The real flaw in Campos’ and Mirengoff’s argument is the implicit assumption that being an outstanding dean requires you to be an outstanding scholar. It doesn’t.
The job of dean is primarily managerial and political. The dean has to manage the faculty and staff, maintain good relations with the university, and raise money. He or she must be a good judge of others’ scholarship, since she plays a key role in faculty appointments. But she doesn’t have to be an outstanding scholar herself. As Campos concedes, most deans don’t do much in the way of scholarship anyway, perhaps because they rarely have the time.
... The skills of a good administrator are very different from those of a good scholar. A reclusive, difficult to get along with person, can be an outstanding scholar but would be a disaster as an administrator. Contrariwise, a skilled manager and politician who is not an original thinker would make a poor scholar. But so long as he values and recognizes original thought in others, he could be an excellent dean.
To return to the case of Kagan, there is little doubt that she was an excellent dean. She successfully hired numerous top scholars in many subfields, and from across the political spectrum. Under her tenure, Harvard arguably managed to surpass Yale and Chicago as the law school with the most productive faculty (I say this despite the fact that I’m a Yale Law grad, and a longtime admirer of Chicago). At the very least, she did a great deal to regain the ground that Harvard lost to its rivals in the 1980s and 90s.
She did this in part by pushing for the hiring of top conservative scholars like Jack Goldsmith and John Manning. In a hiring market characterized by a degree of hostility to non-leftwingers, productive right of center scholars were an undervalued asset similar to the undervalued high-OPS hitters that Beane relied on in his early years with the A’s. More generally, Kagan fostered by word and deed an atmosphere of openness and ideological tolerance at a a school that previously wasn’t exactly well known for either. She deserves special credit for achieving all this at an institution with a famously difficult to manage faculty and at a time of harsh ideological conflict in society as a whole.
(All of this is, needless to say, horribly relevant to Ed Esche, Dean of Middlesex University, who was instrumental in the decision to close its distinguished philosophy department. ('But so long as he values and recognizes original thought in others, he could be an excellent dean.') For those who have not been following the story, the Guardian reports on the international response here. The petition to save the department now has over 13,000 signatures; you can add yours here.)