public reason in explaining how to land the job; that is not the same as why you want the job.)

"I'm at a point in my career when I'm ready to do this," is, if I may say so, not sufficiently compelling. It should not persuade you to pursue the opportunity any more than it will convince others to give it to you.

If you consider the proposition, being ready for a task implies you could do it and not that you should do it. An abstract readiness is not enough to sustain you through the real tests of the role. In my experience, feeling ready correlates inversely to actually being ready.

"Because I like to be in charge," is, however, a good motivation. That cannot be the lead statement in your application. But any individual aspiring to be a leader should be honest with herself. If even to her own secret self, she does not like to be in charge she will not last as a leader.

Being in charge does not mean you boss around others. It's the other way around -- they refer the problems to you.

Next, it's crucial to choose the right institution -- and for everyone there to choose the right dean. Both must get it right to avoid misery.

If you really want to be a dean and have received an offer, it is highly likely you will be a dean eventually and have other offers if you like. The better part of judgment is to withdraw from a search at an incompatible school, to compete again another day.

The pool of people who are qualified to be dean is vast relative to the range of persons who will fit the needs that place and that time. Deans are not fungible, because institutions are not identical. Neither deans nor institutions ought to be easily mistaken for another dean or another institution.

A dean who would be good for a particular school will not necessarily be good for another, and even a dean who would have been good earlier or who might be good later might not be right now. Schools face different problems: the central administration; faculty divisiveness; a structural deficit; lack of identity; rankings; and so on.

Arrow's Paradox should be remembered by all parties. It is unlikely that all of the stakeholders will agree. Kenneth Arrow received the Nobel Prize for proving that it's logically impossible to democratically aggregate preferences in complex circumstances. The campus that has a fight between the central administration and the law faculty, for example, cannot help but display diametrically opposed objectives in the dean search.

Finally, and perhaps even more importantly than having a reason for wanting to be a dean, make sure your partner or spouse shares your ambition or you have a relationship that will continue to thrive if she has to sacrifice. My wife reminds me from time to time that she has a job, and being the dean's wife isn't it. She's right in this as she is with much else.

The decision to be a dean is a joint decision. Only one person will occupy the office in formal terms. But anyone considering running for the office should appreciate its demands are constrained by neither place nor time -- "running for the office" is the right phrasing; being a dean is analogous to being a politician, because of the public nature of the occupation. Although that does not call for your spouse/partner to be standing alongside you at every campaign appearance, it does require you both to have similar expectations.

I love my job. I do not commend it to everyone.


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