Back in session: law students meet their new Dean
Marcilynn Burke limits herself to one cup of coffee a day — one large cup. After all, being Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law is no easy task.
One way she deals with those stresses is her enjoyment of the arts.
She said she would never quit her day job to sing but has been privileged to sing with Grammy award winning artists Richard Smallwood and V. Michael McKay. Before she was a lawyer, Burke was a junior company member of the North Carolina Repertory Ballet Company.
UO’s reputation, and the aesthetics of the campus, attracted her. She spent time in Oregon when she worked in the Bureau of Land Management and imagined she would enjoy life here.
“I thought, ‘this would be a great place to live,’” she said. “It’s an exciting place for business. There’s something for everyone here.”
An exciting place incorporates everyone according to Burke, UO’s first Black woman to be dean of the law school, she said the law school will be just that.
Despite her own ideas about what she would like the school to be Burke kicked off her “learning and listening tour,” two months ago when she officially started her tenure.
“I think it would be foolhardy on my part to say ‘This is the course we are going to chart now,’ without knowing more than I do,” she said. “The big goal for the first year is to figure out what our strategic goals are going to be.”
Those goals, as of now, include improving nationally ranked specialty programs in legal research and writing, as well as environmental law — Burke’s own area of expertise.
Burke took a leave of absence from her teaching position at the University of Houston Law Center to join the Bureau of Land Management in 2009. She was prompted to apply for the position by a professor she said she only knew “casually.”
Burke served as the Deputy Director of Programs and Policy at the BLM for two years before being appointed as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management by then President Barack Obama in 2011.
In her short time at UO, Burke said she hasn’t had much time to talk with students, but is aware of concerns they have about passing the bar and getting a job after graduation.
The job market for law school graduates appears to be improving, according to a 2016 NALP report, but improved percentages mask that 2,000 fewer jobs were filled by 2016 graduates than their 2015 counterparts.
Passing the bar exam concerns deans at Lewis and Clark Law School and Willamette Law School, which in conjunction with UO, signed a letter requesting the passing score of the exam to be lowered.
“I believe that every student that is admitted to the UO is fully capable of passing the bar,” Burke said. “So we want to make sure we are marshalling resources to help students get to where they want to go.”
Besides concerns, students have talked about potential new programs. Burke said that intellectual property, business, corporate and energy law are areas she would “certainly be pursuing.”
Burke wants UO to accomplish a long list of things, and while she wouldn’t say she believed she was the only person who could get it done, she was well suited for the role.
While she worked for the BLM, she explained she worked with a myriad of stakeholders and managed a budget of more than $1.7 billion. The Bureau, which is responsible for 245 million acres of public land in the West and across Alaska is responsible for managing and regulating countless projects. She said that learning to balance all of the people and interests at the BLM are skills that are “directly translatable to being Dean.”
“I think that I’m not a stranger to making difficult choices and I think I can do it in a way that still fulfills our ideals about community and the idea we are all in this together,” Burke said.
Difficult decisions will be in store for Burke who takes over for Michael Moffitt who stepped down at the beginning of the summer. Moffitt served as dean of the law school since 2011. He watched the school’s national rank fall from No. 77 in 2011 to No. 100 in 2015 before eventually rebounding to No. 78 in 2017.
While the school’s rank fell it operated in a budget deficit, spurring a transitional support budget from the university to help stabilize it.
According to the plan, UO will subsidized the law school to the tune of $3 million in fiscal year 2017. The amount will drop over the next two years until fiscal year 2019 when it is expected the school will be able to return its margins to positive. When the school manages to normalize, it will begin to pay back the university.
Despite budget concerns, and decreased enrollment — there were 346 law majors enrolled last year, the lowest in the last 10 years — the hiring plan awarded the school two new tenure track position hires.
Burke cautions students to work hard but to enjoy their time in law school, that three years will go very fast, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
“I want to tell students that an education from the UO School of Law opens the world,” she said. “The possibilities are quite boundless. With legal training you are welcome into every circle of life and we have everything here you need to launch yourself on that path.”
Follow Max on Twitter: @Max_Thornberry
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