Interim dean taking the reins

Veteran professor,administrator George Dawson named UF Law interim dean

A picture of George Dawson in his third-floor Holland Hall office shows him atop a camel in the shadow of the Great Wall of China.

Perhaps not astride a camel, but Dawson had expected this summer to be riding off into the sunset with wife Sally after 33 years as a professor and administrator at UF Law. Instead, on July 16, his 70th birthday, Dawson takes the reins of another sort of beast as he begins service as interim dean of the Levin College of Law.

Dean Robert Jerry is stepping down this summer after 11 years on the job, and Dawson was a member of the search committee looking for Jerry’s successor. University of Florida President Bernie Machen called off the search, feeling the right candidate for the job was not among the finalists. After consulting with the College of Law faculty, Machen subsequently appointed Dawson as interim dean.

“Being the interim dean, even when I had not expected to be here, was something that I thought was important to do and I guess I was pretty honored to be asked,” he said during a discussion in his office.

Dawson pointed to his agenda for the next year while the search for a permanent dean resumes: digesting a consultant’s report on tenure and promotions for faculty, diversity issues, placement of students in the workforce and gearing the law school curriculum to meet the future of the legal profession.

He said experiential learning — such as clinical experience, simulations and externships — is gaining currency in legal education. And he noted the importance of distance learning, talking of demand that the law school can tap into for legal certificates for lawyers and nonlawyers alike. Accountants, health care professionals, engineers and others might benefit from specialized courses at the law school. UF Law is dipping its toes into these waters with a new Spanish for Lawyers course.

“That’s not a whole certificate but the fact of the matter is, legal Spanish is different than Spanish in the same way that legal English is different from English,” Dawson said. “A course like that might be very useful to lawyers who routinely deal with clients who speak Spanish.”

And UF Law’s international connections won’t be neglected under Dawson’s deanship. That camel picture was taken while he taught in Beijing in the autumn following the crushing of student dissent in Tiananmen Square. Dawson also taught in Odessa, Ukraine, soon after the demise of the Soviet Union. And he is currently co-director of the College of Law Summer Program at the University of Montpellier in France.

“I think that the background will help simply because I have become quite sympathetic to international initiatives,” Dawson said.

Dawson grew up in the eastern Colorado town of Sterling and entered Princeton after a counselor put him in touch with another Princeton alumnus and lawyer in his small town. That move diverted him from an engineering major and launched him on his path toward law. He majored in politics at Princeton and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago.

Students wearing dawson tshirt

Students wear T-shirts bearing a George Dawson likeness as they conclude their first-year contracts class in April 2012. The shirts have the tag line, “consideration,” a concept in contracts law. (Photo provided)

Lyrissa Lidsky is co-director with Dawson of the summer program at the University of Montpellier. She considers Dawson, who has served two stints as senior associate dean for curriculum, to be a model administrator.

“He’s completely unflappable, he has such a broad range of experience in handling issues that he knows that they all can be dealt with and he just conveys a complete sense that everything is under control,” Lidsky said. “George absolutely knows how to cut red tape to make things happen.”

Lidsky stressed that his years of service at UF Law and within wider legal education, including as chair of the Law School Admission Council, will aid Dawson as he addresses a changing legal professional landscape. Dawson has also made his reputation at UF Law as a popular teacher.

“It comes through that he really cares about whether students are learning or not, whether they’re getting a good experience and whether they’re going to go out and be wonderful lawyers,” Lidsky said.

Right on cue, the Dawson-coached International Commercial Arbitration Moot team, better known as ICAM, finished in the Elite Eight at the Vienna, Austria, competition held in April. Dawson was assisted in Vienna by Eduardo “Eddy” Palmer (JD 85). Organizers say 295 international teams were in at the start. Also this spring, UF Law’s 400-member John Marshall Bar Association voted to name Dawson the Levin College of Law Professor of the Year.

“I just found he was the most engaging professor,” said Alisha Feldman (1L), JMBA’s public relations director who took Dawson for her first-year contracts course. “Somehow the way he taught wasn’t so scary, but he really ingrained the information in our heads, the way he talked through cases.”

Feldman said the first impression of Dawson is of a matter-of-fact lecturer, but he soon wins over students with his wit and caring nature. Feldman said Dawson regularly spends 30 minutes speaking to students after class ends to talk over issues raised during the lecture. And a deadpan delivery can go a long way, with a prop thrown in here or there.

One day, Dawson came to class with a paper bag, its contents a mystery to the 100 students filling the lecture hall.

“The case was about two parties who disagreed about what constituted a ‘suitable’ chicken for a particular shipment,” Feldman recalled. “And when we started discussing it he said: ‘what is a chicken?’ and then pulled out the rubber chicken.”

In addition to serving as former chair of the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), Dawson is past chair of the Association of American Law Schools Committee on Curriculum & Research, and past chair of the LSAC Test Development and Research Committee.

His previous academic experience includes positions as instructor at the University of Michigan, assistant professor, assistant dean and associate professor at the University of Oregon, and visiting professor at various institutions.