Learning Curve

Leading Up: Academic Support and Power Dynamics

Elizabeth Z. Stillman

Associate Professor of Academic Support
Suffolk University Law School

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2022

As Academic Support folks1 take on new roles in law school academia, there is still the issue of status in the hierarchy that makes us distinct. We are not tenured or usually even eligible to seek tenure. And yet, Academic Support folks tend to teach as much, if not more, than faculty members who have tenure. We also produce voluminous scholarship and are asked to engage in a great deal of service to our schools. According to the AALS website information about becoming a law teacher, academic support professionals are listed under clinical faculty, but explained this way:

Academic support faculty provide advice to students on how they can best succeed in law school. Academic support positions are not always faculty positions; they may be contract positions on the administrative staff. If they are faculty positions, academic support positions tend not to be on tenure-track and may not come with the same voting rights (or the same scholarship or teaching expectations) as those held by tenure-track faculty.2

This makes leading a committee as an academic support professional a strange exercise in managing up . For the past two years, I have been the chair of the Learning Outcomes Subcommittee. When I first joined this committee many years ago (as a last-minute substitute for another faculty member), it was a robust committee with about twelve members (eight of whom regularly showed up for meetings). The committee then had legal writing faculty, doctrinal tenure track and tenured faculty, clinical faculty, and me from academic support. We met almost weekly to make sure we crafted published learning outcomes in order to be compliant with ABA Standard 302.3 Once we succeeded in formulating these outcomes and pinpointing the assessment metrics that we would use to determine our success, we met less frequently to be sure we were collecting and analyzing the data we needed. This was all great—until they asked me to chair the committee.

Now, let me be clear, I have three children, a bunch of cats, and a dog, so I am used to telling folks what to do (and equally accustomed to being ignored at times), but this assignment left me panicked. Who was I, as an Academic Support person, to call a meeting and assign the people who attended tasks to do?  I felt like an imposter (and, honestly like a stalker) when I pulled up everyone’s Outlook calendar to find a meeting time.  I tended to rush through the meetings because I was so nervous. In the meetings I chaired, I blew through the agenda, determined that everything was going well, declared my team the best ever (evah because we are Massachusetts), typed up the afternotes and then took a nice, long shower. Then I dreaded the next meeting I’d need to call. In short, I really wondered why would anyone entrust this job to me?

This year, instead of the usual charge of, “carry on and collect the data,” we were asked to explore drafting and implementing a new Learning Outcome on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”). My water bill has been pretty high. This charge, at least to me, is extremely important. I look at a published learning outcome as a contract we enter into with our matriculated students. We are promising that our graduates will know certain things and will have attained certain skills. Our accreditation in the future might depend on whether we have followed through on our promises. I needed to move past my somewhat paralyzing imposter syndrome and get this done. We needed to draft a potential outcome for a faculty vote and determine a method for assessing4 whether we had succeeded in teaching it. I believe that this outcome needs to be meaningful, and not just performative, aspirational, or symbolic.

My committee is now made up of seven of us: three people with decanal titles, one amazing clinical/data superhuman, two tenured professors (one who had previously chaired this committee), and me: your friendly neighborhood ASP person. My past method of drive-through leadership wasn’t going to work on a task of this magnitude. So, I did what academics do: I decided to be a student.5 I applied to our university’s Leadership Institute and upon my joyful acceptance, I have learned a lot about how to get this important work done even if I am the member of my team with the lowest status.

Here is what I learned: my leadership style was as an innovator and relator,6 but my team was not made up of people just like me (nor should it be, honestly). My team was made up of people who wanted their time to be used wisely, people who wanted to have something to bring to the faculty and see if we are moving in the right direction before perfecting all the details, and people who were skeptical about making change just for the sake of change. I learned that I needed to lead by telling my team, and then the entire faculty, why we were doing this (not just because we were told to), and why any changes needed were both manageable and worthwhile.7 After that, we needed to tell everyone how we were attempting to get there.

Armed with this newfound insight, I put words on paper. I circulated the drafts and asked for feedback within a certain timeframe. We came up with an idea of how to assess a DEI learning outcome that did not involve creating a new required class but rather a required two courses from a menu of classes that organically address and engage with DEI subjects.8 Then we put ourselves on the agenda for the next “deep dive meeting.”9

Now, the happiest ending here would be that I ran this meeting without breaking a sweat, everyone loved everything we did, there was a Ferris Bueller type parade when we finished, and I was granted immediate retroactive tenure (with a sabbatical) for this amazing bit of work. While this is not what happened, there was an overall positive response to the idea of adding the outcome and a healthy conversation about the assessment method. I did sweat and, frankly, ramble a bit. I still need to call a meeting to debrief and reformulate some of our ideas based on the deep dive, but I am not actually dreading it. I truly think we will be able to discharge the responsibility we were given by the end of the academic year.

Leading up from the position of Academic Support has been (and still is and will continue to be) challenging. Asking Academic Support folks to work on important initiatives like this is a double-edged sword. On one side, it is amazing that I was given the opportunity to engage in this relevant leadership. However, on the other side, needing to stand on a status step stool to be heard can be degrading.10

My fervent hope is that someday, someone will scroll through our website, see our Learning Outcome and assessment structure, and say, “of course this happened because of Academic Support.”


1 I use folks here to be the most inclusive. Some of us are faculty, some of us are administrators, some have short-er contracts, and some of us are essentially adjuncts.

2 AALS, Becoming a Law Teacher, https://teach.aals.org/ (last visited Apr. 7, 2022).

3ABA Standard 302, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2021-2022/2021-2022-aba-standards-and-rules-of-procedure-chapter-3.pdf (last visited Apr. 7, 2022).

4 All Learning Outcomes require assessment pursuant to ABA Standard 315. Id.

5 Being a student while being a teacher is refreshing and gives you some necessary perspective in working with your classes.

6 Meaning that I was concerned about consensus within my team and good at presenting ideas, but not necessarily as skilled in making plans beyond the idea phase. This comes from the “5 Paths to Leadership” assessment available at https://www.academicimpressions.com/product/5-paths-leadership-assessment/ (last visited April 7, 2022).

7 Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, available at https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en (last visited Apr. 7, 2022).

8 This was not my idea, but it was love at first sight for me.

9 These are what we call meetings on the in-between weeks when there isn’t a full faculty meeting.

10 Just to be clear, my team is really the best team ever and has not engaged in any power dynamic shenanigans. The call about feeling inadequate to the challenge was mainly coming from inside the house.


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