Kent Syverud, the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor; Dean, School of Law; Associate Vice Chancellor for Washington, D.C., Programs

The Law of Progress

By David Bario

When Washington University began searching for a law school dean five years ago, Kent Syverud began to re-establish himself as a full-time teacher. Syverud stepped down as dean of Vanderbilt University’s law school in 2005, and he looked forward to focusing solely on his professorial duties. Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, however, envisioned something entirely different.

Syverud had served with Wrighton on an accreditation panel for another university earlier that year, and the two developed a good rapport. Wrighton says the timing was perfect. “Kent Syverud emerged as the finest leader in legal education in America at the time of our need for a new dean,” Wrighton says. The chancellor urged Syverud to apply for the position, and by summer 2005, Syverud welcomed the possibility. He took office as dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor the following January.

Four years into the job, Syverud and the School exemplify progress. Keeping atop national rankings, the School now features unique programs in Europe and Asia, impressive new faculty hires (15 tenured or tenure-track to date), and a revamped career office. Outside the law school, Syverud ushered a multifaceted partnership with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and developed University-wide academic programs in the nation’s capital.

What convinced Syverud to take the job? “From my knowledge of Mark Wrighton, I was willing at least to talk to them,” Syverud remembers. The more he learned, the more Syverud says he became impressed by the dramatic ascent of the School of Law and of the University as a whole in recent years. He also saw an opportunity to drive real change. “It felt as if I wouldn’t be going to a place where I would be presiding, but rather where I’d be making a difference,” Syverud says.

Syverud came to St. Louis looking for challenges. He found plenty. The School of Law had briefly broken into U.S. News & World Report’s list of the nation’s top 20 programs but fell to 24th before he arrived. Syverud needed to get the School back into the top 20 and keep it there—and to do so in the midst of a historic recession. He quickly built a reputation as a hands-on leader with an ambitious agenda. (Syverud’s wife, Ruth Chen, found challenges at the University as well. A professor of practice in the Department of Energy, Environmental, & Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, Chen also helps lead international exchange programs to enhance the global experience of undergraduate engineering students.)

Colleagues say Syverud, who continues to publish regularly on the topic of legal education, stood out early for his commitment to excellence in teaching. “Dean Syverud brought to this school literally a reverence for teaching, and that reflects in everything from faculty hires and retention to his own teaching,” says David Becker, the Joseph H. Zumbalen Professor Emeritus of the Law of Property. Syverud, who expects to teach negotiation, civil procedure, and insurance law to 250 students during the 2009–10 academic year, admits he is “notorious” for how much he teaches as dean.

He approaches his administrative duties in much the same way. Syverud has overseen a dramatic expansion of international programs. In 2008, for example, a transnational law program launched in which students split their education between Washington University and Utrecht University. This arrangement allows them to stand for licensure in both the United States and Europe. The law school also deepened ties with Asian institutions, such as Shanghai’s Fudan University, and developed an Executive LLM Program in collaboration with Korea University.

At home, the School expanded both clinical education and empirical research—notably through the founding in 2006 of the Center for Empirical Research in the Law. The center is a joint venture with the Department of Political Science in Arts & Sciences, under Professor Andrew Martin.

Syverud led an aggressive transformation of the law school’s career office. The goal is to provide students with a robust resource, especially during the current economic situation when finding a job is an even greater challenge. To that end, faculty and staff devote more time to seeking opportunities for soon-to-be graduates, and Syverud himself spends a day each week building connections on their behalf. “We try to network individual students into positions rather than just emphasize career counseling,” he says.

For Syverud, the recession has meant tough choices. “It’s easy to be a dean in a time of plenty, because it’s easier to say yes to everything and just see what succeeds,” he says. But Syverud stresses the recession hasn’t tempered the School’s commitment to excellence and to expanding its offerings. Instead, it forced a greater focus on programs like clinical education that can give students a tangible advantage in the job market.

As part of his dedication to expanding opportunities for students, Syverud led efforts to establish a greater presence in Washington, D.C., for the law school and the University. In spring 2009, Chancellor Wrighton named Syverud associate vice chancellor for Washington, D.C., Programs, asking him to ensure a sustained commitment to Washington.

“The University allows autonomy for its really first-rate scholars; that’s a great strength of the place,” Syverud says. “Inspiring them to work together, though, sometimes presents a challenge, but it really happens here.”

Last year, Syverud and his team secured a partnership between the University and Washington’s Brookings Institution under which the two institutions jointly fund research, conferences, faculty exchanges, and student fellowships. Separately, Syverud helped with negotiations to have the University’s Olin Business School begin managing Brookings’ Center for Executive Education.

“Kent has the right sensibility in terms of how to create value for students,” says Jackson Nickerson, the business school’s Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy, who directs the new Brookings executive education partnership. “He has been a tireless champion for the entire University,” adds Mahendra Gupta, Olin’s dean.

Finally, Syverud is expanding existing opportunities for law students in the capital and helping to develop year-round academic programs in Washington for the entire University beginning in fall 2010. Syverud, who also credits Pamela Lokken, vice chancellor for government and community relations, and Tomea Mersmann, associate dean of the law school, with leading the D.C. effort, says he hopes to have 100 students placed in government agencies, the White House, and advocacy groups each semester within three years. “We’d like for this to be a bridge for students looking for permanent careers in Washington,” he says.

From the start, Syverud’s career has been punctuated by happy accidents. A scholarship to study economics required him to attend law school, where he discovered his passion for the law. That led to a clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and a coveted position at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. Later, prodding from mentors—and a month as a litigator during which he never saw his two young children awake—convinced Syverud to pursue an academic career.

Syverud never expected to be a lawyer or a law professor, much less to become one of the country’s best-respected law school deans. He nearly left his career as a university leader behind before coming to Washington University. Luckily for the School of Law, Syverud keeps defying his own expectations.

David Bario is a freelance writer based in St. Louis and a former staff reporter for The American Lawyer magazine.