Law School Co-Deans: 'Like a Marriage'

Over the last few years, universities started appointing two deans to lead their law schools temporarily. Now, a few are going that route with permanent appointments.

April 6, 2016
 
Michael Scharf and Jessica Berg, co-deans at Case Western Reserve University’s law school

At first, it was a short-term solution: the law school needed a new dean, and Michael Scharf and Jessica Berg would fill the role together.

Both were leaders in different academic divisions of Case Western Reserve University’s law school. Neither wanted to give up their roles -- and if they ran the law school together, they wouldn’t have to.

They started as acting deans, an appointment that could have lasted only weeks or months. Two years later, their titles became permanent. “We came to the conclusion that neither one of us would want to do this solo,” Scharf said. “The provost came around to that line of thinking as well.”

It’s how most co-deanships start: special circumstances, the need to fill an opening immediately, and the belief that the appointment will only be temporary.

But now, more law schools are starting to see the benefits -- beyond short-term logistical convenience -- of having two people fill the role.

At Rutgers University, it happened because of a merger. When the university’s two law schools, one on the Newark campus and one on the Camden campus, combined this summer, two deans -- one on each campus -- made sense.

“There has to be some member of management who’s minding the store at each location on a day-to-day basis,” said Ronald Chen, one of the co-deans.

The leadership change happened because of the merger, said Phoebe Haddon, chancellor at Rutgers’s Camden campus. But even at typical law schools, located on one campus, she thinks the model will start catching on.

For some schools, the model can mean an increase in productivity. Two deans can travel to twice as many places, make twice as many phone calls, speak with twice as many prospective students.

And with the right chemistry, they could also feel less isolated. The ability to speak freely with someone -- who knows exactly what the other is going through -- can be one of the model’s biggest upsides.

In Scharf’s experience, solo deans don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off. Certain topics, like personnel issues, are off-limits to discuss with just about anyone else. Other issues, of course, can be discussed with a co-worker or spouse. But still, he said, “it’s not the same thing as talking to a partner.”

Scharf and Berg live in the Cleveland suburbs, just minutes apart. Early on they started carpooling to work. On the weekends, they take long walks in a park by their houses.

“You have to really get to know each other,” Scharf said. “You have to talk a lot about values.”

There’s a lot to talk about. Many leadership decisions require intuition and guesswork, and with two deans, Scharf thinks there’s less room for unintended bias or personal prejudice.

So far, the faculty have been supportive. “Rather than perceiving a dean as somebody who can make arbitrary decisions and have in crowds and out crowds,” Scharf said, “the faculty perceives that there’s a check and a balance.”

Divide and Conquer

When a vacancy appeared at the University of Minnesota’s law school in 2007, two faculty members stepped up as interim co-deans. The law school’s magazine featured the pair that year, drawing them as a quirky, mismatched duo -- the energetic newbie, the old-school Rhodes Scholar -- that ultimately worked together perfectly.

At the same time, there was no illusion that the appointment would ever become permanent.

“A national search for a new dean (singular) is planned, of course,” the magazine wrote. There’s been a solo dean since 2008.

Even now, only a handful of law schools have tested the co-dean model. At those that use it, leaders caution that it works only when the two deans can get along.

On the big issues, Scharf and Berg won’t make a decision without consulting with each other. On the smaller issues, one of them will make a decision -- and the other will always back it up.

“It’s a lot like being parents, in that your kids will try to divide and conquer,” Scharf said. “If the faculty ever perceive that they can play one dean against the other, then the model doesn’t work.”

To avoid that, they try to present a united front at all times. They have a shared email account. They draft formal statements together in a Google document. They text constantly.

When the two can’t agree, they defer to the one that feels the most strongly. They say they go about this process fairly and honestly, if unconventionally.

“We have code words,” Scharf said. “She’ll describe it as sort of a gut feeling. I’ll sometimes say, ‘This issue has my spidey sense tingling. I really feel like I should go this way.’”

Because the model is so new, colleges that use it are still working out the details: Should each take on half of a full dean’s duties? And if so, should each receive a full dean’s salary?

At Case Western, Scharf and Berg each receive a percentage of a full dean’s supplement. At the University of New Mexico’s law school, two co-deans split a typical dean’s bonus in half. At Rutgers, the co-deans’ salaries were not addressed before the merger, and Haddon said they remain under consideration.

Outside law programs, co-deans are even more of an anomaly. In other professional schools, the model has rarely been tested.

“On the business school front, we’re not seeing that trend,” said Robert Reid, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Typically, Reid said, business schools employ one dean, along with a number of associate deans with specific responsibilities. Deans can spend more than half of their time fund-raising, while associate deans run the daily operations of the school.

At medical schools, co-deans are equally rare. Medical schools have many missions, and a dean can often serve as a liaison between the university, the teaching hospital and the community.

“It’s just different for medicine,” said John Prescott, chief academic officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “I'm having a hard time grasping what the benefits would be.”

At Case Western, some of the benefits are tangible: fund-raising has gone up, and so have applications. But the two deans know the leadership model isn’t right for everyone, and they know that maintaining their partnership takes work.

“It’s not going to work with every pair of people,” Scharf said. “It’s a little bit like a marriage.”

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