Paul Schiff Berman has been at the helm of the George Washington University Law School only since July 2011, but his willingness to experiment caught the eye of university leaders. Provost Steven Lerman announced on November 12 that Berman would leave the deanship at the start of 2013 to assume the newly created position of vice provost for online education and academic innovation. In that role, Berman will spearhead the university’s “efforts to realize the great promise of online and hybrid education,” Lerman said in announcing the move.
Berman came to George Washington after three years as dean at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The National Law Journal spoke with him about his new job and his leadership of the law school. His answers have been edited for length.
NLJ: It’s a little ironic that a law school dean will head an online education and academic innovation effort, given that law schools aren’t exactly known to embrace technology or change. How did you end up in this position?
Berman: I am very interested in thinking about the future of legal education and education more generally. I believe that there is a tremendous amount that is good and strong at the core of the educational structure, but I also think there is a lot that needs to change to make our education models work in the 21st century. Legal academia is what I know, and so I have worked in both of my deanships to find places to innovate and try to transform some of the models for legal education. Increasingly, it is clear that innovation is necessary on a university level, and it is equally clear that — while I don’t think online will replace in-person universities — our university can’t avoid thinking about how to put educational models online.
NLJ: What do you think you did at the law school level that indicated to the university’s higher-ups that you are the right man for this job?
Berman: In general, I demonstrated the ability to move ideas forward more quickly than is typical in the academy. Specifically, we created a degree program with the business school on the law and business of government contracting, which was designed as a business master’s degree where executives would get half business content and half government contracts content. In the intellectual property arena, the law faculty has voted to create a master’s degree for non-lawyers who want to learn about law but don’t need the three years of a law degree.
My willingness to think about how legal education can reach people beyond those who plan to be lawyers made it clear that I was interested in expanding the scope of education, generally, to populations that have historically not been included in the educational model.
NLJ: Innovation is a bit of a buzzword. What will you actually be doing in your new job?
Berman: It’s a little premature for me to say, precisely, what programs we’re going to launch. This is the beginning of a process. Having said that, I think that the opportunities are wide open. There are a number of different types of online education models that are interesting. I think that one of [George Washington's] great strengths is the fact that it is a great convening entity for thought leadership and policy discussions. It’s in D.C., so we have access to policymakers. I think that can be extended online to create more of a forum, in real time, for national and global public policy, think tank-type discussions that don’t require everyone to come to D.C. Can we expand the model of the academic conference so it has an even broader scope and scale? That’s one thing I’d love to explore.
NLJ: Eighteen months is a relatively short tenure as dean. What stamp do you think you will leave on the law school?
Berman: We put a lot in motion. From a programmatic point of view, we expanded our professional development training program for all first-year students. We created a one-on-one mentoring program, where every student gets assigned to an alumnus in practice. We launched the two programs for non-lawyers, which I mentioned earlier. I think we expanded the energy put into our alumni and development, and we recalibrated the law school’s economic model to respond to the changing economics of law school and changing applicant pools, and so forth. I feel as if the law school is on quite a strong trajectory.