Law school dean works to build connections with students, faculty in first year

Media Credit: Courtesy of Dayna Bowen Matthew

Law school Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew said despite taking over during a pandemic, she has fallen in love with the school.

GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew periodically runs with her students around the National Mall.

Matthew, who became the dean of the law school in July, said the runs are a way to keep her connections with students strong as the COVID-19 pandemic prevents many in-person interactions. She said she still gets emotional thinking back to her first run with the students, one of her fondest memories so far as dean.

“The conversations we had and continue to have when I run with my students, they are the kind of conversations that are worthy of having in front of the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. “Because students ask questions that matter, even at 7:30 in the morning. They want to do things with their lives that matter.”

Now more than a semester into her tenure, Matthew, who was previously a professor of law and public health sciences at the University of Virginia, said she has been able to get to know members of the community through regular virtual meetings with faculty and students. Law faculty members said Matthew has been an “impressive” leader during the pandemic and has worked to increase the profile of the law school by hosting events that showcase faculty expertise.

“The fact that this society, this community, has accepted me as a leader is probably my biggest accomplishment so far,” Matthew said.

Building connections
Matthew said her workdays typically last from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and typically consist of meetings with faculty and students to discuss topics like diversity and inclusion.

“I do a lot of meetings to help my faculty and my students work together as closely as possible, to support an incredible staff of administrators who have been innovative about how to help students get through the pandemic,” she said.

Matthew added that she has collaborated with the Dean’s Student Advisory Board and Student Bar Association by supporting its vision for increasing access to textbooks and class resources. She said she hasn’t seen a more “effective” organization than GW’s SBA in the 30 years she’s been teaching.

“Everyone should have an equal shot at succeeding right from the start of a semester,” she said. “So the SBA is focused on making sure that even students who can’t afford their textbooks have access to textbooks, right at the start of the semester.”

Kate Weisburd, an associate professor of law, said despite stepping into the role of dean during the pandemic, Matthew has embraced her role during a difficult time.

“What I think is impressive is she not only kept us afloat during these turbulent times, she’s also kept us moving forward,” Weisburd said. “There’s a real sense of forward momentum of the law school doing new things and really doubling down on investing in students, faculty and research.”

Weisburd said Matthew has been working to increase the profile of the school across the country by hosting events for law professors to speak on legal issues, like intellectual property. Matthew has also hosted fireside chats and panels and launched a podcast about social issues facing the country during the presidential election, allowing her to “leverage” the expertise of law faculty and engage professionals outside the school, Weisburd said.

“That’s exactly how it should be,” Weisburd said. “Law schools are institutions that should help shed light on some of the most pressing problems of our time, so it’s exciting to see her leveraging GW to further that goal.”

Supporting diversity
Amid nationwide protests over the killing of several Black individuals last summer, law faculty passed a resolution vowing to implement various anti-racism initiatives in the school.

Matthew said she has been working with faculty to support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within the school. She said all first-year law faculty members have since participated in a training on creating inclusive classrooms with Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement.

She said the training helped law professors learn how to conduct classroom conversations in a way that is relevant to issues of race.

“Those conversations are vitally important to the training of a law student, and we have therefore done these workshops to help law faculty conduct those conversations in ways that are racially and ethnically relevant, that are sensitive to and inclusive of diverse populations,” she said. “So that when you come to law school and read a case from 1857, we as teachers can connect that case to the horrific violence against the Asian American community in America today.”

Matthew said officials are raising funds to attract students from diverse ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, gender and sexuality backgrounds and “all marginalized groups” to better train law students to “serve in a pluralist society.”

“That is why it is important to make sure that every voice and every population is represented in our classrooms, in our literature and in our faculty,” she said. “We’re seeking to hire people who are from diverse backgrounds, people who are going to bring new views of scholarship, of research, of writing to complete our community.”

Matthew said her experience serving as the co-founder and director of the Equity Center at UVA in 2019 has been useful to her as she has been working to establish a similar equity institute at GW Law.

“Here in the nation’s capital, a university that’s as large as ours, a law school with 31,000 alumni working, I feel the institute here will be a bigger more impactful version of the one at UVA,” she said.

Matthew, the first woman to serve as the dean of the law school, said “it means everything” for her to break ground as a woman in this role.

“I owe a great deal of respect, honor and gratitude to women who were equally as smart, equally as talented, equally as able to have been in this position but were prevented from doing so because they were women,” she said.

Facing the current national climate
Matthew, who started as dean during the pandemic, said the pandemic has sped up how quickly she “fell in love with the school” by bringing the school together during “terribly hard times.”

“I don’t want to talk or write about the pandemic without being very respectful of how hard it has been on many people in our community,” she said. “That, as in any family or in any community, it either breaks you apart or it builds you together.”

Matthew said GW Law, which was founded in 1865, was established in the most “divisive” and “fractured” time in history at the end of the Civil War, and in a post-pandemic world, she wants the school to train lawyers who will bridge divides across the country.

“We train the kind of lawyers that bring people together,” she said. “Post-pandemic that’s exactly the kind of lawyer that this country and this world is going to need.”

Jeremy Bearer-Friend, an associate professor of law, said he was teaching a tax policy seminar class the day of the U.S. Capitol riot, which was a “terrifying” experience for him and his students. He said Matthew’s response to the crisis was “exactly the kind of leadership” he needed at the time.

“I was struggling with the right way to handle the unrolling crisis in real time, but then Dean Matthew addressed our community immediately and directly about how we would come together and move forward in our work,” he said in an email.

Jared Gans contributed reporting.

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