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Interview with Incoming Dean Dan Rodriguez

In January 2012, Dan Rodriguez will begin his appointment as the 10th dean of Northwestern Law. Below he discusses his thoughts and insights on his new position.

Can you tell us about your professional background?
I was born and raised in California, where I spent the majority of my professional life. I graduated from California State at Long Beach and from Harvard Law School for my JD. I have spent essentially my entire career in legal education, first at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, then at the University of San Diego as its dean and, most recently at the University of Texas School of Law. I have been fortunate to have been part of three terrific law schools and am certainly looking forward to joining a fourth!

What background experience(s) do you believe will aid you in this new position?
First, my administrative experience as a dean. I had the opportunity to lead a school and learned a great deal about things to do right and things to avoid.

Second, I have had the opportunity to teach and work at a diverse range of schools, private and public, young and well established, and in different regions.  In addition, I have spent substantial time as a visitor at several other law schools.  As a consequence, I have had the opportunity to really experience the various ways that law schools operate and learn a variety of different programs and objectives. These experiences will provide a palate from which I can draw.

In your career as a past dean and current professor and legal scholar, of what accomplishment are you most proud?
In my career I have worn two hats -- as dean and as a legal educator. As a dean, while serving at the University of San Diego, I was proud of how I was able to bring people together. When I joined as dean, the faculty and administration had undergone a substantial period of conflict and, while I was there, I was able to help begin the process in healing wounds and mending fences between faculty, administration, and students. This was a contribution that has generated lasting benefits.

As a professor, I am most proud of what my students have accomplished. A great number of my former students are doing terrific things in the profession. They have gone on to success in private legal practice and in public interest fields. My very first research assistant is now dean of the law school at the University of Nebraska, and a student that I taught at Berkeley recently became the first East-Asian member of the Federal judiciary. It fills me with enormous pride to see my former students, many of whom I keep in contact, doing so well.

Why did you decide to take the dean position at Northwestern Law School?
Northwestern Law is a leading center of innovative, intellectually rigorous, and professionally ambitious legal education.  It has long been so, but in the last several years in particular it has mapped out a distinctive strategy for capitalizing on its many strikes to make a unique mark in legal education.  It is well on the way of doing so and I am very interested in helping the Law School along to realizing its grand – our grand -- objectives.  I have always thought of myself as an imaginative educator and educational leader, with the kind of temperament and talent that would match well with a school with distinct creative energy and ambitions.  Northwestern is the ideal place for me to pursue these exciting initiatives.

What are you most looking forward to in starting at Northwestern Law?
I am looking forward to engaging with the many members of the law school community that give Northwestern its energy and strength.  We have an extraordinary faculty, filled with interesting, committed educators doing cutting-edge work.  They make signal contributions to legal scholarship and to public policy; they are involved in extraordinary legal work on behalf of the less fortunate in our clinical programs; and they are tied closely to the ambitions and goals of our remarkable students.  While I have long appreciated the Northwestern faculty and study body from afar, I look forward to getting to knowing them as their dean.  Moreover, I am excited about meeting and working with our great alumni in order to build and strengthen connections between the school and its graduates and, as well, to encourage them to support in many ways, including financially, our distinctive ambitions.

What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of your new position?
Two challenges come immediately to mind.  First, the changing dynamics of the legal marketplace affect both the career prospects of our students in the short term and the efficacy of the current model of legal education in the long term.  Northwestern, along with the other law schools, faces the continuing challenge of articulating why and how we do what we do, and at this rather high cost.  The challenge – my challenge – is to engage this difficult situation proactively, candidly, and with a sustained commitment to helping our law students and graduates confront the shifting legal world.  Second, we face the challenge of creating and supporting programs and initiatives within the law school through means beyond the capacity and commitments of our students in their tuition obligations.  Let me not be opaque about the matter:  If Northwestern is going to maintain its status as one of the nation’s leading law schools, and hopefully grow in reputation and stature, it will require an enormous increase in support from the law school’s friends and stakeholders.  A cornerstone of my commitment to the law school at its new dean is to focus tirelessly on expanding the base and amount of our external support.  Standing still is not an option.

What are your general thoughts in preparing for your time as dean?
So much to learn; so little time!  But, seriously, this slow transition will give me an opportunity to learn about the law school and its programs.  Already, several administrators, faculty, students, and alumni have given me their candid assessments about what we do well and where we fall short. Through an engaged dialogue and with time and energy for reflection, I fully intend to hit the ground running beginning in January.  My predecessors, David Van Zandt and Kim Yuracko, have helped to create an exceptional foundation upon which to build.  David’s fifteen years as dean represent a remarkable period of growth and innovation.  However, to assure the law school’s continuing excellence and to give it every chance to prosper and improve, there will surely be important changes and modifications. We will revisit the curriculum, the administrative structure of the school, services to students, our facilities, our marketing programs, our cross-disciplinary initiatives, and our global footprint – all in a comprehensive effort to shape an institution best designed to realize big objectives.  As I said in a recent note to the Northwestern Law community, quoting the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, "let us not make small plans."  Northwestern’s plans will be big and ambitious, befitting a great law school in challenging times.

How do you enjoy spending your free time when you are not in the office?
I enjoy relaxing with my wife, Leslie Oster, an experienced legal educator and administrator in her own right, my college sophomore daughter, and our energetic dog, Rico Suave.  While we are apprehensive about Chicago winters, we are keeping a positive attitude.  Chicago is, of course, an extraordinary city and we are very much looking forward to taking advantage of the recreational and cultural opportunities it has to offer. 

As an official member of the Northwestern Law family, the most important question is: Do you own any purple in your wardrobe?
Unfortunately I do not own a single stitch of purple clothing but I will definitely reallocate my wardrobe to be in keeping with my new environment. I wish David [Van Zandt] would have left behind some of his purple ties.


Posted: October 17, 2011