Exploring the Responsibilities of a Law School DeanDecember 02, 2011
Author: Matthew J. Clark
"If any Dean was behind his desk all the time he wouldn't be doing his job in the 21st century."
I had the privilege of working as a summer research assistant for Mathew Staver, Dean of Liberty University School of Law, and had the opportunity to observe him in his role as dean. I also interviewed him about what his job entails. A dean’s duties can be broken down into some general categories: overseeing the law school’s internal affairs, marketing the law school, casting the law school’s vision, and executing its mission.
In overseeing the internal affairs of a law school, a law school dean has broader responsibilities than deans of other schools in a university: a school of business or a school of religion, for example. Dean Staver said, “A law school is more like a university within a university, rather than a division of a university. Therefore, a law school dean’s obligation is greater than in other colleges because of its unique nature.” Liberty University School of Law has its own departments of admissions, financial aid, student affairs, registrar, development, and library, as well as a separate accreditation agency, although it works with the University in all of these areas.
I asked the dean how important it is to have confidence in the people who work for him. “It’s exceptionally important,” he replied. “I meet with members of the staff and faculty frequently to make sure that I’m informed, that they’re informed, and that they have the resources to do what they need to do. This is truly a team effort, and it requires a lot of dedicated people.” In addition, the dean relies on the faculty and staff to advise him in making big decisions. “I’m the kind of dean who likes a lot of input,” Dean Staver said. “I seek out counsel from as many godly advisors as possible in order to help me make the right decision.” The dean is heavily involved in hiring faculty and staff. He also appoints every faculty committee and personally reviews every application for admission to the law school.
The dean of a law school is also charged with overseeing the facilities. Dean Staver was personally instrumental in designing the law school’s ceremonial courtroom, the “Supreme Courtroom,” the central features of which replicate the U.S. Supreme Courtroom. The law school has also been a leader in Liberty University’s technological innovations. It was the first college at Liberty to have complete wireless access and cameras in the classrooms. From the start, the University gave the law school significant freedom to innovate, and Dean Staver has helped to keep it on the cutting edge.
A law school dean is also responsible for external affairs. He is the primary law school official responsible for marketing. Because a law school is more independent than other schools within a university, it needs to raise much of its own funds. The dean is responsible for making sure that the school gets the funds it needs to operate. Consequently, the dean travels often. He flies to meet current donors to make sure that they are involved and he looks for new donors. “If any dean was behind his desk all the time,” said Dean Staver, “he wouldn’t be doing his job in the twenty-first century.” A dean is also responsible for marketing to new groups. Many people still do not know about Liberty University School of Law because it is so young. For Dean Staver, marketing the school to these people is one of his favorite parts of the job. “I love marketing the vision and sharing our successes,” Dean Staver says. Many individuals have become involved with the law school because Dean Staver spoke with them. Scores of national leaders representing over 40 million people have visited the law school in the past two years due in large part to the dean’s marketing efforts.
A law school dean is also in charge of casting the school’s vision and executing its mission. “A dean can ensure that a law school has what it takes to run, but that is worthless if the school doesn’t know where to run,” Dean Staver noted. Every law school has a mission. For Liberty University School of Law, that means “equip[ping] future leaders in law with a superior legal education in fidelity to the Christian faith expressed through the Holy Scriptures.”1 Dean Staver is committed to this mission and has proved it with his actions.
Prior to coming to Liberty, Dean Staver ran a statewide law firm with offices in Orlando and Talahasee, Florida, which represented Wal-Mart, K-Mart, the Orlando Magic, the largest nonprofit hospital in Orlando, and many other well-known state and national clients. He founded Liberty Counsel at the same time and, although his private practice was very successful, he shut down his firm in 1999 to focus completely on Liberty Counsel and its mission. “There was no hope, humanly speaking, that we would have the money to succeed, but we trusted God to provide,” Dean Staver said. Through his experiences with Liberty Counsel, he realized that Christian lawyers could win if they “showed up” and presented principled arguments, but he believed that more people were needed to show up in the courtroom. That got him thinking about a Christian law school. “I knew what other law schools were doing to the next generation by deconstructing law,” he said. He had also met Dr. Jerry Falwell, Founder and Chancellor of Liberty University, who had the same vision.
From the mid-1990s on, Dean Staver and Dr. Falwell talked many times about starting a law school. When the law school was authorized by the Liberty University Board of Trustees in October 2002, Dr. Falwell asked Dean Staver to be the dean, but Dean Staver did not think that the timing was right, as Liberty Counsel had only been independent of his former law firm for two years and he needed to make sure that the right people were in place to carry on the work. The Board of Trustees appointed Dean Staver to chair the law school Steering Committee to oversee the development of the law school. Dean Staver recommended the inaugural dean, Bruce Green, who would resign in the spring of 2006 to be closer to his children. Dean Staver accepted the job in 2006 after ensuring that it would be best for both Liberty Counsel and the law school. He did not want either to suffer or to stay at the status quo, but wanted both to excel. “Although I knew I wanted to be involved in a law school, I never envisioned myself as dean, but God did things beyond what I could have envisioned, and still does today,” Dean Staver said. He made a promise to Dr. Falwell to protect the mission of the law school, and has remained committed to that promise through his role as dean.
Just as the heart is vital to the functioning of the body, so a dean is vital to the functioning of a law school. It cannot thrive without the indispensable roles that the dean plays.
1 Our Mission, LIBERTY U. SCHOOL OF LAW, http://law.liberty.edu/index.cfm?PID=3813 (last visited Sept. 9, 2011).