As the new dean of The University of Texas School of Law, Ward Farnsworth will see that the best and worst of outcomes have befallen his predecessors. Former law dean Bill Powers went on to become UT’s president, while the most recent dean was ousted mid-semester after a crisis in confidence exploded.
Until recently, Farnsworth served as associate dean of Boston University’s law school. He has a plan for leading UT’s storied school, which has produced federal appeals court judges from Diane Wood to Edward Prado, not to mention some of the country’s leading legal minds. Here, he tells The Alcalde how he’ll keep UT’s tradition great starting this fall.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
I grew up in the Chicago area—the northern suburbs, a pleasant place blessed with fine public schools.
Tell us a bit about you as a person.
I have lots of interests, probably too many for my own good. I’ve written two books, one about classical English rhetoric and another book about chess. I love law, but I think it’s important for lawyers and even law professors to maintain some other interests, too.
When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer? And a law dean?
I figured that out at some point in college because I determined that law was the intersection of a lot of interesting things—economics, political science, rhetoric. The great thing about law is it takes those things and gives them all a practical outlet. You have to solve problems. You have to help people who are in trouble.
I’ve been teaching at BU Law for the last 15 years. Three or four years ago I became an associate dean. What I found was I loved the work and took great satisfaction from efforts to improve the institution. The natural next step would be to become a dean, although I wouldn’t have described myself as looking to become a dean just anywhere. The opportunity to come to The University of Texas, though, was well worth dropping everything to pursue.
What initiatives are you most proud of out of your time at BU?
Boston University has a very strong culture of commitment to teaching and to its students. I worked very hard to maintain that attitude—that every student is important and every class is important. In addition, the school has undertaken some recent initiatives to ensure its students are well prepared for the practice of law. And I look forward to talking about similar initiatives with the community here in Texas.
I regard it as the finest truly public law school in the country. There are, of course, some other excellent ones, but Texas admits more in-state residents than those other schools do, and it charges them less than those other schools do. And to me, those are features the school and the state can be proud of. I view this school as having a distinctive and very honorable mission, which is not only to prepare students to practice law and to produce great ideas, but also to serve the public that created the institution and supports it.
What’s your vision for the law school?
It is to deliver our students the highest quality of legal education in the country, to do it more affordably than is done elsewhere, and to inspire them to give back to the community when they leave.
What do we do well?
For one thing, the law school has as extensive a set of clinics as any law school I’m aware of. Those clinics provide wonderful opportunities for students to learn how to practice law and to serve clients who need their help. They’re also a way for the law school to make a contribution to the state by helping out underserved populations. In addition, of course, the law school is blessed with one of the finest and most brilliant faculties of any school in the country.
What could we do better?
As everyone knows, the market for legal jobs has contracted in recent years, and this makes it more urgent than ever for schools to think hard about how they prepare their graduates to be not only sophisticated, but also useful to potential clients from the day they leave. I would not describe this as a weakness of the law school, but it’s an area where we always have to be working to improve any way we can.
The previous dean was forced out mid-year after facing a crisis of confidence. How will you bring about healing?
The interim dean has done a great job helping move the place past some of the difficulties they were having. I think what’s most needed in a dean from the start is someone who will listen carefully to the interests of the faculty and devise procedures to give all of those interests due weight. In the process of getting this job, I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of faculty members, and I was really struck by their lack of division over all the issues that matter most. I do think there’s a general interest in creating more careful and transparent procedures for making some of the decisions involved in running a law school.
The law school is blessed with alumni who are famously loyal and have stepped up to help the school afford first-rate faculty. It’s also true that when you participate in a market for faculty like that, discrepancies in the school’s salary structure can open up. Especially because we’re a public university, we need to have procedures for ensuring that all decisions about these matters are made in a way that is equitable and well understood by everyone affected. The interim dean has already done a lot to address these points.
Let’s talk rankings. UT Law edged into U.S. News & World Report’s top 14, then dropped back down the following year. Where do you stand?
It’s very easy to chase the U.S. News rankings at the expense of a school’s actual mission. And as a public law school, I think we need to be especially careful not to fall into that trap. I think that in the most important respects the quality of the education and opportunities this law school provides are as good as those provided by any law school in the country. Whether US News is off by 18 or 14 rungs in assessing that is something I can’t be too concerned about.
When do you get to Texas, and what’s your first order of business as dean? And as a new Texan?
I start June 1. I have a family, and we have a transition to make. My first order of business is to get to know the faculty and where their strengths and interests lie, and how I can do the work of the deanship in a way that will make the most of the opportunities that already exist there.
I care deeply about barbecue and am looking forward to an upgrade in the quality of it as I move from New England. My goal is to try to sample all the leading purveyors. I feel it is one of my occupational duties, and I will discharge it vigorously.
Photo courtesy Ward Farnsworth