The Maestro

UF Law Dean Robert Jerry is stepping down after 11 years. He has orchestrated more than you might realize.

Teaching students the law is one thing, publishing scholarship is another, keeping the facilities up (including building new ones on occasion), making sure services run smoothly and raising money to support each of the above. All are responsibilities of law school deans. They lead faculty, staff, students and alumni in pursuit of the college’s collective goals. In other words, they get everyone to act in harmony. You could compare it to an orchestra performing a symphony; or, if you happen to be UF Law Dean Robert Jerry, a rock band belting out a guitar anthem.

Jerry announced Aug. 9 that 2014 would be his last year as dean of UF Law. He has served in the position since 2003, and when he steps down and remains a member of the faculty, he will have tied for the second-longest serving college dean among 15 deans in 105 years of college history.

During his tenure, Jerry reduced the number of students at the law school in response to changing conditions in the legal profession. This allowed UF Law to concentrate its resources before many other law schools were forced into the same policy. He oversaw millions of dollars in renovations and reconstruction, including the Martin H. Levin Advocacy Center. Five permanent lecture series were created and annual giving increased as the endowment remained in the top 10 among public law schools. He led a revamping of the college’s admissions and career services.

Jerry responded to a tough labor market by creating a post-graduate fellowship program, supported expansion of the pregraduate summer externship program, and initiated a program to assist students seeking judicial clerkships. This enabled UF Law to rank 26th in the nation last year in the number of graduates obtaining federal judicial clerkships.

How did the UF Law dean realize his long list of accomplishments? Well, he works long hours, of course. On the day of an interview for this story, his new phone racked up 1,700 emails because he had been unable to answer his usual 120 per day. Normally, he said, only a few hundred are outstanding.

What a law dean does

A typical day consists of “strategy meetings – some of the days I’m traveling, on the road meeting alums, and working with our development team. There are new things that come up every day.

“I like to listen to different ideas, because no chief executive of any organization has all the ideas,” Jerry added. “I mean, I get talked out of things I dream up all the time and that’s good.”

He continues to maintain close touch with scholarship and teaching, including his own. In the fall semester, Jerry published a journal article about social media with UF Law Professor Lyrissa Lidsky.

Sharon Rush, associate dean for faculty development, noted Jerry’s interest in the particulars of faculty work. She said he is quick to ask how he can help faculty do their jobs better.

“He has provided tremendous support for the faculty to go off and do research,” Rush said. “He is very creative at coming up with ways to help you do what you need to do.”

University of Tennessee Law Dean Doug Blaze explains the responsibilities of the boss of a law school like this: “You’ve got to keep everybody happy, herd cats, deal with the central administration bureaucracy and raise money and somehow make it all seem effortless. And Bob makes it all seem effortless.”

Not only must Jerry get disparate parties to work in harmony, he also looks to the future. Jerry has noted the sea change coming in legal practice. In response, he is raising the profile of e-discovery education and stresses preparation for the technological and organizational upheaval in legal practice.

“The risk of institutions not adapting to change is very real. If you don’t think about where things are going to be in five, 10, 15 or 20 years from now you’re just not going to be ready to compete in the future,” Jerry said.

As he saw the demand for lawyers shrinking along with state support for higher education, Jerry moved to reduce the law school’s student body, concentrating the same resources over a smaller group of students.

“When the opportunity presents itself, you have to recognize it and grab it,” Jerry said. “The (university) president was looking for things that colleges on this campus could do that would be significant and transformative in responding to the financial stresses that were just emerging.”

The move proved prescient as others have followed in UF Law’s footsteps.

“That took a lot of courage because that was a significant decline in tuition revenue. He just made a hard call and did the right thing,” Blaze said. “A lot of law schools have followed suit. We’ve downsized. I think it was the only way to do it.

It’s only rock ’n’ roll

dean jerry leaving ben hill griffin stadium

But enough about administrative maneuvers. Let’s go back to music.

Jerry plays Roland D-50 and Roland Fantom keyboards for the ’60s and ’70s cover band named “in crisis,” which, in addition to Jerry, includes six fellow University of Florida professors and administrators.

For the third year in a row his band was the warm-up act for headliners at Gator Growl, the Homecoming show in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where they played songs like “Rock and Roll All Nite” for a crowd of about 30,000.

This most musical of law deans also holds an annual music night for faculty, students and staff at his and wife Lisa Jerry’s home. Guests are admitted to these fetes for the price of a song in which faculty form kazoo lines, students strum a guitar or play the piano.

Musicality runs in his family. Jerry took piano lessons for seven years growing up in Terre Haute, Ind., where his parents were professors at Indiana State. As a high school senior, Jerry and his partner won the Indiana state debating tournament and made it to the national high school tournament. The word “jovial” comes to mind for those who know the dean, but Lisa Jerry also notes the highflier within.

“He’s a competitive achiever and he likes to do things well. He was a high school and college debater, and he likes to win debates,” Lisa said. “He wants to do a good job and to make a place better because he’s been there.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan and practicing law in Indianapolis, Jerry entered academia and became dean of the University of Kansas at 35, a job he held for five years. Looking back from age 60, he figures he got some bad advice to begin with. Get to know the dean’s office during the summer before classes start, he heard at the University of Kansas. But Jerry found out that the thing to do is get to know the people, especially alumni.

Jim Theriac (JD 74) tells the story of the day he and son Jet came to the law campus to look around as Jet was deciding where to apply for law school. There was a man sitting in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard.

“He had a box full of bagels; he was sitting at a table outside there in the courtyard,” Theriac remembers. Dean Jerry introduced himself. After an hour, father and son were sold on UF Law, Theriac said. Jet Theriac graduated in 2008 and now helps run a hedge fund in San Francisco. As for his father, Jim gave $100,000 to the law school and now serves on the Law Center Association board.

Just one example of how Jerry seems to have done a good job of getting to know alumni at UF Law. At the first Law Center Association board meeting after announcing his resignation, Jerry received a standing ovation from the assembled trustees.

Lisa Jerry surely would have received one had she been there. She works part-time as a book editor and at least part-time putting together entertainment for members of the law school community. For Lisa, the entertainment means “getting to know the people, the players, whether it’s his staff or alums. We had a student event last night, and I think it’s always nice to see the students. After all, the students are the core of the college.”

Oscar Sanchez (JD 82) is vice chairman of Law Center Association board, and his daughter is a UF Law 1L. He notes that all of this socializing helps to build something more important.

“Attending law school is difficult,” Sanchez said. “He’s made it so it’s a much more welcoming place by being part of the larger community and part of the law school family.”

The law school, Jerry says, is not only about teaching law. It’s also about building future leaders.

“Getting students to understand what is expected of being a Gator lawyer. I think that is very powerful. We have just great alumni to model that,” he said.

In fact, the last four presidents of The Florida Bar were Gator lawyers, and five presidents of the American Bar Association since 1973 were UF Law graduates. Jerry talks of the “holes in the room” at fundraisers, in little league parents meetings, inside religious organizations and all kinds of community groups and service organizations without UF Law alumni.

“It’s not just being famous as a governor or bar leader. It’s making a difference in communities,” Jerry said.

Down on the farm

MillCreekFarm_Cara_Fraser_09

On a windswept field in rural Alachua County, a horse stamps a hoof as a law student tries to grab it for cleaning. A group of nine students, first through third years, are grooming and checking horses at Mill Creek Farm for Retired Horses. Dean Jerry is on a fundraising trip in San Francisco this particular fall weekend, but the horse farm is a place where that community spirit he talks about is under construction.

The volunteers are an outgrowth of a program that Jerry started. During their first week of law school, 1Ls spend a day performing community services aiding clients of Habitat for Humanity, helping abused children and working with the humane society shelter.

“When students spend three hours together painting a Habitat for Humanity house, they get to know each other very well, very quickly,” Jerry observed. “It creates friendships and bonding and helps create a sense of community within the college.”

Cara Fraser (3L) and others have expanded the 1L community service day to encompass all the law classes and to continue the community service throughout the school year.

“Community service is something that’s important to Dean Jerry,” Fraser said. “Hopefully, this continues 20, 30 years.”

Finding a new leader of UF Law.

The search firm Korn/Ferry International has been employed and a search committee formed to recommend a new dean. The search committee is composed of UF Law faculty and staff and chaired by University of Florida College of Education Dean Glenn E. Good. The search committee makes a recommendation to University of Florida Provost Joseph Glover who, with UF President Bernie Machen, will choose the new UF Law dean. A decision is expected before the end of the spring semester.