Last week, most of you heard that I’ll be starting a new gig soon. In the latest episode of “the 20 year old Stacy never saw this coming,” I’ll pick up as dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University effective February 1, 2023. This will be my second rodeo: Version 2.0. The new and improved and well-rested version. Or translated for the “basketball-is-life” crowd: snapped breakaway pants off, sixth man, fresh legs. Skoden.
As I recently shared with my ASU Law colleagues, I feel like I have won the lottery in legal education. This law school is in remarkably great shape. And for a host of reasons, if there’s a better institutional “fit” for me in this dean world, it rests in some unknown galaxy, far far away.
From those that have followed this wellness blog over the past few years, I received some head-scratching messages wondering why a seemingly well-grounded and normal person would willingly go back to this (allegedly) dreadful grind known as law school deaning. That tough place where too many folks have burned out hard and fast, and where precious few seem to flawlessly transition into the “life-after-dean” world in a completely enviable way.
First, I’ll field the questions:
Question No. 1: WTH?
Answer: Right!!? But trust me on this one.
Question No. 2: Why?
Answer: Unmatched potential for real impact at a place that long ago connected the dots that excellence and access actually feed off one another for big net positives. Green light. Full steam ahead. The power to say yes and make the magic happen, provided there’s a great team by my side who feel the same way. And that seems like a thumbs up.
Question: So I guess this means the IndigenousWell blog is now toast?
Answer: Nope. I’m keeping it, with a renewed open invitation for more contributors, more health stories, more sharing of journeys, vulnerabilities, successes, life hacks and whatever. I need this outlet for my own accountability. For the community it has yielded. Writing is therapy. Bonus if these ramblings are relatable to even a small handful of students or colleagues. I don’t mind being the poster-child for this message: is is perfectly fine (if not advisable) to be a lifelong work-in-progress when it comes to wellness. There is no finish line. I am endlessly revising the draft of the owner’s manual governing my own body, heart, mind and spirit. Parental warning: the contents of this blog, particularly posts dated before November 2022, fell squarely into the “off the clock” space. It was a simpler time when I was as free as a bird to engage in a little more snark, bloviate on matters where I lack formal education or expertise, and take a few playful swipes at Sharon Leeds. Because, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.
Now to the “famous last words” part – why push replay on the very thing I was once so reluctant to ever do again? And I hope my dear friend Dean Emeritus (And Now Dean Again) Cyndi Nance will weigh in with her own recent revelations as she accepted the call to duty once again. At times, it really can be the best job ever and I’m intrigued to see how the role continues to evolve over time, for me and nationally.
This is going to be a really wild ride for the next several years. I am very excited. I am admittedly a tad terrified as well. And that’s a good thing. If you don’t have at least a slight case of the pre-game jitters, you are in the wrong league. Or you simply have no idea what’s coming.
I’m an experienced dean with home court advantage and a ton of good will. I’m in no way intimidated by the job itself or the inherent high expectations that attach. My fear is centered on one bucket: the risk of falling back into a rut on the health and wellness fronts (two distinct but interrelated concepts).
Consistent with the spirit of this blog, I’ll confront this head-on. I’ve got the strategic planning process on this issue well underway. And I’m probably going to have to bring in some professional facilitators from time to time. Trust me, this is not the tired and gendered conversation about “work-life balance.” This is far more nuanced and complex and self-prescribed.
I’m coming off a 2.5 year “retirement” from higher education administration. I refocused on my teaching and writing and work with tribes across the country and it was awesome. And I did other important non-law related things. I spent some full days in my bathrobe. Reading. Cooking. Praying. Adopting yet another dog. Gardening, Kayaking the Illinois River on random mornings. And I hit “unsubscribe” on a whole lot things.
Unsubscribed from the theory that you shouldn’t quit one big job until you have the next one lined up. Unsubscribed from destructive pattern of thinking that leads to cute catchphrases like, “you can sleep when you die.” Unsubscribed from toxic thoughts, people and places. Unsubscribed from the idea that “it will always be fine.”
Ok, that last one is a lie. I’ve inherited the Leeds family trait of being an eternal optimist. Maybe that’s the opposite of inter-generational trauma? Inter-generational resilience must be a real thing too, right? It can’t just be that we get only the bad stuff.
During my “break,” I spent a lot of time getting really dirty. Digging in the soil with my hands. Sweating. And just sitting on the deck in rural America and watching “our” bat fly around eating bugs in the early evening sky. I hooped it up with the Auntie Ballers. Stained some socks the hard way with pink Grand Canyon dust. Traveled as much as was possible. Had long conversations about absolutely nothing. Logged a little scuba time with the reef sharks, and spent almost no time in the presence of the land-based ones. Stretched into 50th birthday morning on a yoga mat in Belize. And I fell deeply in love with people and places. Including this law school. And therein lies the hook.
It all started for me last May. I sat through my first in-person graduation ceremony of ASU’s Indian Legal Program (ILP). This is a smaller program-specific event that precedes the big law school hooding ceremony. Despite my best efforts, my eyes kept leaking this salty watery substance. As I looked around the room, there were more Native law graduates and others committed to working in Indian country, in this single space, than I have taught (combined) in my 22 year teaching career at three other law schools. The scale and the institutional commitment of this place is simply off the charts, not just for the ILP but for so many other programs. Last May, I had just completed my first semester of teaching since formally joining ASU Law part-time in the spring 2021 semester.
You ever go to either a wedding or a funeral of someone you barely know and just start blubbering? Get moved by the music or caught up in the collective emotions and start bawling your eyes out? Almost ugly crying? And then you say to yourself, gee whiz guuuurl . . . get a grip – you barely even know these people!!
But as it turns out, I did already know some of the people and tangentially, this place. Everyone in the field of Indian law knows this place. Long before I joined the ILP, I’d watched from afar. Maybe with a hint of jealousy for what I perceived they had here, but also with a healthy dose of skepticism in that this whole place (ASU) seemed a little bit over the top.
As it turned out, there’s a bit of truth in both regards. This place really is over the top, but in a really great way. Almost anything goes with the right energy and commitment. Great and/or unorthodox ideas flock here to flourish, or to fail, and that’s fine, too. Fearless in trying something new, shifting the status quo, empowering individuals and communities. Real impact. The difference is some combination of the culture, shared vision and long-term leadership. And at the micro level, it’s why the ILP gets stronger and stronger each year while similar programs at other institutions (including places of my prior affiliations) come and go in moments of cyclical strength and weakness. What’s behind this momentum?
What I didn’t fully appreciate until recently, is just how deep this all ran within the fabric of the law school’s entire history. From the law school’s founding until today, without exception, a series of non-Native deans and other allies in positions of power and influence made space for the unnamed people who would trickle in large numbers much later. And space for them to not just be. Also space for them to lead. Not by accident. Very deliberate. Forging meaningful partnerships/relationships with tribal communities, Indigenous leaders and law students from the beginning, rather than after the fact.
So critically important to this success, and something I take to heart in this new journey: these allies truly listened to Native voices rather than talking over them. It seems like such a simple and straight forward proposition. Really and truly listening to the people most impacted in a given context. Bi-directional learning despite the fact that only one of you carries an official title in that moment: teacher, dean, judge, lawyer, mother. A perfect refresher course worthy of my reflection, and gratitude.
Now for the real personal challenge: how to embark on round two in a manner that is better, smarter, more efficient, bolder and more (mostly) unafraid. Otherwise, why bother? In the language of my gamer son: it’s time to level up, mom.
I’m pretty proud of how things went down during my time at Arkansas Law, but . . . there is always a but.
During my dean candidate open forum last month, I came clean with the law students, confessing to them my biggest regret as a former dean. Newsflash: it has absolutely nothing to do with the ups or downs of the US News rankings. It had everything to do with the fact that I modeled some “dadgum” unhealthy behaviors for those that might have sized me up, as an example of what “success” looks in the legal profession.
I told them that in this next iteration, I’m going to be focused on wellness as an important and ubiquitous overlay. I need that for me. I want that for them. And we’ll figure out how to create even more of a culture of care and accountability to each other. Yes, I am fully aware that the concept of “wellness” means so many different things to so many different people, at different times in their life. And for those that conclude it’s all hogwash. That’s perfectly fine too.
By the time I stepped down from being law dean and then vice chancellor, I was running on fumes. Too many days of taking care of everything and everyone, while slowly losing my own health and wellness priorities. I was intuitive enough to know when I had caught my limit, and was luckily able to go effectuate a dismount on my own initiative and terms. A few months later at a routine health check-up, I was forced to start obsessing about a different set of numbers. My cholesterol was about double my law school’s median LSAT score. Ooof.
I can joke about it now because I have figured it out and healed myself, just shy of a pharmaceutical intervention. Diet, exercise, and self-correction for the win. Unfortunately, as I talk to my dean friends across the country, I am not alone in this past experience. Far from it. And you can plug this experience into countless other subsets of the legal profession and higher education.
So what gives? What makes me think I can get it right, in version 2.0 without smashing myself into the big hurtful boulders that likely lie ahead?
First, I’ve installed stronger and more acute self-awareness and community awareness chip across all my devices. Two, I will listen more intently to others at each point of triage in order to use time most effectively. And I must listen unapologetically, to what I’m trying to tell myself.
There will still be some red-eye flights and lots of midnight oil to burn, but you better believe I will approach this work differently this next time around. Like many of my counterparts, I’m an adrenaline junky. I’m either predisposed, or have been subsequently conditioned to default back into the hard-charging mode, once I get fully revved up.
A few imperfect random thoughts/reminders to myself and others that are soon to navigate the next big thing:
It’s a gift to start from a fully refreshed and perspective-laden place. Take advantage of it. Take the dang sabbatical. Take the whole vacation. Disconnect for a little bit each day. Your life might truly depend on it.
You might think that you are the best dean, professor, law student, judge, lawyer or business person in the whole wide world, but you probably aren’t. There’s someone out there smarter, bigger, stronger, faster. And if you truly are the best of the best, it still doesn’t matter. People have remarkably short memories. It will become crystal clear at some point in your life that you are 100% replaceable at the office. You are 100% irreplaceable to your friends and family. Prioritize accordingly and make sure you do all that you do, for the right reasons. You can make a very big difference in this world, one person at a time, and you should absolutely try to do so. The upside to being at your very best? That is the moment in time when you are in a position of strength in service to those around you. Capture those precious moments in time and make the most of them. But realize that it can never be, every second of every day.
Times they are a changing. Students, clerks and new associates get this. Preaching to the choir. They are (and will continue to be) drawn to universities, law firms, institutions and personal relationships where they are valued and seen as whole people, full of complex and often competing interests. This is the generation that might do a better job of getting this puzzle right from the very start of their careers. And I sure hope that many of them do. I’ll be nearby taking copious notes. And big long deep breaths. And then hopefully a walk or run.
I look forward to being back in the game, particularly at this critical moment in legal education. We plan to be at the forefront of reimagining the law school of the (near) future within the New American University (ASU). And while we are at it, we are going to try to sleep well, exercise regularly, hydrate and be exceedingly kind. To others. And to ourselves.
Posting ASU’s Charter below. Every word is so important and I’m down for it. The bold emphasis on that final phrase is mine (for purposes of this blog).
“ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”