A Deanship in Review
The Law School is a perpetual institution, but it doesn’t run itself. People – individuals of extraordinary talent and purpose – are what make it great. So when someone who has helped write the modern history of the Law School prepares to relinquish leadership, his influence on the direction and health of the institution deserves examination.
John Jeffries came to Virginia in 1970 directly from Yale. He became an illustrious member of an illustrious class stocked with future managing partners, general counsel, public servants, and distinguished lawyers. Even then he sowed the seeds of legend. John excelled as a student, a Supreme Court clerk, and, upon returning to Charlottesville, as a master in the classroom. In an age of restlessness and mobility, which has affected law faculties as well as law firms, John’s lifelong commitment to the Law School is essential to appreciating his contributions as dean. After three decades as a student and professor, he brought to the job a sensibility, coupled with a singular devotion to his alma mater, that enabled him to order priorities and advance the Law School.
When he took over the front office in 2001, the Law School, by all outward appearances, was settled and strong. What couldn’t be seen, and therefore easily explained, was the underlying shift in the Law School’s financing. From coast to coast, states had begun defunding higher education to meet other needs. Legislatures were continuing to support public colleges and universities, but they had neither the political will nor the financial ability to fund excellence in higher education. Prior deans had called attention to this trend, and John knew he would have to press for an immediate solution.
State budgets were under enormous pressure at the beginning of this decade. The capital markets had collapsed after the technology bubble burst, and they sank even further after the 9/11 attacks. For Virginia to remain among the nation’s elite law schools, it would have to react to the crisis in public funding and remake its relationship with the University. Specifically, the Law School had to put on its own shoulders the cost of providing competitive faculty support and meaningful student financial aid, as well as the expense of maintaining its buildings and grounds. These were essential needs. Realizing new ambitions – such as a law and business program and more generous loan forgiveness – would only add to the burden.
John took them in order, beginning with the foundational issue of the Law School’s revenue model. The careful and sensitive process of negotiating financial self-sufficiency was tailored to John’s particular gifts. He deeply admires the University and its special place in our national life. Ensuring stability for the Law School had to entail preserving that association and, by extension, our ties to the Commonwealth. Anything less was unacceptable. In the end, financial self-sufficiency accomplished everything the Law School and the University wanted. The Law School was allowed to finance itself and plan with confidence, and the University now had a premier law school that was entirely self-funding but whose governance remained intact.
From there, John organized the Law School around its signature culture and identity. The power of the student experience was the litmus test for improvement. The best initiatives raised the quality of instruction, made the Law School more accessible and attractive to the finest students, and every year produced stronger entering classes, more students in public interest law, and more money for financial aid and loan forgiveness. A closer look at the state of the Law School follows in these pages. We believe you will conclude that, under John’s stewardship, Virginia has earned its place as the American ideal in legal education.