In June of next year, I will complete my tenth year as dean. When I was a relatively new dean, a wonderful alumnus and generous supporter offered me what I have come to appreciate as the best analogy for the responsibilities of a dean in leading an academic institution – this is, the role of a fiduciary. A dean truly is a fiduciary – he or she is entrusted with a legacy carefully built by those who came before; charged with making that legacy come alive for the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who experience the institution in the present; and responsible for preserving and building upon that legacy for the generations of students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are yet to come.
As the oldest Catholic law school in the United States, our particular legacy at Notre Dame is a unique one. I can assure you that there has not been a day since I became dean that I have not thought about what needed to be done from the viewpoint of preserving and enhancing that legacy, not only for the students and faculty of the present time and for the current staff and alumni, but also for the future generations of students, faculty, staff, and alumni we cannot know, but to whom we owe as great an obligation as that we owe to those who came before us. As my friend rightly reminded me, this is precisely what a fiduciary’s duty is. In the case of Notre Dame Law School, it is a very special privilege and responsibility with which to be entrusted.
It is also the duty of a fiduciary to know when the responsibilities of leadership should be handed off to others. I have always thought that ten years is the optimal length of time to serve as dean. It is long enough to get good work done; it is not so long as to threaten the possibility of either a lack of freshness and optimism, or to compromise the sense of joy that must be experienced for good work to flourish. Every circumstance is different, and perhaps there are circumstances in which a longer tenure might benefit an institution. That is not the case today, however, with the Law School of this great University. We stand as strong as we have ever stood, with a faculty and student body second to none, with an excellent staff, with loyal and deeply-committed alumni, with a magnificent new facility rising next to the old law school building, and with a national appreciation for our unique role.
Let me make clear that it is not my work that has brought us to this place. I hope that I have played a useful and constructive part in it, but I know, as you do, that it is mainly the work of an extraordinary faculty and staff, of extraordinary students, and of wonderful alumni and devoted friends of the Law School – all of whom believe passionately in what it is that makes our Law School unique, and who have brought us to where we are today as we near the end of the first decade of the new millennium. It is the hard work, commitment and joy in our common enterprise of all these stakeholders that will carry us further – much further – still.
It is with a great sense of pride in what our Law School has achieved over many, many years that I today shared with the Law School community my plans to complete my tenure as dean in June 2009. Announcing my intentions now will allow the provost to constitute the search committee for a new dean this spring. Following a sabbatical, I expect to return to the faculty and to the classroom, where I will further pursue these themes of fiduciary duties in my corporate law classes with some of the most outstanding law students in America. I look forward to working shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the finest law faculty in the country, and I also look forward to working with what I know will be outstanding new leadership. I cannot imagine a more meaningful or fulfilling mission than continuing to be a part of the unique community we call Notre Dame.
To be sure, our law school is a complex institution with a singular role. We do not simply aspire to be the acknowledged leader among Catholic law schools, with the faith and intellectual commitments that role necessarily entails . We seek to lead the way among all American law schools, and to have an impact on the meaning and distribution of justice, on development of the law, on the conversations of humanity, on the legal profession, and on the public interest. I have worked hard during my tenure as dean to keep all these responsibilities in mind – preserving our distinctiveness as the nation’s oldest Catholic law school, while moving forward as an institution of leadership within the academy and the profession, mindful of the special and compelling insights and voices that we have to offer on the most pressing and important issues of our times, which are critical to the well-being of ourselves, our profession, and our society.
Next academic year will see the completion of the new addition to the Law School. That has been the work of many hands and the product of extraordinary generosity on the part of our benefactors. It should be a great source of pride for all of us. In a very literal sense, we will have laid the foundation on which new leadership can build to advance the Law School to the next level of excellence in achieving our singular and distinctive goal of being a premier law school, faithful to the pursuit of truth and faithful to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Like the other opportunities with which I have been blessed during my almost 30 years at Notre Dame, my experience as dean leaves me feeling that I have received more than I have given, and that I have learned more than I taught. I thank you all for the privilege of serving. I look forward to next year, as we complete the new construction phase of our renovation, as we work hard to fund the remaining priorities in our campaign, as we continue to play our distinctive role within the legal academy, and, most important, as we continue to live, and encourage others to live, lives defined by faith, a thirst for justice, and a desire for truth.
For more information about Dean O’Hara, visit her faculty profile web page.