Editor’s note: Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law since June 1, 2012, has faced challenges from his first day on the job in Austin. Farnsworth’s predecessor, Larry Sager, resigned in December 2011 amid controversy over a forgivable loan program to attract and retain faculty members. During Farnsworth’s first year at the law school, the long-running policy and personal battles among the UT System board of regents, the UT president and previous law school dean, William Powers Jr., Gov. Rick Perry and various state lawmakers have dominated headlines about the school.
Farnsworth met with Texas Lawyer reporter Miriam Rozen in his campus office on April 12, the day after the UT System Board of Regents asked to have the Texas Attorney General review, for a second time, the now-defunct forgivable faculty loan program. In emailed responses to her questions after that meeting, Farnsworth expressed a strong will to steer the law school in new directions by making the faculty compensation system transparent and maintaining a focus on graduates getting jobs. Texas Lawyer’s question’s and Farnsworth’s answers are below, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: As you approach the one-year anniversary of your May 2012 acceptance of the deanship, what strikes you as the high and low moments of your tenure?
Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law, Austin: The high points are whenever I hear from students who have landed great jobs. The low points are when I hear from students who haven’t. Fortunately, the high points are a lot more common than the low ones.
TL: In your move from a private (Boston University) to a public university (UT), what have you come to regard as the most important difference between the two?
Farnsworth: Being public gives UT a different meaning to the state than a private school can have. The pride and ambition of our alumni for the school are often wrapped up with their ambitions for Texas. I love that. Being public also means we have to be transparent in ways that private schools don’t. There’s a fishbowl effect. It’s sometimes inconvenient, but it goes with the territory.
TL: Was moving to Texas from the Northeast a more dramatic change than moving from a private to public institution? . . .
Farnsworth: It’s been fun. Texas must be the most welcoming place on earth to newcomers. The 60-degree weather during the winter was an adjustment, but I got used to it all right.
TL: What have you learned of value from UT law school students? From alum?
Farnsworth: One thing both say is that they expect this school to produce lawyers who will serve the public interest. That’s great to hear, especially at a time when there’s so much economic pressure to chase whatever jobs pay the most. Part of my job is to ensure that our students can afford to make choices like those that are good for them and good for the state.
TL: The University of Texas System Board Regents voted on April 11 to have the Texas Attorney General conduct an investigation of the relationship between your school and the UT Law School Foundation. [This subject was] already reviewed when in Nov. 2012 Barry Burgdorf, then UT System’s general counsel, released a report about your [predecessor], former Dean Larry Sager’s handling of a forgivable loan program for faculty members, which the foundation funded, that criticized Sager’s role and the program’s lack of transparency. What new do you expect the AG’s office to report?
Farnsworth: I have no particular expectations. The issues they want to investigate, at least so far as I can tell, mostly involve responsibility for decisions that were made years ago and have long since been changed or corrected. It’s fine with me if the regents or others want to go over all that again, but my own interest is in moving forward. I know that’s what our students and alumni want me to focus on.
TL: Do you believe the proposed additional review by the Texas AG represents a requirement or a redundancy?
Farnsworth:I don’t know, because the basis for the new round of review has not been disclosed. But as far as I’m concerned, anyone is welcome to investigate the law school and the Foundation all they want. I’m proud of what we do here. If we’ve made any mistakes, we’re happy to be corrected.
TL: Has Sager’s accelerated resignation —after those forgivable loans were disclosed and criticism about his role ensued — colored your first year on the job?
Farnsworth: The acceleration itself wasn’t much of an issue, but the reasons for it have kept me busy. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with our faculty about that and working on procedures to address issues that caused the controversy. We’ve had lots more faculty meetings than before. They’re a little dull, but that’s OK. We’ve had enough excitement around here recently to last us a while.
TL: What changes have you made to the compensation system for faculty at the law school, including the flow of funds from the foundation? . . .
Farnsworth: The most important thing is this: Any money from the Law School Foundation to help us recruit faculty will flow to the university and then to the faculty member. It will never be paid to the faculty member directly from the foundation. That was the feature of the forgivable loans that everyone has found most bothersome, because payments directly from the foundation weren’t transparent. Other schools don’t care about that sort of thing, but most of them are private and don’t have the transparency requirements that we do. We also have stopped the forgivable loans, however funded. And for now, anyway, we’re not using money from the foundation in any form to pay current faculty to stay here. As for faculty recruited from elsewhere, we’re working out other ways to accomplish some of the same things that forgivable loans did, but transparently. For example, some of our very loyal alumni have made contributions for the express purpose of enabling us to recruit great faculty members. Those gifts will allow us to offer money up front to a job candidate as a relocation allowance. But that money would be paid through their UT paychecks like anything else they get from us, and the amounts will be more modest and determined in a more formulaic way than they used to be.
TL: When in May 2012, one week before you started as dean, Texas Lawyer asked you about ways you wanted to improve the school. [You] wrote that you wanted to make it "an even better deal by serving our students with more energy every day, keeping our costs under control, and increasing financial aid where necessary." What steps have you taken in the past year to accomplish those goals?
Farnsworth: I’ve shrunk our payroll a bit. I did not ask for a tuition increase, and there will be no increase this fall — a UT decision that pleases me and thrills our students. That’s my priority: working relentlessly for our students, and keeping everyone in the building focused on that mission and not on distractions. I’ve met in small groups with all of our 1Ls and many of the 2Ls and 3Ls and have come away from those talks with many ideas for helping them better. They aren’t ideas for discussion in a magazine. They’re details about how we can offer better help in the job hunt or a better experience in the classroom. But the details add up.
TL: How many faculty members have left and joined since you started and do any of those departures or hires reflect new directions you intend to take the law school?
Farnsworth: When I got here last summer, two faculty members had already decided, more or less formally, to leave the school. One of them is gone, and the other will depart next month. Other than that, no research faculty have left since I arrived, and none have been hired, though we did add one clinician and lose another. We’re being careful with our hiring because times are tight.
TL: At the time of your predecessor’s departure, faculty members expressed concerns about gender inequities in the faculty pay scale. Have you found substantiation for those concerns and, if yes, what have you done to address them?
Farnsworth: I’ve had long conversations with many faculty members about that issue, and our budget committee has looked hard at it. There’s a lot of room for disagreement. Some see inequities, some don’t — men and women both. I understand the different views and have a limited ability to do much about them. What I can say is that I’m committed to making decisions in a fair and principled way going forward, with plenty of input from others.
TL: All law schools have had graduates in recent years face shrinking markets for lawyers, what have you done in the past year at UT to address those questions for students?
Farnsworth: I’m on the road every week, not just as fundraiser-in-chief but as job-raiser-in-chief. Whenever I meet with alumni, I ask them to help our students all they can in the job market and to advise me about how we can prepare our graduates to make them more attractive hires. We also have a career-services office that I consider the hardest-working shop in the business, and 17 wonderful clinics that serve the community and provide a bridge to practice for our students.
TL: What would you like to be true about the law school in five years that isn’t true now?
Farnsworth: I’d like to see our students graduating with more business literacy than they have now. I’d like to see a faculty fully at peace. (I know — fat chance!) Above all: more jobs, and fewer questions about the past.