The time finally came to attend my first law deans’ conference, “Competitive Success and Academic Values: Balancing Competing Pressures.” Each year the conference is held in conjunction with the mid-winter meeting of the American Bar Association. This year it was in Miami. Yeah, I know, tough life. (Did this mean I could wear sandals?)

I arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Feb. 8. That evening was the opening reception. It was fun to go and see a number of the deans I’d met through Law School Admission Council (LSAC) and the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), including Gil Holmes, Joe Knight (my law school Commercial Transactions professor), Leroy Purnell, Rudy Hasl, Shelly Broderick, Doug Ray and Parry O’Hara, now as a fellow dean. Many of them had mentored me through the toughest times of being a junior professor. The former dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law was there, Len Strickman. Having given me my first academic job, he was quite proud now of Dean Nance.

After the reception a few of us went to dinner at Oceanaire restaurant including Melissa Essary, the dean of Cumberland School of Law who I had never met, but who was a newbie like me. It was at this meal that we were initiated into the secret society of deans and learned the handshake and secret password. Just kidding! Actually, the best thing about dinner and the gathering generally was the ability to ask questions and voice concerns with experienced deans who gave us very helpful feedback and encouragement.

The next day was the first plenary session called “The Law School and the Marketplace,” which focused on the business of running a law school and the choices deans have to make in doing that. (I sat with Chuck Goldner, the dean of University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law during this and many of the other sessions in a show of Arkansas solidarity.) In one of the more interesting presentations, Dean Richard Matasar (my first-year Civil Procedure professor) said law schools sell two things. We sell the school to the students and then we sell our students to the legal market. He suggested that that model is collapsing on the weight of the rising levels of student debt relative to student salaries. He encouraged us all to find ways to lighten this burden for our students.

Another speaker was a former law dean who had served as the provost at Rutgers, Roger Dennis (He is the new dean at Drexel Law School). He shared his provost’s perspective about how a law school should interact with the central administration. He said that the strengths the law school brings to the university include the fact that our alums were likely to be the leaders of the state (for example, Governor Mike Beebe, ’72), and that we had a service mission. University of Arkansas’s service mission is apparent, one need only look at our clinical program, pro-bono program, Legal E-source and the Habitat for Humanity Wills project. He cautioned us not to become too isolated from other colleges and units on campus.

And so the day went. Our lunch was sponsored by National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and the speaker focused on the placement data for graduates. We learned about where graduates were being hired (e.g. government, non-profit or private law firm), their satisfaction levels within their jobs and their debt load. The data was fairly startling. The NALP presenter again suggested that there needs to be a concerted effort to develop funding for loan forgiveness programs.

The most interesting panel of the day for me was the last. It focused on, “Subjective and Objective Assessments of Performance.” As a new dean it was fascinating to learn of all the measures fellow deans used to asses faculty and staff. For example, one dean performed a citation report on each faculty member to evaluate the impact of the faculty member’s scholarship. This same dean similarly looked at how many places a faculty member’s textbook had been adopted as a measure of its impact. His approach was very quantitative and involved a formula that measured teaching, scholarship and service. Faculty members were only given a meeting about their evaluations if they were in trouble. In listening to the scuttlebutt about the talks, his approach was considered the most novel by comparison to other law schools.

Another dean on this panel talked about how to evaluate the progress of the law school itself. He used several factors — including the school’s mission statement, increases in private giving, leadership of the faculty, reputation amongst alumni and award-winning publications. He also used the data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement to see how his students were feeling about the school. I found these all to be very helpful suggestions.

Later that evening there was another reception sponsored by Florida’s approved law schools. It was a relaxing event with lots of mixing and mingling. The highlight of the evening, though, was dinner with the deans of color. It was very moving to hear the longer serving deans tell the story of what it was like for them when they could be counted on one hand. They all welcomed us and in essence passed the torch to those of us who are newer entrants to this role.

This was a very personal night for me because I knew many of these deans from the people-of-color gatherings. They have been very supportive friends and mentors to me over my 13 years in the academy. Leroy Purnell met me as a Council on Legal Education Opportunity teaching assistant while I was a rising second-year student at Iowa.

Gil Holmes of Baltimore met me as a first-year assistant professor and has been my friend and encourager ever since. Joe Knight, my professor at Iowa prepared me for my interviews at the AALS hiring conference. Both of them are leaving deaning this year and many a tribute and toast was given to them both.

The dinner was also special because all four of the black women deans were together in one place for the first time. It is hard to explain what a powerful feeling of camaraderie, love and support we all experienced. This is a memory I will keep with me for a long, long time. (But sadly, no one thought to bring a camera).

Breakfast on Friday was sponsored by LSAC, and consisted in part of a tribute to Phil Shelton, the CEO who is retiring this year. One of the coolest things about Phil to me, besides his wicked sense of humor, is how approachable he was from the very first time I met him as a new assistant professor serving on LSAC’s Audit committee. There will be a symposium honoring him on April 12, 2007, at Washington University and I am honored to be a panelist on that program.

I was member of the morning’s first panel, “Competing for Students: The Admissions Game.” Fellow panelists included Deans Mary Daly (St. John), Kent Syverud (Washington University and current chair of the LSAC Board), Frank Wu (Wayne State) and Evan Camiker (Michigan). My topic was diversity, specifically the perceived tension between rankings’ pressures for increased credentials and increasing diversity. Fortunately, I was in the wonderful situation of being able to point to the University of Arkansas’s success at doing both simultaneously. I also talked about the need to be thoughtful about how to “manage” a diverse student body and a few of the growth opportunities diversity brings to the community. The other speakers on our panel talked about attempts to game the rankings by accepting large numbers of transfer students, Post-Grutter admissions strategies, part-time programs and merit-based scholarships.

Friday night was special and fun. I had been invited by Dean Strickman to attend Florida International University College of Law’s building dedication dinner. Dean Strickman brought FIU’s law school from a fledgling start-up to a fully accredited school with a beautiful new building. It was a special occasion to be with Len and Danielle again and to share in the happiness of his successes there. (They both looked terrific). There were a number of politicos in the crowd including Joe Biden, Governor of Florida Charlie Crist and Drew Days. It was a very fancy event, the food great, the setting lovely and I managed to find a table of like-minded folk to sit with to talk politics, law and food. In fact, I was in the back visiting with my new acquaintances when Dean Strickman introduced me to his guests as his protégé and told everyone how very proud he was. It was an amazing moment. Saturday a group of deans went to the actual dedication at which Justice Ginsburg was the speaker.

There was one strange moment during the conference. On Sunday morning I had a meeting of an LSAC committee on the club floor of the hotel. When I walked out into the dining room to get some coffee, an older woman asked me to please put out some more grapefruit juice. After I explained I did not work there and motioned for someone to help her, I went back to the meeting room. A few minutes later, I went back out to get a yogurt. This time a woman my age, dressed in sweats, asked me (with an attitude) if I would “please get some wheat bread for toast.” Ironically, this was a fellow law dean with whom I had just spent 2 1/2 days in meetings, including a women deans’ caucus. I introduced myself and went back to the conference room where the joke was that I had now become the “toast of the town.” Smart alecks! All in all the conference was a good one including time spent learning, meeting other deans and sharing time with good friends.

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