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June 15, 2010


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Jessica Litman

I'm not persuaded that the questions are useful. I ran all five of them through the residual holograms of the nine deans that have served at my schools over the course of my career, and none of the answers I would have predicted for them would have given me much insight on the sorts of dean that they actually turned out to be. The problem is that each of these questions invite the sort of boilerplate answer that isn't particularly revealing.

Jacqueline Lipton

Thanks for your thoughts, Jessica. Can you think of better questions? Because frankly I'm stumped and I also fully acknowledge that interview questions are no replacement for good reference checks (which also obviously have their own limitations) and practical experience with the person. This also touches a little on the "internal versus external" candidate issue too. Faculty (and perhaps staff) will obviously have more experience of an internal candidate, but sometimes experience in other roles in the school is not transferable to the dean role. Deutschman also talks about looking for "leaders" in people lower down in the organization than the top CEO, suggesting that a successful organization needs to have a series of leaders, whether or not they have formal titles. This may be a problem in organizations with tenure where it's less easy to move people in and out of the organization if the team structure doesn't work well - and of course a lot of people will likely object to my using the term "team" at all for a law school faculty. Want to fully acknowledge that upfront. Business versus law school is not a perfect analogy.

Mike Madison

I agree with Jessica that the questions aren't likely to produce useful information, but I would explain that response differently. The questions strike me as assuming a top-down organizational and decision-making structure that is an awkward fit with an academic (or other not-for-profit) organization -- as well as (increasingly) a poor fit for many for-profit organizations. I don't think that leaders (stewards?) or Deans should reflexively listen to faculty (staff, students, alumni) and do what they want done. Nor do I think that "consensus" (quotation marks indicate a lack of definitional clarity) is a prequisite for organizational success. But effective leaders listen effectively, both inside and outside the organization, identify and work with allies and partners who are team players, are willing to make hard decisions when they need to be made, stick with those decisions -- and accept blame when thing turn out unexpectedly. Vague interview questions don't get at those qualities. How about this? "Big name alum wants to give $2 million to the law school to support a program that in the Dean's judgment does not align with the school's existing strategic priorities. How do you proceed?" Or this? "Market data suggest that the law school cannot sustain a model that assumes $25k annual tuition, its existing GPA/LSAT standing, and its placement statistics. At least one of those things has to give; otherwise, talented applicants in your target pool are likely to attend cheaper law schools or not go to law school at all. What do you do?"

Jacqueline Lipton

I like those more specific questions, Mike. Might just have to try them out one year!
BTW, I wasn't meaning to suggest that "consensus" (however it's defined) is a prerequisite for organizational success. I have just seen a lot of emphasis put on "consensus building" in dean searches (with varying definitions of the term), and I think it's a misplaced question. That's why I was interested in asking dean candidates to elaborate on how important they think it is. I assume that most candidates will waffle some platitudes about how important consensus is, but at the same time how important it is to also be decisive as the leader. But a more specific question giving a hypo (such as the ones you have come up with) may be better in this respect.
I'm also not 100% sure that I agree that at least some aspects of law faculties are not top-down structures. Sure the faculty governance side of the equation is pretty "flat" in terms of hierarchy, but the dean has to be able to manage often a large staff and often there are several lines of reporting under the senior staff. So at least in that part of the house, there is a need to understand some principles of to-down management.

Jessica Litman

I think that in the dean-search context, "consensus building" is usually code for "we have a poisonous schism among factions or individuals on the faculty, and we've been frustrated because it is preventing us from making the decisions we need to make. How would you try to fix it?"

Jacqueline Lipton

I would have to agree with that. If you didn't have a faculty schism, I can't imagine that "consensus" would be on the top of people's minds. That's why there's really no right way to answer the question I suppose. If you advocate consensus in a fractured faculty, everyone will know that you won't really be able to achieve it. If you advocate faculty-consultation-followed-by-decanal-decisiveness, then each faculty member will be worried that his/her position will end up on the wrong side of the decanal decisiveness. So what should a dean/dean candidate do once the schism has already developed?

Law interview questions

What are the main questions asking in Law interview?

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