Thanks to Dan for inviting me to spend some time in the Lounge. Having just stepped down as academic dean after nearly five years in the job, I thought I might share some observations growing out of that experience.
The job of academic dean at my school is a big one, with many and varied responsibilities. Although this was my first experience of serious administrative responsibility, going into the job I did not anticipate any problems. Before entering academia I was a pretty fair litigator, and I was accustomed from that experience to keeping a lot of balls in the air while moving my cases forward steadily on all fronts. I didn’t expect law school administration to be much different in principle.
In some ways, that was true. I did accomplish a lot – but not nearly as much as I had expected. What blindsided me was entropy, the natural tendency of things to fall apart – no, let me rephrase that: the tendency of things to crumble through your fingers into tiny, random heaps of dust – without the exertion of significant energy to hold them together. In other words, forget about making forward progress – I didn’t count on how much time and effort it takes just to prevent everything from going to hell.
There were, for example, faculty comings and goings. Sabbatical and visit requests. Parental leaves. One colleague needed cancer treatment, another an organ transplant (both are doing well). There were deaths in our community requiring people to take time off. I went to three wakes in one stretch: a fifty-year-old, a twenty-year-old, and an infant. And then there was the work generated outside the building. I chaired our ABA reaccreditation (talk about working hard merely to stay in place). Mandates appeared periodically from the federal government, the New York bar examiners, the ABA, or the central university, all necessitating a flurry of review and compliance activity. And then there was the little stuff. Something had unexpectedly gone wrong for this or that faculty or staff member, and it had to be put right. Make things better? On most days, by the time senior administrators had done everything necessary to prevent the roof from falling in, we hardly had time or energy to think about serious, long-term organizational improvement.
What I gained, though, was an appreciation of the fragility and transience of organized human communities. They do not simply putter along by themselves on autopilot; they need constant, exhausting tending and maintenance. Actual forward progress is a much more impressive institutional achievement than people generally realize.