From Law Prof to Law Dean: Curse or Blessing?

From Law Prof to Law Dean: Curse or Blessing?

What does the dean of a law faculty do? I asked myself this question throughout my 12-year academic career. Most of the time, they appear both indispensable and irrelevant in equal measure. Deans are quixotic, sometimes even hostile. They do not teach; they produce little research; and many law faculties are acrimonious places, suggesting that organisational leadership is not within their remit either. Yet, I’ve been fortunate to see every faculty I’ve belonged to develop in quantitative and qualitative ways. They must be doing something right. It is this something, however, that continued to confound. 

Both the question and the spectrum of answers are vital to me, today. Six weeks ago, I started my tenure as Dean at the Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus. Many scholars regard promotion to a deanship as more curse than blessing. As I was told when pondering the offer, hassles from managing an amalgam of academic and administrative colleagues easily neutralise the income and prestige bump. There is truth to this; as every law professor knows, we’re a quarrelsome bunch! If we add to this the financial challenges endemic to universities during neoliberal times—exacerbated by COVID-19, especially in the Caribbean—and my judgment even appears foolhardy. Six weeks later, and I still pinch myself each morning. 

In the following reflections, I share five lessons I’ve learned to date. I hope these help academics better appreciate the thinking that undergirds some of the behaviours and decisions of their deans. They might also prove handy for colleagues who are contemplating the passage from research and lecturing to leadership and management. While a deanship is not sorcery, it’s not straightforward either. By the end of this essay, you’ll at least be able to answer my opening question. I’ll try not to make myself irrelevant in the process. 

Lesson #1: Leadership not Management

Prior to venturing into the role, I held mentoring sessions with previous deans. These were invaluable and, throughout the past weeks, I returned to my notes to recall the wisdom they shared. Within the wealth of their advice, one statement stands out: “you’re a leader, not a manager.” 

To provide context, the dean I was in conversation with—a multi-university dean—was recounting the tip a Vice-Chancellor offered during their first ‘managerial’ appointment. When I probed them further about the difference between the two, he assured me I would understand once in post. If he’s reading this essay, he’ll be pleased to learn that I now do. A manager does things right while a leader does the right things. 

We can quibble over what right means, but I invite colleagues to look beyond semantics. A manager focuses on doing things right, on observing the rules, on dotting their ‘i’s. Some define this as operational leadership. I disagree: it’s management. Certain features of the role require operational nous, such as examiners’ meetings. But most do not, such as developing new streams of revenue. For the examiners’ meetings, we tick boxes; for the revenue streams, we strategise. Strategy is the domain of a leader. 

Questions a dean should ask include: which initiatives will I launch in Year 1, Year, 2, and so on? How will I fund these initiatives? What type of concessions can I get from the university or from the government to cultivate the experience of my colleagues? Who can I strike up partnerships with to enrich the learning of our students? For a leader, the time of the examiners’ meeting is pretty low on the totem pole. 

Lesson #2: Prepare, Prepare, and then Prepare Some More

You cannot prepare enough for the role. I held one-on-one meetings with many of my future colleagues before joining the Faculty. These helped me consider more about the climate and culture. I enrolled in a course on leadership, studying the difference between operational and strategic, authoritative and democratic models. I took another on organisational management and a third on accounting. Upon reflection, I wish I’d also researched fundraising and project management. The themes of my programme of study are palpable: as you’ve noticed, the targets of a dean are far removed from those of an academic. 

Despite the abundance of meetings and courses, I was swept up by a maelstrom upon arrival. Within a week of my start date, my diary was brimming with meetings. Not only did the chairs of these meetings expect me to turn up prepared, they often requested reports beforehand and, in one instance, a strategic plan for the coming year (with four weeks on the job). 

To be frank, I do not think my situation unique. For me, the position is / was novel, but the institution has been chugging along for generations. I am an incoming cog invited to take over from an outgoing one. There is little chance to feel around or to ease into the role. Once in post, you must deliver systematically and expeditiously. While I’ve mocked managerial slogans such as “be agile”, I appreciate that a dean must navigate an array of activities, many of which they know little about. 

Capitalising on the time available before taking up a post is essential advice for future deans. You’ll still find the initial weeks overwhelming, but at least they won’t prove destabilising.

Lesson #3: Operations, Strategy, and Vision 

I no longer feel like an academic. This is an odd remark, I concede, and perhaps inaccurate as I still research and write, albeit to a lesser degree. Still, the point is there. A dean does little research and even less lecturing. I hoped to teach a course yearly during my tenure and already discarded that idea. [Don’t get me started on the deadlines I’ve missed for Opinio Juris!] And time—or lack thereof—was not the lone reason behind this shift. It relates to the separation between operations, strategy, and vision. 

Researching and lecturing are the bread and butter of faculties, heedless of the discipline. They represent the operational core of an academic institution and the procedures, policies, and rules almost always support one of these two activities. As degree-awarding institutions and beneficiaries of ample government funding, states heavily regulate universities. On the operational front, plenty of what we navigate is designed to maintain accreditation before a range of agencies or, in the case of law faculties, before societies and bars; this ensures that monies flow and reputations hold. Again, these are quintessential to the purpose and health of the university. This is not all, however. Enter the strategy and vision.

I think of these three elements through a Venn lens, for the diagram captures both their interdependence and autonomy. In some way or another, most colleagues are liable for the operational component. Whether it relates to administering assessments, preparing articles, processing applications, addressing student grievances, or maintaining the temperature in lecture theatres, operations matter. Without hyperbole, these activities comprise some 90-95% of what university workers do. And most of them do not involve the dean. 

While the dean oversees operations, they are not in the trenches. I see few students; to be frank, I see few academics. I am engaged not with the operations but with the strategy and vision. Institutions are entropic, and the spectre of complacency perpetually hovers over them. My role is to counteract this. We need a vision to guide the institution, yes, but once the vision is articulated, strategy takes us forward. 

In factual terms, it means that I take part in endless meetings. We require several meetings to generate a strategy and several more to implement, revise, test, and renew. It also means that I devote an abundance of time planning and guiding others to materialise the faculty’s vision.

You might now appreciate the accuracy of one of my earlier remarks. For many academics, the deanship is a calamity, for it takes them away from academia. I, however, am not ambivalent about the post. I’ve been dean for just over a month, and I feel a nimbleness of being, even a spring in my step. As I now understand it, I was weary of the operational part of academia and ravenous for something different. Some may wish to ask me how I feel in a year’s time. Academic colleagues who are also tired of the rigmarole might consider whether a break from operations, rather than a departure from the sector, would prove salutary.

Lesson #4: Communication

Throughout the many books I read in preparing for my transition to Cave Hill, I identified a spectrum of views about communication. “Respond to emails upon receipt to indicate how switched on you are; never respond to emails upon receipt to avoid looking like a secretary.” “Write with detail and precision; bullet points are plenty.” “Address everyone by their honorifics; first names alone!” I can tell you that none and all of this makes sense.

Some emails require lengthy responses while I can deal with others within a few words: yes, no, or damn it. Some are urgent and others I’ll ignore (especially when I’m copied in). There are no hard and fast rules for communication forms. And you are welcome to reject the conflicting advice, including my own. What I can say, however, is that dexterity in communication is, perhaps, the finest skill a dean should seek to develop. 

In my short time here, I’ve interacted with the usual suspects, including administrative and academic staff as well as students, albeit far less of the latter two. I’ve also met with three ambassadors, two members of Cabinet, three judges, a COO, a CFO, a General Counsel, two QCs, and two Principals. All encounters related to my role as dean. I say this not to bluster, but to stress the importance of knowing how to communicate with a variety of constituents. 

In some of these meetings, I fundraised. In others, I presented a vision for the Faculty. And in one, I answered questions about the future of legal services and economic development across the region. All encounters were opportunities to showcase the Faculty (and myself). Equally, they were occasions for me to embarrass myself. I note, however, that the embarrassment I might engender would be felt not just by me, but by the faculty and university. A dean is the face; that responsibility is of the utmost importance. Others will hold me to account for any reputational damage I cause to the institution.

I don’t mind admitting that I’ve slipped up. It happens, of course. Happily, these were minor counts and I walked away with several crucial lessons: listen before speaking, be discerning about what you say, and know that the grapevine has a long memory and a theatrical imagination. 

[As an aside, always have a speech at the ready. My own Principal sandbagged me twice. She was well meaning, of course, but the phrase “I give the floor to our new dean” is not what you want to hear without a speech at the ready. Believe me.]

Lesson #5: Innovate

I reiterate an earlier point: institutions are entropic. Innovation and entrepreneurship are fundamental to safeguard against complacency or, worse, stasis. While this might sound spurious, it’s almost innovation for innovation’s sake. 

I equate it to muscle stagnation. Sports coaches recognise that the body will quickly adapt to whichever training programme an athlete practises; the gains will recede to the point of reversal. To avert this, coaches rotate training programmes. For an athlete, there is nobody more frustrating: spend 6-8 weeks improving at a set of exercises only for your coach to swap it and make you suffer once more. And yet, rotations are indispensable to avoid muscle stagnation and thus to maximise performance. Institutions require fewer cycles, but the logic holds to prevent entropy. A deficiency of innovation is a sure-fire way toward diminishing returns. 

It’s a dean’s role to innovate. It can be as modest as introducing mailing lists to expedite communication and as lofty as a new fundraising strategy to subsidise structural work. Innovation begets stimulation; without this, we flatline. For an institution, complacency is cancer.

I must make two further points here. First, don’t take on too much too hurriedly. I recall as an entry-level lecturer, full of vim and self-regard, proposing a curriculum review in the first staff meeting I attended. I cringe at the pretension and folly I displayed. Get to know your colleagues, the institution, and the procedures before trying to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro. Ask the locals about weather patterns, kit, and resting areas. Carry out an audit and develop a plan of action. In the early days, target the small wins.  

Second, know that the institution—both as an entity and as an agglomeration of colleagues—will resist most, if not all, innovations you propose. Don’t take it personally. Again, it’s the nature of institutions as, like the athlete, we are comfortable doing what we know how to do. A leader, however, does the right thing, and that includes struggling against the innate propensities of the institution. It will also mean managing resistance and motivating colleagues. 

There is nothing Machiavellian about this; I’m explicit about my intentions and am transparent to the fault of describing my tactics in a blogpost. Belief in yourself and your vision is fundamental if you expect others to endorse your innovation bonanza (hopefully not bonfire). 

***

It’s not all peaches and cream to be clear. I’m navigating several tests, all of which are unpleasant, and none of which I want to tarnish my legacy. One of the biggest challenges is the cataclysm that COVID-19 unleashed on the region. The Caribbean holds two unenviable titles: the most indebted region in the world and the most tourism-dependent (circa 35% GDP). COVID-19 has exacerbated both. 

In Barbados, our unemployment rate is above 30% and there is little chance of a tourism revival for some time. Just recently, some of the regional governments declared they will curb subsidies to students. Ominous times ahead. 

As an academic, I know what we are suffering is tied to the damage colonial powers committed, including France, the Netherlands, Spain, and—perhaps worst of all—the UK. Intended as sites of extraction, the region receives only a pittance of support to remedy the colonial legacies that endure in the immiseration of local populations. The region never had a Colombo or Marshall Plan or even a development compact and has largely been left to its own devices. I would love to research this further. What type of development is possible in a not-so-post-colonial society? Should the Eastern Caribbean follow the model of Cuba? How has regional integration succeeded? How has it stuttered? What can the African continent, pursuing the AfCFTA learn from travails and triumphs of the Caribbean? These are fascinating questions, and I get giddy just thinking about them. 

As dean, however, these research projects are far removed from my agenda (in much the same way as fundraising strategies are absent from the thinking of traditional academics). For now, I must think of ways to guide the Faculty through the tumult unleashed by COVID-19. Not as sexy as the projects, I admit, but imperative, nevertheless. 

Given the choice between professor and dean anew, I would embrace the curse with all my might.

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