Pepperdine University School of Law has chosen its next dean, and the name will sound familiar to anyone who keeps up with the legal blogosphere.
Paul Caron, founder of the popular TaxProf Blog and the Law Professor Blog, will take the reins of the Malibu law school on June 1. Caron has been on the Pepperdine faculty since 2013 and currently serves as the associate dean for research and faculty development. The tax law expert taught at the University of Cincinnati College of Law for 23 years before moving to Pepperdine.
Caron replaces former dean and Judge Deanell Tacha of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, who retired at the end of 2016.
We caught up with Caron to discuss his goals for the law school, Pepperdine’s recent dip in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and what will become of his blog. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
I think many of your avid blog readers, myself included, want to know if you are going to keep up TaxProf Blog, which offers extensive coverage not just of tax law issues, but of legal education.
Yes, I am, but not in its current form. As dean, I’ll have a whole lot of other responsibilities. I don’t become dean until June 1, so I’m hoping over the coming weeks I’ll attract some tax professors and general law professors to join the blog. If you read the Volokh Conspiracy, they have a bunch of people who contribute to it. That’s the kind of model I’m hopefully going to be able to do, where I won’t have the kind of daily responsibility I’ve had, but will continue on in an editor-in-chief role and will post occasionally.
That’s one of the things I ran on as dean, just explaining how in today’s world, TaxProf generates an enormous amount of traffic from the kinds of people law schools like to try to influence. I think it can be a part of my role as dean to publish some of the interesting things we’re doing here.
Do you think maintaining the blog has given you a better handle on the big-picture issues in legal education right now?
I would hope so! That was part of my pitch, if you will. I think I’m very well positioned to understand where legal education is headed. I also think people look to me, nationally, in that way. I think it will be helpful on both fronts.
I’m hoping to be very active in dean circles and be able to represent Pepperdine well in those forums. I don’t have the same kind of learning curve as other new deans would have—certainly other nontraditional deans who haven’t been in academia. I really think the blog has positioned me well to hit the ground running.
Your two predecessors were unconventional dean choices in that they weren’t academics. Kenneth Starr came from the government, and Deanell Tacha from the federal bench. Do you think the search committee wanted a more traditional choice from within the academy this time around?
I would rebel against the notion that I’m a traditional sort of person, only because I think through the blog I have a platform that’s not the typical scholar thing.
I’ve been in this business quite awhile at a couple of institutions. I think law schools go through cycles where they’ll hire an external dean, then they’ll hire an internal dean, then they’ll go back to an external dean. After 12 years of external deans who were not academics, I think that undoubtedly played a role in some people’s minds.
I made the case that I was the best of both worlds: I’ve spent the bulk of my career at another law school, but I’ve been here long enough to know the lay of the land.
U.S. News rankings will come out next week, and I know you understand the ranking better than almost anyone in the legal academy. Pepperdine dropped 13 spots last year. What do you think will happen this year, and do the rankings even matter?
Wow, how much time do you have? There’s sort of two generic answers people always give, and both are true. The first is that it’s demonstrably a flawed ranking and does not accurately measure performance of schools and all of that. I’ve written about that; others have written about that. Of course the reality is that it does have an outsize influence on perspective students and other constituencies. That’s the world we live in.
Having said all that, I’ve not spent any time reverse-engineering where I think Pepperdine might land. The university here announced last spring its renewed commitment to the law school to help it thrive in this very challenging legal education marketplace. We are going to begin the process of shrinking the size of the J.D. program, which most schools have already done. I think that was a factor in the decline last year.
Tell me about you goals for the law school.
I campaigned on the point of improving our students’ return on investment. I think that has to be our No. 1 goal. As you pointed out, we fell a bit last year on our bar passage and employment rates. Pepperdine University’s motto is “Strengthening lives for purpose, service, and leadership.” At the law school level, that has to mean we prepare these students to pass the bar and have gainful professional employment. There’s all kinds of things that flow off of that, but that has to be the bottom line. Those are the things U.S. News takes into account. So doing what’s right for our students matches what’s helpful for U.S. News.
Fellow legal blogger Brian Leiter dubbed you the Blog Emperor. How do you feel about that nickname?
I would have preferred a different word than “emperor,” but I appreciate Brian Leiter’s sentiments that I was a leader in the whole blog movement. To that extent, I’m sort of proud of it. I think it shows that I’m an innovative kind of person and can foresee trends and jump on them. I started TaxProf as a one-man operation a dozen years ago. Because that worked so well, I thought it would work in other areas of the law. I assembled about 100 other law professors to blog in our network. I’m proud of that, and I think the decision-makers here looked at that as a good attribute: That I’m able to surround myself with people to achieve a common goal like that.