Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What Is A Law School Dean's Equivalent Of Hitting A Home Run In Your Final At Bat?

Karen Sloan (Ahead of the Curve), Seasoned Law Deans Bid Adieu:

A number of the nation’s longest serving deans are leaving that role at the end of this semester, or soon thereafter. Put another way, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that is retiring—or at least moving out of the dean’s suite.

Here’s a little background: The average tenure of a law dean is currently about four years. This figure is courtesy of a helpful dean’s database maintained by Jim Rosenblatt, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law (and former dean.) According to that database, two of the five longest-serving deans are soon to step down, and a third left the deanship at the end of the previous academic year. A quick rundown:

  • Chicago-Kent College of Law Dean Harold Krent is wrapping up his deanship this semester after 17 years in the job. That makes him third-longest serving dean in the country.
  • Avi Soifer announced this month that he will step down as the dean of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law as soon as the school can find his replacement. He has been in the job for 16 years, landing him right behind Krent as the fourth-longest serving dean.
  • Last year, longtime University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law Katherine “Shelley” Broderick left the dean’s office after occupying it for 20 years. (She’s no longer on Rosenblatt’s list, but that tenure would have landed her as the third- longest-serving dean if she were on it today.)
  • Four more of the 15 longest deanship are wrapping up: Alan Michaels at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law (11 years); Nell Newton at the University of Notre Dame Law School (10 years); Patricia White at the University of Miami School of Law (10 years); and Donald Guter at South Texas College of Law Houston (10 years). ...

With so many experienced deans stepping down, who’s left at the top? According to Rosenblatt’s database, it’s John O’Brien, who has been dean of New England Law Boston for more than three decades. (!!!) Next up is Bradley Toben, who has been at Baylor University School of Law for more than 27 years. (You can read more about his tenure here.) Marquette University Law School’s Joseph Kearney rounds out the top five longest serving deans. He has been dean for 16 years.

My thoughts: There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to having longtime leaders move on. On the con side, deans who have been on the job for a decade or more know their institutions inside and out. They understand the dynamics of the faculty. They have had time to establish personal connections with alumni (and donors.) And they also know the ropes of dealing with central university administrators. On the other hand, fresh leadership can yield exciting new approaches. It’s worth noting that many of these departing deans will be replaced by academics who are significantly younger, and may bring different ideas about what a modern legal education looks like, and may be able to connect in a different way to younger faculty and students. Either way, best of luck to these academics who are closing the book on their deanships.

As a Bostonian, Karen's title brought to mind John Updike's classic 1960 New Yorker article on Ted Williams' final game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu:

Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signaled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

What is a law school dean's equivalent of hitting a home run in your final at bat?

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I remember reading about that home run. I was 13 at the time. Thought it was poetic justice that the greatest hitter in my lifetime(sorry, Mr. Musial) who wrote the book on The Science of Hitting hit a homer his last time at bat. His comment that always resonated with me was: "The hardest thing to do in baseball is hitting a round ball with a round bat square." Sorry his teammates were never Hall of Fame calibre.

Posted by: Robert Alpiner | Apr 6, 2019 9:23:11 AM