Roles and Rules

The former dean told me two stories today. In the one, a group of students had arranged to bring a speaker to campus, a speaker whose message, although empowering in some ways, was also quite clearly filled with hate in others. A second group of students came to him, and asked him to cancel the event. He refused, saying that as the dean, he considered himself charged with upholding the school's commitment to free speech, a commitment he valued. The speaker came, the second group of students picketed the event, and the dean joined them, carrying a sign as he picketed his own school.

In the second story, he had helped start a holiday party for all of the children associated with the school in one way or another: the children of faculty and students and staff, little brothers and sisters from community mentoring, and so on. One of the faculty members traditionally dressed up as Santa Claus; the dean dressed up as an elf, in tights and a cap.

You must find your own way of being dean -- or of doing whatever job it is that you choose to do -- he told me. You must uphold the commitments you take on when you enter the job, but you must also shape the job to your own sense of right and wrong.

I asked some questions to clarify my sense of what he was telling me; please forgive me if what I say here is a poor paraphrase of his point. He didn't picket or wear tights as a private citizen, he picketed and wore tights as dean. At the same time, picketing and wearing tights were in no way part of the job description for dean of the law school. In every office, there is space between what is required and what is allowed, and every officeholder has the choice of how to fill that space. An office is not simply a set of powers and a set of restrictions; it is something which must be brought to life.

It may be the wisest thing I've ever heard anyone say.