Law dean resigns to lead online learning

by Sarah Ferris and Matthew Kwiecinski

Paul Schiff Berman abruptly announced Monday that he will step down as dean of the No. 20-ranked GW Law School in January, after just 18 months of leading the school in the face of declining enrollment.

Berman was tapped by Provost Steven Lerman to become vice provost for online education and academic innovation – a new post administrators began looking to fill this fall.

He will exit the law school at a tumultuous time, when schools nationwide are facing dwindling class sizes and narrowing job prospects for graduates. He said enrollment will likely be a long-term challenge for law schools, and that GW would likely need to find ways to cut costs or grow funds through new programs.

“I found it to be interesting and challenging and dynamic, and there’s never been a dull moment in the entire time I’ve been,” he said. “I like that – I don’t want to be bored. I’m not escaping that, but I’m seeing a set of whole new set of challenges about what do we think about an entirely different educational model.”

Berman's announcement surprised many across the school, but Lerman described the transition as a "natural fit" given his strong ties across the University. When asked if others were considered for the position, Lerman declined to comment.

"Throughout his career, Paul has distinguished himself as a driver and champion of innovation, and I look forward to him bringing that creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to this newly created role," Lerman said.

The move was quick – and kept under wraps. Berman said high-level discussions about his shift only started within "the last several weeks."

Two law school associate deans, Susan Karamanian and Lee Paddock, said they first heard the news in the email announcement to faculty Monday.

“I’m a bit surprised,” Karamanian said. “It’ll give us a chance to come together to pick someone to lead the school.”

She praised Berman’s leadership in helping the school look toward a more global future and said he would be headed to India soon for international outreach because "He was the force behind that."

The timing of the leadership change is not typical for academic transitions. When former law school dean Frederick Lawrence announced in July 2010 that he would leave that winter to take over as president of Brandeis University, a search committee formed by fall. Berman was selected the following April, after a year.

Roger Transgrud, the professor who led that search, said a committee for this one will likely begin to form next semester and launch its search next fall. He guessed that an interim dean would hold the position for a year and a half, similar to the transition before Berman was hired.

If Transgrud is right and the interim leadership lasts 18 months, it would double the average length of the last five dean searches.

He said he doesn’t think the departure will have a significant impact on the school’s operations because "there are several excellent people in this faculty" who could serve as interim dean.

“I don’t think the costs to transition will be high and the reason is that the law school and law faculty are in excellent shape,” Trangsrud said.

Lerman said he and University President Steven Knapp would nail down details for the transition in the coming weeks.

Law school professor Gregory Maggs served as the interim dean before Berman was hired, and said his transition to the leadership role was eased by extensive support from across the school. He said he did not know who could be named the next interim dean.

"We have enough stability and momentum that we can handle transitions pretty well,” Maggs said. “I’m sure whoever is interim dean – we’ll get through it.”

Since coming to GW, faculty and students have praised Berman for thinking big. He came to the law school with goals like doubling its endowment over the next decade.

A small incoming class – the law school saw a 16.5 percent drop in applications last spring – took dollars away from a school looking to increase fundraising and financial aid. In the vulnerable law landscape, Berman proved to be a strong fundraiser who also pushed the school to reshape academics and career services, emphasizing more personalized student experiences through mentorship programs and individualized tracks.

For three years before moving to GW, Berman served as head of the Arizona State University law school. He has also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and taught at the University of Connecticut.

Some students expressed concern about the quick change to a new dean. Second-year law student Mohammad Shouman said he was surprised by the announcement, praising Berman’s efforts to build up student support and engage alumni.

But, he said, a transition could create "some hiccup in progress."

"The law school needs a consistent sense of direction. There’s obviously going to be some pause here,” Shouman said.

But Berman stirred an outcry among students this summer when he announced cuts to Pathways to Practice, a school-funded program that pays graduates $15 an hour to work for free at law firms and nonprofits in a sagging job market.

Facing student backlash, Berman changed course less than 24 hours later, restoring the full stipend. Nearly 100 students joined the program this year because they could not find a full-time law job – costing GW $2 to $3 million.

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