Daniel Rodriguez will step down as dean of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law at the end of the academic year after more than six years, the school announced Tuesday.
Rodriguez is among the most prominent law deans in the nation, having served as the president of the Association of American Law Schools in 2014, frequently commenting on legal education matters in the media, and experimenting with new programs at the law school in Chicago.
Rodriguez was involved in Northwestern’s recent decision to start accepting GRE scores in addition to LSAT scores from applicants for the fall 2019 admissions cycle—joining just a handful of other law schools embracing the alternative exam.
He has also proven to be a prolific fundraiser. Northwestern has raised $220 million since 2014, an amount that includes an unprecedented $100 million gift from the Pritzker family, which led to to school’s renaming in 2015. Rodriguez will remain on the law school faculty. He previously served as dean of the University of San Diego School of Law, and taught at the University of Texas School of Law and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
We caught up with Rodriguez to discuss his future plans, the strains of leading a top law school, whether the GRE will usurp the LSAT. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been dean for six years. Why step down now?
On the personal and professional front, I recognize that it has been between 13 and 14 years that I’ve been a dean, total. It’s a long run. For me, it’s a good time to transition back to life as a full-time faculty member while I have the energy, resolve and ideas, I hope, to make contributions in that way. It wasn’t anything sudden. It has been something I’ve been thinking about for at least a year.
What’s the hardest part of being the dean at a top law school n 2017?
I’m not complaining, but the competition, even among the most elite law schools of which we’re one, is ever fierce—for students, for faculty, for attention and reputation. It’s not that I didn’t realize this when I began, but it has been both really hard and intense. I think that’s true if you talk to any dean at a top law school. One the one hand, they will acknowledge the wonderful resources and reputation we have. But on the other hand, it’s an extraordinarily competitive world. You’re basically focused on that every single day.
What innovation are you most proud of at Northwestern?
I really like what we’ve done with our master of science in law program. It’s a variation on a theme we have pursuing with a lot of different programs and initiatives in the area of law, business, and technology. I’m also very proud of the progress we’ve made in bringing down student debt. It was a big agenda item of mine. When I began, our tuition was at the very top. Our student debt burden was crushing. Steadily, over the six years I’ve been here, we’ve very much been conservative and cautious about tuition increases. We’ve put an enormous amount of money in financial aid, including in need-based financial aid. And it has moved the needle in the average student indebtedness.
How much has the average student debt come down?
It has come down by about a third, with every expectation that in the next couple years, it will come down a lot more. I predict and expect that it’s going to be cut in half in the relatively near term, and go down from there. We’re investing in that. It’s a big movement.
Here’s the question every dean in the country wants answered. How do you lock down a $100 million donation?
The work we did to secure the Pritzker naming gift took a long time. It emerged from a number of very important, often difficult conversations with the donor about substance. Anyone who has the kind of resources to make bold, transformative philanthropic gifts has other choices and other priorities.
What I learned from my interaction with J.B. Pritzker and the Pritzker family was two things. No. 1: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We had setbacks. We thought it was close, then we had to go back to the drawing board. It was a long, sustained set of conversations about which you have to remain optimistic and focused. No. 2 is accountability. We needed to be able to say to that donor and other donors who gave us wonderful gifts that we were going to put that money to very good use.
Assuming the American Bar Association doesn’t step in and prevent law schools from using the GRE in admissions, will every school be using it in five years?
I think that nearly everyone will be considering alternative tests. I don’t mean just thinking about doing it, but will be making it available to applicants and saying, “We’ll consider the GRE,” and maybe other tests. Maybe the GMAT. I think the practical hegemony of the LSAT is rapidly becoming eroded, so long as the ABA doesn’t put the kibosh on it. Having said that, I don’t think the LSAT will wither away. I predict that a very large number of schools, perhaps including Northwestern, will not only be considering but will be looking very carefully at students’ LSAT scores, because the LSAT is still a very good predictive test. I don’t think they’ll be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
You have spoken publically over the years about legal education’s woes, and you’ve sometimes taken positions that other deans don’t like, like when you supported the ABA’s proposal to toughen its bar pass standard. Why don’t more law deans take public positions on legal education matters?
I’ve been thinking about that of late, too. I’ve been more willing to take some more controversial stands, though I’m not alone there. Every dean in the country feels a strong, deep responsibility to protect the reputation of their school, while also enhancing the wellbeing of their school. I think by instinct, by temperament, or perhaps by edict of university leadership, deans are wary of taking public positions and advocating in certain ways that might destabilize their place in the hierarchy among law schools and create potential controversies among various stakeholders, which can include their faculty, alumni, and donors. I completely get that. I understand that instinct. But on the other hand, we’re all in this together. The deans have a collective interest in the well being of our profession and the success of legal education. We’re under threat, in various ways. Some of our own making, and some from external threats. If the deans won’t speak out about issues of consequence that matter to the collective wellbeing of legal education, then who’s going to speak out?
What will you do on your yearlong sabbatical after you step down as dean?
I have lots of plans, and much of them surround making more progress on important writing projects. I’m really interested in writing about comparative legal education. We’ve done a lot of things here, globally. A lot of things are going on at other law schools and the sabbatical will give me an opportunity to explore that in more depth. So I hope to be working on that book, and also working on other writing projects and doing what I’ll call professional travel—doing some talks and continuing to be engaged in the kids of issues I’m engaged in as a dean.
Would you consider taking on another law school deanship?
I’m done. I can say with supreme confidence that another law deanship is not in my future. I’ve had my run.
Contact Karen Sloan @firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ