Epilogue 6: Schill quits UCLA.

I just got back from vacation. A friend mentioned that while I was gone, Michael Schill resigned as dean of UCLA law to go the University of Chicago.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Faithful readers even heard it here first. As I wrote in a comment on March 13, 2007:

I really could not tell you what Dean Schill’s vision is for UCLA law school in the next 3, 5, 10 years. (I don’t think he’ll be sticking around that long, but that’s another story.)

He’s leaving at the end of 2009, so that means he’ll have lasted 33.5 months after my comment. Yahtzee.

It was apparent from the time he arrived that Schill saw his UCLA position largely as an audition for something bigger and better. To be fair, Schill’s ambition was not, in itself, inherently bad. After all, many UCLA law professors try to move to higher-ranked schools after they get tenure.

And it doesn’t mean that Schill’s accomplishments were illusory. I haven’t followed the UCLA law press releases that closely since I graduated, but it seems like UCLA under Schill recruited and appointed some solid new faculty members. Schill also raised a lot of money in the last couple years for the capital fund (during perhaps the worst possible time in the last 50 yrs to be asking). All of which made Schill justifiably popular among faculty and alumni.

But I didn’t know any student who liked him that much. Perhaps that’s to be expected, since students are probably the least important constituency for a dean to cultivate—after all, they didn’t hire him, they can’t fire him, and they’re only there for three years. Not that students actively disliked him either. There just weren’t any compelling reasons to feel warm toward him.

Schill may have been an effective administrator, but he had no gravity as a leader. He avoided big ideas. He wimped out around controversy. He was sensitive to criticism and reluctant to risk political capital on potentially unpopular positions. While always composed in front of the school at large, behind the scenes, he had the capacity to be petty and dictatorial when provoked.

He was 50% bureaucrat, 50% glad-handing politician. He always reminded me of a character in a Graham Greene novel, the career diplomat tending the embassy gardens in some long-forgotten edge of the British Empire, while quietly lobbying for a more civilized reassignment.

While Schill’s time at UCLA law will be regarded as a success overall, he did not—he could not—grapple with the core identity crisis that UCLA law faces, which is: what does it mean to be a public law school these days?

Schill, coming from NYU, seemed to think that UCLA needed to act more like a private law school. In some ways, that was probably true—if UCLA wanted to compete with private schools for students and faculty, then it needed to raise the level of its game. (At one point Schill was receptive to privatizing UCLA law school.)

But as a public law school, UCLA has certain opportunities and—dare I say it?—responsibilities that private schools do not. Being competitive doesn’t mean being the same. I’ll stick to what I said in March 2007:

[A]s a public school, UCLA cannot compete in a head-to-head arms race against private law schools. Those schools have institutional & fundraising advantages that we can’t overcome merely with willpower and elbow grease.

[...]

[For UCLA t]o be “true to its roots” as a state school would mean to care less about ranking and more about making a really solid legal education accessible to the widest range of Californians. After all, there is some notion that the point of a public education program funded with tax dollars is that it returns benefits to the public.

Bear in mind that for 20 years, UCLA has maintained its ranking around #15-20 without the benefit of huge funding. Tuition at the law school from 1999-02 was around $11,000. [For academic year 2006-07] it’s $25,000 [for California residents].

And this year, it’s $35K for residents—a 40% increase in three years, with no end in sight.

Schill didn’t create this problem. As someone who wasn’t going to stick around for the long term, he wasn’t going to solve it either. But the next dean will have to. I hope that UCLA picks a dean who is prepared to grapple with this issue, who isn’t afraid to step on toes when necessary, and who has the institutional commitment to see it through.

18 Sep 09

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matthewb @ ucla
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