After the announcement was made about my appointment as Acting Chancellor and Dean of UC Hastings, I received numerous email messages from students, staff, alumni and faculty – hundreds, in fact. Most shared a common theme. UC Hastings needs to right its collective ship. Many who wrote cited metrics suggesting that we have been sailing in the wrong direction or, at least, were adrift. From bar exam performance, a particular source of angst, to our national rankings, which have declined as other similarly-situated institutions have improved, the message I received was clear. We have work to do, and things need to change.
I could not agree more. Granted, the legal world has changed around us, both on the front side, with fewer students opting to attend law school, and the back side, with decreasing employment opportunities in traditional law jobs. But these realities cannot be put forth as excuses – after all, every law school confronts them. And, as an institution, we have not been sitting on our hands. Many significant reforms have already been instituted – including downsizing the class and various efforts to improve bar performance. Some of these efforts were implemented recently and, given the inevitable lag between reform and result, the impacts are not yet measurable. Nonetheless, more, much more, is needed.
When I started at UC Hastings 29 years ago this July, we were ranked 19th in the nation by the principal ranking service of the time. In fact, we were perennially listed by all ranking services as a top-20 law school. I joined a faculty populated with such historic scholarly figures as Jerome Hall, Virginia Leary, Bill Lockhart, Stefan Riesenfeld, and Rudi Schlesinger. Our alumni were historic figures too, including such state and national leaders as Clara Foltz, Willie Brown, Jr., and Jackie Speier. Our students were extraordinary, hard-working, and committed to excellence. Included in this group of students were future leaders, such as Kamala Harris and Christopher Stevens. And the staff at UC Hastings, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of the school and logistical assistance and support for students, was dedicated, efficient and friendly.
I look around now and, to my mind, nothing has changed in terms of the quality and commitment of our students, alumni, staff, and faculty. Our current students have all the talent and potential, the creativity and the drive, as any group of students we’ve had over my time at the school. The staff are dedicated and caring professionals who are committed to our students and the success of the enterprise. We have on our faculty scholars that equal, or even excel, some of the great names of the past. Towering figures, such as Rick Marcus, Ugo Mattei, Roger Park, Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Joan C. Williams, as well as so many others, have transformed their areas of the law and are known and respected both nationally and internationally. The quality, the noteworthiness, of our recent alumni is undiminished from that of those who attended decades ago.
But today we are not where we were. So what has changed? Well, the honest answer is a lot. Things have changed at UC Hastings and things have changed around us. It would take a law review article of untold length and an abundance of footnotes – and, admittedly, I am guilty of having written a few – to cover this ground. My opinions and insights are just one view, and I hope to gain from the suggestions and collective wisdom of the larger UC Hastings community as I begin this new job. There are, however, several points worth highlighting.
First, the California bar exam. I led a faculty bar study committee in the late 1990s. We found that UC Hastings’ overall pass rate on the California bar regularly exceeded 80%, and we were usually in the top five in the state. Particularly worthy of note, we found that, over the preceding decade, the top 50% of the class had over a 95% pass rate and, indeed, the top 75% of the class had over a 90% pass rate. We concluded that the graduates having trouble passing the bar were students who had trouble taking exams in general. The solution back then was simple enough. We needed to focus additional efforts on those students who did not excel in exam taking. Of course, taking exams is not what lawyers do for a living. And most, if not all, of these students who found paper and pencil tests challenging (and, back then, they were paper and pencil) could still be, and would be, first-class lawyers. But as a law school, we have an obligation to provide our students with the skills not only to excel as lawyers, but also to succeed in passing the threshold licensing exam so that they can get on with their careers.
On the July, 2015 bar exam, the picture was bleak. Our overall pass rate was just 67.5%, a figure below the State ABA-accredited school average. This statistic is unacceptable. Indeed, shockingly, only about 88% of the top half of the 2015 class passed this minimum competency exam and only 77% of the top 75% of the class passed. These statistics are beyond unacceptable. It means, as an institution, we need to take stock. The solution is not the same as it was back when I chaired the 1990’s bar study committee – we cannot simply focus on the students in the lower quartiles of our classes to help them become better test takers. We must ensure that we are serving all of our students; all of our students must graduate with the solid doctrinal foundation and the writing and test taking skills necessary to pass this all-important exam. This will be my first priority as Acting Chancellor and Dean, and I plan to strive for a consensus among our excellent teaching faculty about what we can, and must, do differently. There is no question in my mind that this situation can change dramatically over the next few years if we are willing to tackle it head-on.
Second, our national rankings. Annually, every dean in the country struggles to improve his or her school’s position in the national rankings, with particular attention to those of U.S. News. I will be no different. This is a complicated matter, but it is one that I believe we can redress effectively. Indeed, as I go around the country, the statement I hear most often from colleagues at other schools is that they “consider UC Hastings to be well above the recent rankings.” And, indeed, we are. In fact, I would like to put us back among the top 20. This will not happen overnight, but it can happen.
I have already taken up too much of your time. But I thought it necessary to convey the seriousness of my purpose to do all in my power to address the current challenges confronting UC Hastings. From great challenges come great opportunities. And I truly believe that we are at a crossroads where those opportunities beckon.
Beyond the basically sound foundation of students, staff, alumni and faculty described above, we continue to move in a variety of new and exciting directions as an institution. First and foremost, our academic program remains highly respected across the country, with a multitude of examples across the campus. These include our extraordinary teaching faculty and their influential scholarship, our nationally recognized clinical programs, the many Centers and the UCSF Consortium that do profoundly important work, our expanding partnerships with UCSF, the far-reaching renown of our moot court competition teams, our scholarly journals, and on and on.
Additionally, and not to be underestimated for its effect on our community, the College’s physical plant will soon be transforming in fundamental and exciting ways. We are in the beginning phase of designing and building a new classroom building at 333 Golden Gate. And we have entered an important partnership with UCSF to construct sorely-needed new student housing on the 198 McAllister site. These projects, and especially 333 Golden Gate, have the potential to transform the identity of the school. Of course, great buildings do not make an institution great; but a great institution should be housed in great buildings. We will make 333 Golden Gate a place in which our students, staff, and faculty are delighted to work and to which our alumni are proud to return.
I have enjoyed a near three decade long career at UC Hastings. I love this institution and am enormously proud to be part of its history. It is truly an honor to have been asked to serve as Acting Dean, and I promise to work hard to be worthy of that honor. By nature, I am a realist, but an optimist as well. However daunting the challenges, we can meet them and conquer them all.
We have much to look forward to in 2016 and beyond. But let me end this New Year’s message with an invitation and, indeed, an entreaty. I do not, by any means, have all the answers. It will take the entire UC Hastings family to make these efforts a success. Only together will we overcome the challenges we face and take full advantage of the opportunities before us. I look to you for your inspiration, and support, and I hope you will reach out to me with your ideas, large and small.
I wish you all a Happy and Successful New Year.
- David Faigman