The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
For professors, a deanship can be the capstone of a successful career. But in many regards, becoming a Dean is constricting. Professors have wide latitude to write and speak about their scholarly agenda. Moreover, professors–especially law professors–can engage in advocacy to promote their ideas. But Deans lose much of that autonomy. Of course, Deans are still allowed to engage in scholarly pursuits. But their primary goal should be promoting their institution's interests. And when a Dean's scholarly pursuits conflicts with the mission of the institution, the latter will usually prevail. Often, this conflict will limit a Dean's ability to engage in public advocacy. Or at least this conflict is supposed to limit a Dean's ability to engage in public advocacy.
Over the past year, law school Deans have often departed from this traditional role. Deans have issued a never-ending series of statements about "systemic racism," criminal justice, and so on. Some of these Deans have a background in writing about these issues. Most of them do not. Many of these deans are writing about topics for which they lack any expertise. Additionally, these statements are often issued on behalf of the law school. Of course, these statements were never put up for a faculty vote. But the lack of any consensus is besides the point. Deans should not take official positions on contested matters of public concern. A university is designed to allow scholars to seek truth and knowledge. When the Dean adopts an official position, the College has established an orthodoxy.
Even worse, at least one Dean solicited faculty members to sign such a statement. Professor Brian Leiter (Chicago) reports that Dean Hari Osofsky (Penn State) asked her colleagues to join an open letter "condemning racist violence, police brutality, and systematic racism against Black men and women." Osofsky wrote, "I am signing this letter and I hope you will consider signing." (Osofky was recently appointed Dean at Northwestern).
"That seems to me a serious violation of academic freedom: the Dean of a law school should not be proclaiming the correct interpretation of public events (e.g., that this killing reflected racism, or was connected to something called "systemic racism"), let alone using her position to solicit support for her interpretation."
Leiter added on Twitter that such requests create undue pressure. Deans exert control over faculty members. I agree entirely with Leiter. They often set salaries, approve funding for conferences, assign teaching loads, approve sabbaticals, and so on. Would a colleague feel free to decline signing the statement? Or worse, would an untenured faculty member, or an adjunct feel free to speak out against the statement?
This pressure is even greater because of the current moment we find ourselves in. Students, alumni, and other interest groups are constantly lobbying academic institutions to take positions on all social issues. Professors may feel unable to resist these currents–especially when the Dean is pushing the message from the top. Indeed, I suspect many Deans will soon be unable to fight the movements. They are afraid of losing their faculty in the face of student revolts. Perhaps the current roster of Deans will slowly retire to escape this mess. And the new crop of Deans, who are fluent in Newspeak, will expand these movements.