Leadership in educational institutions: reflections of a law school dean.

Author:Post, Robert
Position:2017 Stanford Law Review Symposium; Raising the Bar: Lawyers and Leadership

As Deborah Rhode observes in her superb book Lawyers as Leaders, (l) there is a vast literature on leadership. It has become an object of microscopic study. It is as though leadership were an element that could be measured, its essence extracted, its secrets replicated, and its puissance transmitted to those capable of learning.

I have no doubt that we can acquire a great deal by the study of leadership. But my own intuition is that leadership is more a verb than a noun. It is evidenced in actions appropriate to ambient circumstances. Leadership is like the right key sliding into the right lock. Sometimes leadership requires adamant inflexibility, as when Churchill resisted the Nazis, and sometimes it requires endless agility, as when President Roosevelt continuously improvised to get his New Deal off the starting blocks. Sometimes an effective leader must be cautious and appreciative of the wisdom of existing arrangements, and sometimes a leader must be audacious and willing to crack eggs. Sometimes leadership requires cunning, sometimes confidence. Context is everything.

What is clear is that a leader gets no points for following a rulebook. In the end, leaders are almost always measured by their success, and success can be known only retrospectively. Leaders must thus gamble on their vision of the future. Leaders are judged both by the content of that vision and by their capacity to achieve it.

Sometimes, however, we view leadership through a narrower, more technocratic lens. We judge the effectiveness of leadership based on a person's ability to assemble and mobilize followers. (2) The strategies available for a leader to connect with followers will depend on preexisting relationships. Followers can be employees, constituents, or believers; they can be subordinates, coconspirators, customers, or colleagues. As the relationship between a leader and her followers changes, so do the legal and social tools that a leader can bring to bear in making her leadership effective. Sometimes trust is necessary to leadership, sometimes fear. Sometimes discipline is required, at other times inspiration.

Given all of these variables and uncertainties, what can be said about leadership in general or about leadership in educational institutions? I can offer only a few desultory autobiographical reflections. I shall discuss, first, the strategic dilemmas I faced while striving to maintain the pedagogical culture of Yale Law School (YLS) during a time of crisis in legal education and, second, my difficulties in mobilizing various constituencies whom I was expected to "lead."

Vision and Strategy

We assess leaders by success. But what does success mean in the context of an academic organization? While the success of commercial corporations is easily measured in dollars and cents, the success of educational institutions is much more difficult to evaluate.

In his great essay "The Idea of a University," the eminent English philosopher Michael Oakeshott criticized "current talk about the 'mission' and the 'function' of a university." (3) "A university is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result," he argued; "it is a manner of human activity." (4) A university "is a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended, and where the necessary apparatus for the pursuit of learning has been gathered together." (5) How might one measure the success of leadership in such an institution?

The first point, and it is a deep one, is to determine whether Oakeshott has accurately captured the nature of the modern university. In the small corner of higher education that I occupy--legal education--Oakeshott's view of the university as a home of learning that eschews any particular result is quite controversial. So, for example, legal educators were informed during the recent crisis that there was agreement that "the basic purpose of law schools is to train lawyers" (although we were also instructed that "there is no consensus about what this means"). (6) We were also advised "that law schools are in the business of delivering legal education services." (7)

Even these two simple views of legal education can create conflicting metrics: one can succeed in the business of legal education, as measured by criteria like commercial sustainability, but nevertheless fail in the goal of training lawyers (however assessed). Certainly the former goal is different from preserving and extending a tradition of learning, which was the concern of Oakeshott. The success or failure of a law school dean will depend on how she navigates among these various objectives.

I am fortunate to be Dean of YLS, which is highly ranked and by all usual measures deemed a successful enterprise. It would of course involve a colossal failure of leadership to drive YLS into impossible debt. Given YLS's large endowment, however, it does not require rocket science to maintain YLS's commercial viability. The challenging test of leadership at YLS instead concerns negotiating the intricate tradeoff between maintaining a tradition of learning and providing an educational environment that trains future lawyers.

This challenge involves something more than the usual tension between academic and clinical approaches to legal education. The challenge arises from the difference between an education that aims to inspire students to think (8) and an education that prepares them for the exercise of a profession. Oakeshott is quite clear about the distinction between the two. He argues that learning in a university should not encourage a student

to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society or with the acquisition of a kind of moral and intellectual outfit to see him through life. Whenever an ulterior purpose of this sort makes its appearance, education (which is concerned with persons, not functions) steals out of the back door with noiseless steps. The pursuit of learning for the power it may bring has its roots in a covetous egoism which is not less egoistic or less covetous when it appears as a so-called 'social purpose,' and with this a university has nothing to do. The form of its curriculum has no such design; and the manner of its teaching--teachers interested in the pupil himself, in what he is thinking, in the quality of his mind, in his immortal soul, and not in what sort of a schoolmaster or administrator he can be made into--the manner of this teaching has no such intention. (9) The tension between preparing students to think and preparing them to exercise a profession is captured in Hannah Arendts beautiful "Thinking and Moral Considerations." (10) Arendt observes that although all persons possess the potential to think, it is nevertheless a rare habit of mind that involves a "quest for meaning," a "habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass" in a manner that "relentlessly dissolves and examines anew all accepted doctrines and rules." (11) Arendt builds on the contrast between "thinking" and "knowing." (12) Thinking interrupts both knowledge and action. It demands that we draw back from and interrogate what we otherwise believe we know. An important value of thinking is to prevent "disastrous" failures of "conscience" when a prevailing social and political ethos might otherwise lead us unselfconsciously into complicity with great evil. (13)

Legal training customarily requires students...

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