[Likely US Supreme Court pick Elena Kagan] came to Harvard Law School at a critical time in its history and determined that it was her job to make the biggest, richest, and most famous law school in the world also the best... She saw that was her job; that was her role. She threw herself into it wholeheartedly. And she succeeded.When the American public is informed that professor so-and-so has served as "dean" of this or that school or department of a university, they tend think this fact significant; they have been led to believe that being a dean is a testimony to the superiority of a person's intelligence or scholarship. The media has contributed to this perception. Book publishers, for example, will tout a particular academic author once served as "Dean of this or that faculty at (Name of University)." Journalists who don't know any better -- or have an agenda -- will sometimes bombard readers with this academic title as if it signifies something important, as indicated by some recent articles in support of Elena Kagan to serve as Supreme Court Justice in place of retiring Justice Paul Stevens.
- Charles Fried, "Everyone's Dean" in New Republic/NPR
The fact of the matter is that brilliant scholars invariably turn down offers to serve in administrative posts such a "dean." What talented and fruitful scholar would want to waste day after day attending meetings, fund raising, and carrying out administrative (i.e. management) tasks? A heavyweight in the world of scholarship neither seeks nor desires the title of "dean" on his or her resume. A deanship is akin to an intellectual hibernation. The position amounts to a extended mental sabbatical from the joys and rigors of research and writing.
The media has people thinking that the fact a professor has served time as "dean" is supposed to mean something over and above the kind of work that the position actually entails. And that's a stretch. For example, look at what potential US Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is reported to have accomplished as Dean of Harvard Law School:
The focus of her tenure was on improving student satisfaction. Efforts included constructing new facilities and reforming the first-year curriculum, as well as aesthetic changes and creature comforts, such as free morning coffee. She has been credited for employing a consensus-building leadership style, which surmounted the school's previous ideological discord.From that job description, it should be obvious that a person does not have to possess an outstanding legal mind to serve as a university dean. To the extent Kagan succeeded as a dean, it would almost inevitably had to have been to the detriment of her scholarship.
She also inherited a $400 million capital campaign, "Setting the Standard," in 2003. It ended in 2008 with a record breaking $476 million raised... Kagan made a number of prominent new hires...
Having been newly elevated to the position of Solicitor General, Elena Kagan's demonstratively inept choice of argument in defense of the government's position in a recent Supreme Court case suggests that she is not an especially gifted lawyer.
If you believe that the US Supreme Court ought to be comprised of the best legal minds in the country, it's worth considering that no prominent and successful university dean is likely to be counted as a member of that category.
UPDATE 1: Although I maintain here that a first-rate legal mind is unlikely aspire to be a dean, I'm not saying it could never happen -- just that it would be a far more rare event than the public has been led to believe. Moreover, if such a person existed, it would be ludicrous to maintain that one's "job performance as dean" ought to have a decisive bearing on the question of one's suitability for the highest court in the land. You would want to look at a person's other achievements. In the case of Elena Kagan, Guy-Uriel Charles has done exactly that, noting "a thin publication record."
UPDATE 2: In his essay, Guy-Uriel Charles asks a provocative question:
...how can it be the case that a long-time academic, someone who was a tenured member of two of the nation's top law schools, does not have a paper record? ... Kagan started teaching at the University of Chicago in 1991 and received tenure there in 1995. She was also a tenured professor and former Dean at the Harvard Law School.On the aggregate, schools like Harvard consist of faculty of the very highest caliber.
However, with respect to any particular hire, quality varies considerably. That's because a hiring decisions boils down to timing, a candidate's qualities, institutional priorities, and the idiosyncrasies of a particular hiring committee. Timing counts for a lot. Hence, plenty of second-rate people get hired, even at the best schools.
An unremarkable candidate's elevation to the Dean of Harvard Law School or other top-tier school is even easier to explain. Precisely because the faculty Harvard Law School consists of some of the country's brightest legal minds, relatively few faculty members are going to be particularly eager to serve as dean. Brilliant legal minds are not likely to find today's administrative work -- endless meetings, the new trend of pandering to students as if they were "customers", and of course, fund raising -- particularly appealing. Therefore, a person aspiring to be a dean of Harvard Law School is quite likely to be a second-rate scholar, a social climber, or both.
Of course, the "social currency" of a position such as dean has allowed academic institutions to function for centuries. If there was no prestige attached to such positions, schools would have trouble filling them. And universities might end up having to offer candidates more money to do the job.
Nevertheless, a debased currency of the academic world must not be allowed to have a bearing on who should fulfill one of the country's most powerful positions.