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June 15, 2015


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It costs money, sometimes a lot, to hire an external dean. And an internal candidate can probably be negotiated with harder by the central admin.

Mark Fenster

It would be useful to know if we are seeing more internal deans hired than in previous eras. But even if you're right that this is a marked change, you overstate your point. There's no necessary reason why an internal dean must enforce the status quo, nor is there any reason to assume that an external dean will fight it. External deans are often, though not always, career administrators who are constantly considering moving onto their next administrative position. The last thing such a dean would want is to take risks that would cause a failed deanship or that would alienate faculty with strong national networks of friends. An external dean will also have to take a year or more of their deanship to learn about the institution -- not only the law school and its finances and personalities but also the university of which it is a part. An internal dean is more likely to be able to hit the ground running. An internal dean who has been on the faculty for an extended period is also likely to know more about the legal market and to know more alumni -- the latter of whom might be quite pleased with the choice, especially if the faculty member had been a good teacher.

I also don't understand the linkage you make between "the crumbling of effective democratic governance in the United States" and "the crumbling of effective faculty governance at many law schools" -- the latter of which is itself an historical claim for which I'd like to see some support, insofar as it assumes some golden era of law school faculty governance. Point taken on "the crumbling of law school finances," though! That surely puts additional stress on a dean, though again it's not clear why an external dean will necessarily handle that any better.

Please note that I'm not arguing in favor of internal deans. You've identified some of the potential issues with internal deans without noting the advantages they might bring, while you've curiously overlooked the potential risks of external deans. Institutions (or, more precisely, their central administrations) are making these decisions while dealing with far more complicated facts on the ground than simply some stylized distinction between external and internal candidates.

Please note also that my institution has a new external dean starting work soon, and I think she'll be great! So maybe you're right!


Central admin. usually knows what they are getting when they hire an internal dean. External deans can be more of a wildcard.

When central admin. wants a dean that will go along with their wishes, they may look internally for someone who has been generally agreeable in the past. This happened recently at my own school. The internal dean chosen, without an external search, was someone who had been in various leadership positions in the law school and at the university level. Central admin had good reason to expect this person would go along with their demands.

Just saying...

My school's last dean was internal and virtually hand-picked by the president with tepid support from the faculty who knew that they really had no choice given the terrible searches they conducted in the past and the very, very poor external candidates they had to select from and a couple of failed searches. University got tired of paying the search firms, taking lots of time and money to attract external mediocrity when internal mediocrity was there for the taking!!


There are so many problems with some of the categorical statements in the original posts and some of the comments.

An internal dean isn't necessarily more beholden to the central administration than an external one. Indeed, an external dean may be more beholden depending on the circumstances (e.g., may have moved across the country to assume the deanship and therefore wants strongly to keep it). An external dean may or may not be "a career administrator": it depends on the person. Since internal deans are most often part of a national pool that includes external deans (a couple of recent aberrations notwithstanding), the cost to do the search is the same whether an internal or external candidate is ultimately hired. The central administration may very well be able to negotiate harder with an external dean about institutional support for the law school, because an external dean may know less about the prior history and therefore be less likely to make demands that an internal dean would know to make. Etc.

In short, whether an external dean or an internal dean is "better" depends very much upon the person, the school, and the moment in time. And not everything is part of a plot to dilute shared governance.

(Now I will admit that some recent "innovations" toward just plucking a dean from the internal ranks without a real search can be problematic. But even that is contingent, e.g., the school may have just gone through a lot of turmoil and an internal consensus candidate who can be secured quickly and is good enough to do the job (and willing to do it) might therefore be better at such a moment in time than conducting a wide-ranging and potentially divisive national search.)


anon, I think the post and comments are mostly about the situation in your last paragraph - where there is no external search. Also, while it is true that "An internal dean isn't necessarily more beholden to the central administration than an external one" - in most cases, central admin is likely to pick an internal person who is beholden/unlikely to ruffle feathers. Central admin is more likely to know whether the person they choose is the type to go along with central admin if that person has held administrative position in the past, such as president of the faculty senate, associate dean, etc.

Jeff Redding

Mark Fenster: Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I'm particularly interested in your comment (that is echoed by many) that internal deans will understand the law school/university better, and will be able to "hit the ground running" (quoting from you). I think that's true in many instances, but I would just add two caveats: 1) this familiarity can be blinding to the extent that one is so familiar with the institution that you can't see the institution from an external perspective, including perhaps how bizarre it is and how much it needs to be reformed, and 2) this way of thinking can create incentives to make an institution illegible from the outside (or even certain internal actors) so as to set up the argument that "only our internal candidate can understand this hot mess." This latter point is basically one about transparency; I think we need to make our law schools more legible and transparent to the outside world.


Jeff, As a general rule I'd say the more screwed up an academic department is, the more likely an external candidate is needed.

Ryan Burke

It seems like a big assumption that an internal dean will represent the status quo--reformers have emerged from within organizations often enough, haven't they?--but assuming that, isn't there a corresponding danger of an external dean changing things at their new institution over-hastily (cf, Chesterton's fence fallacy), without appreciation for the reasons for particular policies, or even simply to put their mark on a place? Especially if they perceive making such a mark to be necessary to justify their selection/pay?

Mark Fenster

Jeff: I agree that familiarity isn't necessarily a good thing, but it can be. The fact that an institution is weird is, as you say, both an argument for an against an internal dean -- she may be uniquely capable of dealing with its weirdness, or she may contribute to it or simply allow the costs of that weirdness to grow. But that goes to my larger point, which is that institutions, dean searches, and deans are local phenomena. We could learn something in the aggregate, especially if as you suspect there are more internal deans being hired (which if true might be because, as Jack says, it's a more cost-contained hire for central admin, going back to the crumbling finances thing). But the decision to hire an internal or external dean, as well as the "success" of that deanship (however that's defined) is highly contingent, and the internal/external distinction is only one among many of the variables in play.


I get the sense that, when there is an internal candidate chosen without a search or with a cursory search, it is usually either a long time Associate or Vice Dean, an interim dean who has had a successful trial period, or a white male chosen from the faculty. That is, I do not see a lot of women or minorities being chosen without a search and wiithout proving themselves through their prior positions.


Just two data points, but our last two internal dean choices were a minority male and a female. Neither had been associate deans. Jdesq I think you need at least some data for anyone to take your bold statement seriously.

For regional

Regional - Were your last two internal (female and minority) deans chosen without a (real) search?


Georgetown was in the 90s and early 2000s fairly criticized for pretty well never hiring a Georgetown grad over more than a decade. One "deanette" (inevitably a Yale graduate) under Judy Areen when questioned by a prominent alum (then the top lawyer at DoD) responded brightly "oh we found one that was qualified recently," a story he repeated widely, while two Harvard grad academics who are old friends mentioned their shock at having GULC professors lobby against a Georgetown candidate in favor of the one from their alma mater (guess where.) In that sort of situation a particular category of candidate is necessary, though by then whether an existing faculty member would have been a good idea.

The question comes down to what do you want the dean to do - change the culture, build a culture or continue the culture that exists. For some schools at some stages you may want to change in very fundamental ways - that calls for an external candidate. You may want to establish a culture, which might call for one of your own alums. You might want to continue building, which means someone who is part of a (good) culture.

Right now a lot of law schools need broad cultural change which means not just an external candidate, but possibly not one who has served as a dean before, that or an internal critic.

Inter alia, with respect to the above, in one clueless moment Areen famously sent the alumna 4-page letter. It started on the theme of how wonderful it was that someone from Yale had come to speak at the school, and continued in that vein until it actually managed to mention Yale directly 2 more times than Georgetown, and that was after counting the letterhead and Areen's title.

Jeff Redding

anon@4:33: I read your comments to suggest that there can be 'internal' qualities to 'external' dean candidates, and I would tend to agree--yet, this begs the question as to why people are so attracted to this language of inside/outside (and I assume it does mean *something* to people deploying it). It is certainly the case that the insider group in a law faculty can solicit a dean application from a friend of theirs outside of their law school, and maybe even get that person hired.

Ryan: Good to hear from you! Maybe. I tend to think that most deans, internal or external, try to make their deanship a legacy deanship. And some of the legacies cost not in $$$, but are nonetheless costly.

Derek Tokaz

"Secondly, U.S. law schools have always needed innovation—this need predates the current crisis—and The Internal Dean is not only a symbol of the status quo, but also often its enforcer."

The External Dean may not be much of a remedy. Many of the problems with law schools are pretty wide spread across the industry, so if you're hoping to shake up the status quo by hiring from another law school, there's a pretty good chance that new dean is coming form a school with a similar status quo. How many schools have a dean who didn't come from legal academia? How many didn't come from academia at all?



It depends on whether you want change or not. If you do picking an "identikit" dean to the one you had, either from your own faculty or another school will not achieve that result.

Too many deans share the same elements:

Pick from (a) Yale, (b) Harvard, (c) Chicago, (d) Stanford. Next pick from associate dean at higher ranked school or dean of lower ranked school. Did some sort of social justice speciality as an academic (women, race, poverty, constitutional rights at the margins), check. Practiced law for 1-3 years, but not more, check. Has never criticized the current law school model in an concrete way, just bien-pensent comment about diversity, the need for more graduates to serve the deprived, check.

Now having got these details out of the way, extra points if a minority, female, etc., just so long as he/she graduated from the iron triangle of law schools and meets the rest of the inevitable criteria.

Jeff Redding

Derek: I think some of the problems of a non-critical use of Internal/External-speak get replicated when thinking about Inside/Outside academia, especially as that relates to soliciting dean applications from Practice or Corporate America. Academia has been corporatized in many ways--to its detriment--and it's not clear to me that someone from Corporate America is going to mitigate that. It's also not clear to me that the corporate model is all that successful. I guess it would depend. Hiring an American auto exec to head a law school? Meh.

Derek Tokaz


That's not very fair to corporate America. The trend lately has been towards higher wages for people at the bottom and better benefits. The trend in academia is towards professors who need three jobs just to make ends meet.


Practicing lawyers (that value the academy) could make excellent deans, especially given the current changes occurring in legal education and the increasing need to raise funds from individual donors, a large percentage who are or have been lawyers. Many are a part of "corporate America," but it's not clear why that matters.

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