Secret Handshakes and Other Unspoken Rules Revealed

Written by Hazel Weiser

Deans Yuracko, Newton, and Niles
Deans Yuracko, Newton, and Niles

Two weeks ago SALT collaborated with The John Marshall Law School and Northern Illinois University College of Law to bring to practitioners and recent graduates of color some of the ways to “break into” the legal academy from practice, public interest, and government service.  During one of the panels, Rogelio Lasso, commented that back when he was first looking to get a job as a professor,  Michael Olivas as the founder of Latino Law Professors,  maintained his own list of qualified Latina/Latino attorney-scholars and recent graduates who were ripe to join a law school faculty.  Whenever a dean or hiring chair complained that there were no qualified applicants, Michael would pull out his list.  Now SALT’s programs, along with LatCrit and the various People of Color conferences, make those secret handshakes and unspoken rules more transparent.  The consequence is a slow and steady push towards greater diversity within the faculty ranks of the legal academy.

This past weekend, SALT, Seattle University School of Law and its Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law & Equality, and University of Washington School of Law presented the third biennial “Promoting Diversity in Law School Leadership” workshop, hosted at Seattle University School of Law.  An enormous thank you goes out to Robert S. Chang, associate dean for research and faculty development and executive director of the Korematsu Center for his extraordinary efforts to plan this workshop, recruit the panelists, and ensure that the discourse was subtle, complex, and helpful to potential candidates, new deans, and those serving on dean search committees.

The first question to ask during times like these when the June 2011 administration of the LSAT fell by 18.7%, is whether any sane person would want to be a dean.  The first panel, featuring Nell Jessup Newton, Dean of Notre Dame Law School (on her third deanship), Mark C. Niles, Dean of Seattle University School of Law (on his first), and Kimberly A. Yuracko, Interim Dean, Northwestern University School of Law, moderated by Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The University of Iowa College of Law, suggested a series of questions to ask:

Do I enjoy institutional play?  Do I like working with multiple constituencies?  Do I like variety in my daily routines?  Do I like running things?  Do friends suggest that I should do this?

Kimberly Yuracko suggested that if one is serious about becoming a dean, consider a post as an interim dean, as she has while Northwestern did its dean search.  Although the deluge of emails is significant, there are low expectations of what an interim dean might accomplish, so it gives a potential candidate an opportunity to understand the diversity of problems deans face: faculty, budget, staff, new programs, retention, fundraising, alumni relations, students, complaints, when to be compassionate and soothing, interacting on behalf of the law school with the greater university, events, meetings, and did I mention emails?

Mark Niles, who is just entering his second year as dean at Seattle, came to the position after serving as associate dean for several years at American University.  But what he learned in Washington D.C. was not necessarily immediately transferable coming to Seattle, a different university with a different culture, in a new location, and a law school with a different mission.  A dean is a manager, who must rely on delegating authority and resources to other members of the management team, knowing that there is a tension between delegating and avoiding.  Just as President Obama said, Dean Niles agrees: Only the really hard stuff ever gets to his desk, issues that cannot be easily resolved.

A dean also has a role in the larger community, not just the bench and bar, but with the cultural, nonprofits, and community-based projects that are at the heart of any city, making it unique.  In addition, a dean has an obligation to contribute to programs within the AALS and the ABA, especially during the comprehensive review of the standards governing law schools.

Did I mention fundraising?  Did I mention that most law schools are tuition-dependent, at least in part?  And after graduation, students will default on their loans if there are no jobs.  Will their loyalty dissipate if they find themselves unemployed and crushed by debt?

Can you ask for a check for $1,000?  Well, that ask might be a waste of your time as a dean actually.  Maybe you only get to ask for the $100,000 and up contributions!

Most deans say that meeting with alumni and potential donors is the most fun of their jobs.

Yet there is no more important time than now for progressive candidates to consider becoming deans.  The hard decisions that have to be made now that budgets must conform to the realities of admissions, should not be merely “business” decisions, but need to continue to encourage law school students from all communities to study the law, to become “citizen lawyers,” to understand the structures of power and how to confront them in order to fight for social justice and fairness.

Getting the dean’s job is an equally complex task.  More on that tomorrow.  For now, thank you to Dean Niles, Professor Chang, Dean Testy, and SALT’s own Raquel Aldana and Steve Bender for an invaluable program.