The Rise of the Research Dean

Release of this year’s U.S. News & World Report ranking of law schools is only days away, and I’ve been thinking about this recent paper on the growth in the number of “Research Dean” positions at American law schools over the last decade. The authors hypothesize that the increase in the number of appointments is caused by schools’ reacting to rankings anxiety. Find ways to encourage the faculty to produce scholarship, and academic rankings will increase, the hypothesis goes, and academic reputation benefits will blow overall school rankings in the right direction. What a “Research Dean” does will vary a lot from school to school, but one constant is a mandate to support faculty research and scholarship, both materially and symbolically.  More below the jump.

Unfortunately, the evidence supporting the hypothesis is slim to nonexistent. There is a very loose correlation over time between the rise of ratings hype and recognition of Research Deans in numbers, but the connection just about stops there. Any law school that has looked hard into how its U.S. News rankings got that way has learned that academic reputation numbers don’t move much, if at all. (Expensive law porn mailers notwithstanding.) Lots of Research Deans have been appointed, but only some schools can move up in the rankings, and even then, possibilities for upward mobility are limited.

So why do it? Where do Research Deans come from? As a Research Dean myself, I wonder about this a bit, and I have my own hypotheses:

One — the symbolic, internal explanation:

A few years after U.S. News – driven ratings anxiety got started, the ABA released the celebrated MacCrate Report, which exhorted law schools to invest in curricula that provide graduates with practical lawyering skills. What a boon to clinicians, among others; what a blow, symbolically speaking, to law faculty who fancied themselves legal intelletuals. The rise of the Research Dean may have been a symbolic sop to salve the souls of scholars, a signal that law school are still academic institutions even while accreditation committees focus on the pragmatic. This is not to say that the position isn’t useful or helpful; in fact, quite the contrary. But a Research Dean position is a relatively inexpensive way for a law school to have its MacCrate cake and eat its scholarly identity, too.

As that hypothesis makes clear, symbolic explanations have a way of turning into functionalist ones. My second hypothesis is no different:

Two — the symbolic, external explanation:

The appointment of a Research Dean may be a signal to other law schools and aspiring law teachers that a law faculty takes scholarship seriously. This, in turn, should prompt job candidates to sort their preferences accordingly. It is plausible (though I haven’t checked) that the rise of the Research Dean occurred over roughly the same period that witnessed increased interest in the entry level job market (if I recall correctly, the number of candidates at the AALS hiring conference peaked about 10 years ago) and increased attention to the dynamics of lateral movement by law faculty. A Research Dean appointment would be one way to keep a law school in the running for new hires.

Right off the top, I can think of at least two flaws in these hypotheses: They don’t exclude each other, so even if they are testable, it would be difficult to test them independently. And neither accounts for the appointment of Research Deans, or individuals in positions that sound suspiciously similar to Research Deans, at schools where either kind of signal might seem unnecessary. Yale, for example.

That leads me, I suppose, to a third, overarching hypothesis:

The Research Dean is (merely) a solution to a principal/agent problem. The foundational assumption is that the job of the “real” Dean has gotten progressively more complex over the last 20 years (again, the time period roughly corresponding to the rise of ratings anxiety), and the “real” Dean has more difficulty than he or she used to have in keeping track of the day-to-day scholarly activities of the faculty. Who have been known sometimes to write and publish and circulate on the conference-and-workshop circuit a little less zealously than the Dean and their other colleagues think would be in the school’s interest.

One reason that I’m attracted to hypothesis three, as simple as it is, is that it explains much of what a Research Dean seems to do:  support, train, encourage, and build a community of people who are charged up about thinking and writing and speaking about law and public policy, among themselves, among colleagues at other institutions, among the public, and among students.  That’s the Dean’s job, too.  But the Dean also has to find the money to keep the lights on.