Staff Editorial: Open communication is key for future deans

Former law school Dean Paul Schiff Berman was an innovative leader.

He quickly established new student-oriented programs – like the Inns of Court – and worked to tailor legal education to fit students’ specific interests and career goals.

But he failed to garner faculty support, and his tenure ended after a mere 18 months, at which point he took a position in the provost’s office. Frustrated with his confrontational approach, some professors argued that he was trying to undermine the faculty governance process. To faculty members, some of whom have worked at the law school for decades, Berman’s approach seemed disrespectful.

Berman is not alone. He is one of three deans in the last year who have been openly criticized for their leadership styles and inability to work well with faculty.

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt announced last May that she would resign over the summer, a month after her own faculty said in a school-wide survey that she failed to work with them and could not foster an “atmosphere of trust.”

Professors in the GW School of Business told The Hatchet in December that they felt largely shut out from the decision-making process under Dean Doug Guthrie’s autonomous leadership style.

During this time of uncertainty for law schools nationwide, professors who spoke with The Hatchet did not say they took issue with the new programs Berman sought to institute at GW. It was not his initiatives that angered faculty members, but rather the alleged abruptness and forcefulness with which he sought to achieve them.

It is worth noting that when it comes to deans at GW, grievances have hardly focused on policy issues. Faculty frustrations over the last year have stemmed from deans’ inabilities to govern in a way that effectively galvanized the support of the professors.

Even a leader whose objectives are in line with faculty can see his plans go awry. Strong rapport with one’s colleagues holds an importance that extends beyond simply fostering a positive work environment; it has proved necessary to getting things done.

At a time of shrinking law school applications and a sour legal job market, many professors felt as though their thoughts and opinions were not taken into consideration.

A leader must have the support of the people who answer to him. In this instance, Berman failed to obtain the confidence of faculty before going forward with his ambitious goals.

In contrast, Interim Dean Gregory Maggs, a long-time law professor, plans to focus largely on teamwork and collective action between the faculty and administration.

And while an interim dean has little time to accomplish long-term goals, it is reassuring to see that Maggs has at least indicated that he hopes to engage the faculty in an ongoing dialogue.

Going forward, across all of GW’s schools and disciplines, open and constructive dialogue is key. There are undoubtedly changes that will need to be made in the future, but any new dean has to include the faculty at the center of the conversation for upcoming initiatives.

Professors are the closest link many students have to the University. They know what students need and expect from their education, and help guide them during their time at GW. Faculty voices are critical.

GW aims to achieve lofty goals. But every time a deanship upset happens, that momentum is broken. Communication and faculty harmony have proven crucial to carrying out an agenda, and we hope this pattern urges future leaders to earn their confidence.

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