Janet Levit: The Mover
This piece is the third in a series by David A. Shapiro, ’12, examining four new candidates for the Brooklyn Law School deanship. In this article, Dave breaks down Dean Janet Levit’s question and answer session with students, held on Tuesday, January 17. For background on the dean search process, read Dave’s previous article here. Read Dave’s articles on Larry Solan and Russell Osgood here and here.
“We started by investing in the quality of our student body,” Dean Janet Levit said, with a slight southern twang. She was discussing her efforts to boost the University of Tulsa College of Law from a Tier 4 school into something stronger. After her five-year deanship, the school now holds the #110 spot in the infamous U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. “About a decade ago…our median was a 149 on the LSAT…[and from that, we] moved dramatically each year,” Levit continued. The median LSAT at Tulsa is now 155.
Levit clearly knows what it takes to get law schools a rankings boost. At Tulsa, she sought to improve each of the three major areas factored into the rankings: quality of student body, the national and local reputation of faculty and graduates, and the “output” side of things—job attainment and performance on the bar exam.
Levit engaged in a deliberate strategy of turning Tulsa Law into a smaller school. “When I came in, we were at 500 students. This year, we are at 320 students.”
“We chose student quality over tuition dollars,” she continued.
Dean Levit began what she called the “T-Law First Initiative.” She meets with local law firms and talks about the challenges, and opportunities, of the firm. She asks them “to hire our students before others.” She also “had a briefing on every student who [was] not employed in the class of 2011.” She was “making phone calls and doing what it takes—we are mining our networks [for those students].”
However, Levit was quick to note that Tulsa is the only law school in its market. And U.S. News reveals that only 59% of 2009 graduates were reported to be employed at graduation. By comparison, Brooklyn’s number is a similar 63.3%–but in a market that competes with countless other schools.
And that seems to be Levit’s biggest weakness. Brooklyn is more than three times the size of Tulsa and is in a considerably larger market. Dean Levit would be making a jump from leading a school in an insulated environment to a school in the nation’s largest metropolis, with higher credentialed students. And Levit is well aware of that. She says she wants to lead BLS because of the challenge that would be involved. “I’m not interested in being a caretaker—I’m interested in upward trajectory,” she stated.
She probably would have preferred a judgeship as part of her own upward trajectory. Last year, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) blocked her nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Still, Dean Levit is the only candidate so far to answer Stuart Linder’s question regarding whether she, as the potential next Dean, could help obtain jobs for 3Ls. Her desire to get to know each unemployed student ought to be embraced. She spoke about freezing tuition and reducing class size (though she did not speak, as past candidates have, about the LLM program). Similar to Dean candidate Russell Osgood last week, Levit suggested that BLS ought to look into “forging an identity that is saleable as a magnet to students with particular interests or that have particular philosophies.” She confirmed that the lack of a mission statement was a problem. She called the academic profile of our student body “really, really strong.”
“To me, it’s not just about marketing,” she said. “You have 12 law schools in the immediate area who all sort of generically look a whole lot alike. There is nothing BLS has done to distinguish itself.”
“At Tulsa,” she continued, “we pushed full-throttle” on a couple areas of law where our students are going to practice—Native American law and energy companies. “We’ve raised a lot of scholarships focused on those substantive areas.”
Joel Gaffney, ’12, once again asked about the role of students in the actual decision making process of the administration. Levit responded positively. She called students “integral,” noting their placement on almost all of the governance committees at Tulsa.
Unlike Osgood, who affirmed, unblinking, that he would teach regardless of his position, Dean Levit was more hesitant. Expressing her desire to teach, she noted the “steep learning curve” she would face as dean of the law school as the reason why she might not jump into teaching right away.
As to her personality, she remarked that “one of my strengths is being a real strategic thinker. I am also very able to have my hands on the details. I can see the forest and the trees and work between them and balance them. I believe that my style has been collaborative.”
Levit sounded weaker on public service. When asked by Rachel Seelig, ’12, what she had done for public interest students at Tulsa, Levit commendably responded that she had donated her own money to fund summer scholarships for students. But she emphasized having a day of public service volunteering and pro bono work as ways to “give back.” Despite Brooklyn’s strong public interest program and its focus on long-term public interest careers, Levit seemed to treat public interest as more than a curiosity but less than a serious career prospect.