The transition to a new year leads many (perhaps most) folks to reflect on personal goals and strategies, but this week is also a great time to refine professional objectives as well. As I enter my third calendar year of service as a law school dean, I find myself spending considerable time assessing the state of legal education in America, and also things that I as a dean should work harder on. Many objectives are relatively easy for all deans to identify—improving admissions metrics, bar passage rates, employment outcomes (all of which, luckily for me, have been moving in the right direction here at Illinois in the past few years notwithstanding the challenging national landscape). And, of course, almost all law deans would benefit from anything that generates more money for more faculty, student scholarships, academic programs, student services, etc. Here are five less obvious goals—but ones that nonetheless may say some important things about many law schools today—that have occurred to me this week as I look forward to 2018:
1. Make (or Should I Say Take) Time to Read Recent Scholarship of my Faculty
Before I started as a law dean in the fall of 2015, I made a point of reading at least one recent essay, article, or book chapter of each of my tenured/tenure-track faculty members. Scholarship is certainly one of the most important aspects of being a law professor at a top-tier law school within a large research university, and being able to explain and translate the scholarly work of a faculty to alums, donors, lawyers, judges, government officials, media representatives, and others is (I believe) one of the most important aspects of being a law dean today. Although commentators like Richard Posner and others (rightly) lament the widening gulf that has emerged between the legal academy and the legal profession over the past generation, I believe the problem is not that the work law professors do (or at least good law professors) is irrelevant to the legal profession, but that the legal profession no longer has a clear sense of what law professors do and how scholarly insights can be applied. Law deans need to work harder to bridge that gap, and the first step in that bridge building is to have a clear, up-to-date, sense of the scholarly work of the faculty.
Increase Attendance at the Many, Many Stimulating Events at the Law School
There are many more talks, symposia, colloquia, and other stimulating events at law schools today than there were even as recently as the 1990s. At most every law school, the administration, various faculty programs and individual faculty members, and student organizations invite several interesting and thoughtful outside speakers every week. As the dean, I try to attend as many of these as I can, and it is rare that I walk away from one not having learned something interesting during my time in the audience. And yet sometimes the attendance—by students, faculty and staff—at some events is thinner than it ought to be. Part of the challenge is that the sheer number of events (combined with a smaller number of students and faculty in recent years) means that many events run simultaneously, necessarily reducing turnout at each. But there are probably ways we could improve the way we market our events—both inside the building and also to other units on campus—and also ways to maintain a culture where people feel it is their obligation, to the outside speakers and to other members of the law school community, to attend whenever they reasonably can. As I intimated earlier, the vast majority of the time when people do attend they are very glad they did, but it still sometimes hard to get people to come in the first place. So as a dean I (along with my administrative team) need to think creatively about how to set up incentives for community members to attend events more frequently, to drive up the viewer-/listenership.
3. Get my Faculty in Front of Alumni More Often
A common refrain I hear from alumni whom I visit is that they’d like to see and hear more from faculty. (I think this relates back to Resolution #1, and highlights that the problem is not so much lack of interest by the profession, but lack of access by the profession.) Sometimes alumni want to see and hear from the professors they remember from their days as students, but often they are just as happy to see and hear from new faculty members who have arrived in more recent years (and whom the alums may not have ever met). It’s hard for alumni to feel connected to the school unless they feel connected to the faculty—present as well as past. Having current students meet with alumni at various events is super important (and we try to do that regularly), but it does not substitute for faculty-alumni contact, which is something I need to work to increase in the coming year.
4. Increase My Tolerance for Red Tape Even as I Seek Ways to Reduce It
In academia, whether at a public or private university, bureaucracy is a way of life. And while much of the red tape is to the good—due process, transparency, accountability, avoidance of implicit bias, etc.—it also requires a fair amount of administrative energy and oversight. But oftentimes the hoops we must go through to accomplish our institutional missions of training students and contributing to the font of legal wisdom and insight can be frustrating. I have learned that whether we are talking about an external process (like reaccreditation by the American Bar Association) or an internal function (like Human Resources rules concerning faculty and staff hiring), the key is to succeeding in a bureaucratic world is to pick your battles carefully, and always be sufficiently respectful of the roles and responsibilities of others in the system so that your suggestions for sensible reform are taken seriously rather than rejected because people consider you a loose cannon. This balance is difficult, and requires rededication on at least a yearly basis, something else to which I plan to give some attention and time in 2018.
5. Spend More Time with Students Individually or in Small Groups
As a dean, I tend to have extensive involvement with students only in limited settings. I have maintained a teaching course load (largely in constitutional law) because I want to stay engaged with classroom instruction. So I get to know many of the students in my classes. I also get to know students who have issues they need high-level help with—health issues, family issues, occasional behavioral issues, etc. And I get to know students who receive various honors or who participate in certain activities—moot court final arguments, student academic and service awards, law review symposia, etc. But as a dean, I need to hear from a widely representative swath of the student body—not just those students with special needs or who are engaged in specialized activities. Students, after all, are why law schools exist. And deans need to be aware of what the students think is going right in law school, and what students think is lacking.