Leading the Law School

by Kathy Fleming

As soon as music is mentioned, Bob Jerry jumps up from his family dining room table to play the tape of his last concert with his old band, Big Muddy.

The soft country rock music is surprisingly good for a group of mostly University of Missouri professors who performed primarily for stress relief and fun.

“That’s me, right there on the keyboards,” he says, pointing toward the speaker.

Jerry is talking about his old life — when he held an endowed professorship in Missouri and had a little more time for his many interests. Since coming to lead the UF Levin College of Law a year and a half ago, a colleague notes, he only has time for his top priorities…family, church and the law school.

It is the lack of family time — particularly with his wife, Lisa, and three children, Jim, John and Beth — that gives him pause.

“It is a challenge to protect time for the family, and I don’t always succeed. But I do try hard,” he said, choosing his words carefully. It is the reason he has taken up golf with Jim, regularly attends John’s swim meets, spends time with Beth, and insists everyone gather around the dinner table each night.

“But the law school is so big and so complex, that right now it does require a concentrated effort, and not just on my part. The faculty and administrators are working hard because we want to be recognized as one of the very finest four or five public law schools in the nation. It is ambitious but achievable.”

His focused determination is proving to be essential. Compared to previous academic experiences, this law school is roughly twice as large, with more faculty members, programs, students, alumni and energy.

“Bob hit the ground running when he got here,” said Mike McNerney (JD 73), chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Law Center Association. He has a great combination of skills that allow him to do an outstanding job in dealing with academic issues, working with the university administration, and interfacing with students, alumni and friends of the law school. He also has reached out to the bar associations and other important external audiences. It is a big job, and he is doing it very well.”

Jerry, who became dean of the University of Kansas law school when he was only 35, had not planned on leading another school.

“I didn’t really aspire to be a dean again because I was quite happy teaching and conducting research,” he said. “But I had said if there was a school with strong qualities and the potential to make significant strides in reaching the next level, I would like to be part of making that happen because it would be, well, fun.”

Turns out the UF law school had the right criteria. The upper trajectory was already in place and he has been able to move several initiatives along, including securing an increase in the percentage of out-of-state tuition fees allocated to the school.

“We are the seventh least expensive law school in the country and there are 183 of them. More resources are essential if we are to compete at the highest level,” he said. “It is actually remarkable how well we are regarded and what we accomplish when you consider the limited funds available to us.”

Under his collaborative-style leadership, faculty committees are determining signature areas for national recognition, and faculty and administrators are implementing the 2002 strategic plan, which calls for a better student-teacher ratio, more spending per student, greater faculty research and scholarship, more alumni participation, and a larger endowment. The school’s rich history and motivatedfaculty are easing the way.

“The faculty has a broadly held view that we want to be excellent teachers, productive scholars, and have regional and national impact with our work. When you have those kinds of values, the questions become simpler. What are the precise steps we are going to take to achieve those goals?” he said.

In the midst of those ambitions have been the $22 million-plus renovation and building of the school’s physical plant. Half of Holland Hall has been destroyed and rebuilt, while two-thirds of what remained is being renovated. In addition, construction of two new multi-story education towers has transformed the face of the law school.

“It has been enormously challenging to keep our academic program going, but our students and especially the faculty have been both resilient and accommodating despite a huge upheaval in their professional lives,” Jerry said.

Former colleague Rod Uphoff, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Missouri, isn’t surprised his friend is making inroads.

“Bob was the kind of colleague who was respected by all at the University of Missouri as a scholar and mentor,” said Uphoff. “He also has a great sense of humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and can laugh at himself. He is even willing to acknowledge making mistakes, certainly a trait that does not come naturally to most deans.”

Students value his listening skills.

“Since the first day Dean Jerry arrived on campus, he has made such an effort to reach out to law students, to listen to our opinions and concerns regarding the law school, and to generate a feeling of cohesiveness amongst students, faculty and alumni,” said John Marshall Bar Association President Julie Miller (3L). “Despite his busy schedule, students know he will take the time to meet and to work with them in whatever way he can.”

Jerry is part of a large family of educators. Both his parents are retired faculty from the Indiana State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. The “for real Hoosier,” as his wife, Lisa, calls him, earned his law degree cum laude from the University of Michigan and literally set foot inside a law office for the first time when he clerked for a small firm in Terre Haute, Ind., after his first year of law school.

After law school, he clerked for Judge George E. MacKinnon of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. Later, while in private practice, he was recruited to teach at the University of Kansas, beginning an academic career that now approaches 25 years.

A respected scholar and prolific researcher in the areas of insurance law, contracts and health care finance and access, he remembers clearly when he chose his area of legal scholarship.

“In 1981, I was driving on I-70 on my way to my new job in Kansas when a radio bulletin announced the skywalk of the Hyatt Regency hotel had collapsed in Kansas City,” Jerry said. “Later, I would come to know some of the attorneys involved in the ensuing litigation, and one of them commented on the absence of academics who worked on and wrote about the insurance issues that were so important in the aftermath of that catastrophe. That caused me to start thinking about whether I should make insurance law the focus of my teaching and research.”

When the opportunity to teach the course presented itself, he took it, and he began an intense study of the field, going on to write several widely used books, book chapters, law reviews and numerous other articles. He still finds time to teach an insurance law course at UF and recently published the third edition of his book, Understanding Insurance Law, the standard text used by practitioners and academicians. He also has just completed a chapter on life and disability insurance that will be published in a book on family wealth transfers later this year.

“Bob is a first-rate scholar, which is important because he has to evaluate the scholarship of the faculty,” said Bill Page, UF law school associate dean for faculty development. “As an administrator, he seeks advice from the faculty and I have found his decisions always reflect good judgment. He also is incredibly organized and well-prepared, which makes him not only a good communicator, but a good ambassador with outside groups.”

Jerry also knows more about Gator sports than many longtime fans, according to Mike McNerney, as well as where to find the best barbeque in Alachua County.

“I have spent a lot of time with Bob and Lisa Jerry and they are a pretty strong one-two punch for our law school,” McNerney said. “Lisa is a huge asset to the college, not just because she can entertain 100 for dinner with one day’s notice, but because she understands what it takes to be a great support to Bob and the law school.”

John James, the top Gator Boosters administrator who sees the law dean in a range of situations, from game day to Sunday school, said one of Jerry’s greatest strengths is his ability to sincerely relate to anyone, from the highest national official to the person cleaning up after the function.

“He’s just a solid citizen all the way around. We are lucky to have him at the University of Florida.”