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VOL. 124 | NO. 29 | Thursday, February 12, 2009

U of M Close to Choosing New Law Dean

By Rebekah Hearn

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According to the U of M Web site, the finalists for the School of Law Dean position are, in this order:
  • Kevin H. Smith, Interim dean
  • Penelope Eileen Bryan, Associate dean of academic affairs and professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law
  • David Alexander Brennen, Deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools
  • Richard A. Bales, Tenured professor and interim dean at Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law
All their curriculum vitae are available at http://academics.memphis.edu/provost

Nearly 30 law schools across the country currently have open dean positions, including the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

However, experts say this widespread epidemic of open dean positions is not unprecedented and is actually not as closely related to the economy as some might think.

Kevin Smith, the interim dean and Thomas B. Preston Professor of Law at the University of Memphis law school, pointed out that more and more law schools are being accredited every year.

“When you have 200 schools, if you have somebody stay there for, say, six years, that’s going to be 30-some deanships turned over every year,” said Smith, who has served as the interim dean of the U of M law school since October 2007.

Besides the regular turnover rate, special circumstances can call a dean away: For example, Harvard Law School’s dean, Elena Kagan, left her position at HLS to accept President Barack Obama’s nomination to U.S. solicitor general.

Susan Prager, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of American Law Schools, said a dean can leave – or be asked to leave – at any point during the year, meaning new searches for deans are starting all the time.

“We don’t track this (data), and it’s hard to track, because searches go on at different times,” Prager said. “A search can get started at any point during the year. … So you have some searches that are being concluded now and you have some that are just beginning, so how you take a snapshot of any year is … difficult.”

The search for a permanent dean at the U of M is in its concluding phases, said University Provost Dr. Ralph Faudree.

“We’re in the final stages, and we hope to make an announcement soon,” Faudree said.

The search committee is made up mainly of faculty from the law school, alumni and members of the advisory board.

Stress on the job

Some experts cite a more mobile society when discussing the regular turnover of law school deans, but certainly the stress that has become associated with the job affects people’s decisions about whether to take on such a position.

Prager said it’s also a question of what the person sacrifices for the post.

“For some people, I think, abandoning, even in a temporary way, the pursuit of scholarship and publication is extremely difficult. And for others, they really love the interaction with students that comes from their classrooms, and they don’t want to give that up,” Prager said.

Smith concurred that those who enjoy teaching and scholarship might not jump at the chance for more administrative duties. However, Smith, even as interim dean, still teaches some law classes at the university.

The pressure to raise money, particularly as state budgets became more difficult, is a big part of being a dean – and successfully raising those funds and creating partnerships with alumni and other contributors is equally important. Tennessee’s budget shortfall could exceed $1 billion, according to media reports.

Tennessee’s tax collections have fallen about half a billion dollars short of expectations through the first half of the current budget year. Sales taxes account for two out of every three tax dollars collected in Tennesse.

“At public institutions, as the amount of public support has decreased, there’s been a corresponding increase in the need to raise funds,” Smith said. “And that is sometimes challenging, particularly in the economy we’re facing right now. And it does make the job less attractive.”

“(But) fundraising does have a very positive side; I’ve seen some folks who I haven’t seen in a long, long time, and I’ve enjoyed that very much.”

More than words

In Smith’s “State of the Law School” address in October, he mentioned some specific fundraising figures.

“Law Alumni participation in the annual (capital) campaign continues to increase, reaching 644 donors (or 12 percent of alumni) this year. In addition, law school alumni have the highest pledge ($120.41) for phonathon calls out of all University of Memphis colleges and schools,” Smith wrote in his address.

“Nonetheless, these continue to be difficult economic times. … As part of a University-wide budget cut, the School of Law cut $232,330, or slightly less than 5 percent, of its base budget for the upcoming academic year,” the abstract continues.

Smith also discussed a 14 percent tuition hike. Seven percent of that increase resulted from a school-wide tuition increase, and another 7 percent was “specially approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents and will be used exclusively to fund a merit-based compensation plan to raise faculty salaries in an attempt to halt the continuing loss of faculty,” Smith’s address reports.

At the end of the address, a note is added that reads, “After this letter was drafted, the state of Tennessee’s budget situation became such that we now anticipate additional cuts being made during next year.”

Make or break

Historically, deans were often chosen from faculty within their own schools, and although over the years a trend has developed to look outward for a fresh perspective, Prager said administrations now are tending to examine both options.

“Different conditions at different times in a school’s history can cause it to decide to go outside or stay inside,” she said. “We’ve seen over the decades the schools making choices about whether they want to concentrate inside or outside (in their searches), and sometimes they’ll look seriously at both. We’re certainly seeing that in searches now.”

That case is precisely the one at the University of Memphis. On the Provost’s Web page, the finalists for the law school dean position are listed. The first candidate listed is Smith. The other three are Penelope Eileen Bryan, associate dean of academic affairs and professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; David Alexander Brennen, deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools; and Richard A. Bales, tenured professor and interim dean at Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law.

“I would say that if the person who is chosen enjoys interacting with people, it’s fascinating to come to know a significant number of very interesting people, many of whom have long-standing loyalties to the school, (and) some of whom have never really been drawn in before. You learn about them,” Prager said.

Whichever candidate is chosen as the university’s law school dean will certainly have their work cut out for them, as deanship turnover rates have been higher across the board.

“I’ve been in this position for seven or eight years, and I’ve probably hired half the deans we have,” Faudree said, talking about all the colleges within the university. “And our situation is every bit as stable, maybe more so, than most places.”

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