New kids on the block: Ward Farnsworth

Editor’s note: Ward Farnsworth began June 1 as dean of the University of Texas School of Law. Before he started, Farnsworth served as an associate dean at Boston University School of Law. Farnsworth shared his opinions with The Daily Texan about when a student should (and shouldn’t) go to law school, distributing forgivable loans to faculty members, and law school rankings.

The Daily Texan: You’ve been dean for exactly one week. What have you accomplished and what have you learned so far? Have any of your perceptions of the law school changed?
Ward Farnsworth:
The main thing I’ve accomplished in the first week is having conversations — with two or three dozen members of the law school faculty and staff — in which I’ve learned a great deal about the state of the school. I’ve been impressed from top to bottom with everyone’s commitment to the place and its students. I’m on a steep learning curve right now, and so there are all sorts of things about the culture and life of the place that are obvious to long-timers but new to me. The main thing that strikes me is the sense of pride people who work at the law school feel about the University.

DT: How has UT School of Law fared with the nationwide drop in applicants to law schools? Is there anything you will do in the next year to arrest that trend?
Our school is affected by that trend just like any other. I don’t know that it’s my place to try to arrest that trend — the decline in applications is driven by changes in the economy and the legal job market. Probably fewer students should be going to law school now than were going there ten years ago, so its no surprise that applications are down.

DT: The faculty expressed a lack of confidence in your predecessor. How have your relations started with them?
I don’t know that I would describe the situation in the way that your question did. Dean [Lawrence] Sager accomplished a lot of great things for the school but, in any event, I think everybody is looking forward to moving on from those controversies. My relations with the faculty have been wonderfully welcoming.

DT: Why would you tell an aspiring student to risk the $75,000 in debt that the average public law school student owes upon graduation, given the grim employment picture for lawyers these days?
I wouldn’t necessary advise an aspiring student to do as you say. I’d have to know a lot more for exactly the reasons you state. Going to law school is a big decision. It isn’t for everybody, and I advise people not to go about as often as I advise them to go. I think it’s still a great decision for the right student, but it has to be thought through very carefully. I do think, once a student has made the decision to go to law school, the decision to pick our law school in particular is a much easier case to make.

DT: Gov. Rick Perry and UT President William Powers Jr. have fought over proposed tuition increases. What’s your opinion about the increases that law students face?
I have mixed feelings about it. My view is that law school tuition is already frighteningly expensive around the country, even though our school remains the least expensive, in many respects among schools of its strength. On the other hand, we’re trying to stay competitive with those other schools in our cohort and, unfortunately, staying competitive is expensive.

DT: Will law school faculty members continue to receive loans from the UT Law School Foundation, and who will have oversight regarding the distribution of those loans? Do you agree with the practice of giving law faculty loans and is it fair — why or why not?
That remains to be seen. The Law School Foundation, as I’m sure your readers understand, is an association of alumni who help support the school in its efforts to remain competitive without burdening the taxpayer or the tuition-paying student. These alumni are wonderfully loyal and important to the school. The exact form that their support takes is something we’ll be looking at, and any such support will be processed carefully in the future to make sure that no questions are raised in anyone’s mind.

DT: But do you agree with the practice? Is it fair to give law school faculty loans?
Fair to whom?

DT: When the broader UT community learned about the practice, discussion tended towards the unfairness of the size of the loans and the manner in which they were distributed.
It may be that we don’t use the exact forgivable loan format for supporting faculty in the future. We’ll be looking at that. The forgivable loans are a way to encourage the retention of faculty by making a loan to them and then forgiving it over a period of years and thus giving them a strong reason to stay around at the school during the period of the loan — that was the idea behind it. In terms of fairness, the most important things to understand about these loans is that they were not made at the expense of the students. They were made, in effect, by the association of our alumni who, as I mentioned before, are seeking to help us retain first-rate faculty without burdening the students. There are questions about fairness raised in terms of how decisions were made about which faculty received the loans and those concerns have been examined closely by a committee at the law school over the last six months, and I’ll be looking at them hard myself.

DT: Is that something you plan to do early on?
Yes, I’ve already started thinking about it, and it will be a topic for examination and discussion for all of us in the near future.

DT: How will you recruit top faculty?
One of my primary goals is to make sure that the law school is the kind of community where faculty want to teach and students want to learn, so that recruitment isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents but is a matter of showing off the great advantages of being here. I think the law school has historically enjoyed a reputation as a place with great collegiality, and a very high quality of life for its students, and I want to build on that.

DT: How important are rankings and how important is it to make UT among the top 14 on the U.S. News & World Report’s roster?
It’s very important for this school not to chase rankings of those kinds at the expense of its mission. That’s a great temptation in this business because, unfortunately, many prospective students rely heavily on those rankings without understanding how arbitrary they can be and how subject to gaming they often are. Obviously, I would like to see our rankings go up just as much as anybody. But, our top priority is to provide the best-value legal education in the country.

DT: That question came from two former members of the editorial board who are law school bound.
I don’t blame them for asking.

DT: They were fixated on rankings. It was amazing to watch their lives be overtaken by conversations of rankings.
I know, it’s very troubling, and I don’t know what to do about it … What everybody will say is “Well, I don’t believe in rankings, but everybody else does, so I have no choice but to be obsessed with them,” and I really don’t think that a move by the law school a few runs in either direction has anything to do with actual changes in the quality of the place, or in terms of what the students receive while they’re here, or their prospects for employment once they leave.

DT: The former editorial board members were so overwhelmed by the amount of money they will owe after graduation, and what they will be required to do in order to be able to afford to pay that amount. They relied on rankings because they felt they couldn’t afford not to.
Law school has gotten so expensive and the job market so difficult that every applicant is under a lot of economic pressure to make the most of their decision, and they worry more about money than they used to on both ends of the proposition, both in the cost of going and what they’re going to get when they get out, and who can blame them?