UW Law’s strategic plan unites new priorities with historical commitments.
By Alexander Gelfand | Illustrations by Danielle Lamberson Phillipp
Ask Dean Dan Tokaji when work first began on the strategic plan that was approved by the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School this past May, and his answer is as clear and concise as the plan itself.
“As soon as I became dean: August 1, 2020,” he says. “We really hit the ground running.”
From the outset, Tokaji aimed to have a plan approved by the end of his first academic year at the helm of UW Law. That he succeeded is a testament to all those who worked on the plan and provided input through surveys and listening sessions, from faculty and staff to students and alumni.
The resulting document is at once ambitious and succinct, sweeping and specific. Fitting neatly onto three typed pages, the plan comprises nine priority areas and forty-one action items, all designed to further the school’s mission of educating a diverse group of exceptional lawyers and leaders while advancing knowledge and equal justice under law.
Planning the Plan
The task of developing the plan fell to four different work groups, each focused on a specific theme: teaching and learning; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); student opportunities and wellness; and the research enterprise. Each group included a variety of faculty, staff, and administrative personnel with interest and expertise in their respective areas.
“The work groups were designed to be inclusive of different sets of interests, positions, and views,” says Professor John Ohnesorge, who chaired the steering committee that led the planning process.
The DEI work group, for example, was chaired by Professor Alexandra Huneeus, an expert on human rights law who also chairs the Legal Education Opportunities (LEO) Program, which is focused on student diversity, equity, and inclusion. The working group also included a clinical faculty member, the dean of admissions, the dean of external affairs, and a staff member in the Office of Career and Professional Development with an interest in diversity issues.
Similarly, the research work group included several tenure-track faculty and was chaired by Susannah Camic Tahk, associate dean for research and faculty development and director of the Institute for Legal Studies. But as Ohnesorge points out, supporting the research mission requires finding money for things like faculty leaves and summer projects, so the group also included Bethany Pluymers, the associate dean for administration and the Law School’s chief financial officer.
To get as much feedback as possible from the Law School’s various stakeholders, the work groups reached out to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and employers through surveys and listening sessions. According to Ohnesorge, each constituency had its own perspective and interests, which ranged from improving support for student wellness and mental health to increasing the diversity of students, faculty, and staff.
Getting It Done
The overarching goal of the planning process was to engage in long-term strategic thinking.
“We focused on what we wanted the Law School to look like five or even ten years down the road,” Tokaji says.
That meant not only setting broad objectives such as maintaining affordability and supporting students in their job searches, but also coming up with concrete steps to achieve them: expanding financial aid, for example, or boosting student competitiveness on the job market by considering changes to the curriculum or the class rank system.
“You can have the best plan in the world, but if you don’t implement it, it doesn’t mean very much. We’re going to make sure that we implement this plan,” says Tokaji, who adds that nine additional working groups — one for each priority area — are currently hammering out a separate implementation plan complete with deliverables and a timetable.
Not surprisingly, some priorities will require more time and effort to achieve than others. But work has already begun.
Priority Area 6, for example, calls for recruiting new tenure-track faculty while retaining the outstanding faculty already at UW Law. Toward that end, the Law School launched a faculty recruitment and retention fund that has already met its goal of raising $500,000. Thanks to matching funds, UW Law will have $1 million to help meet its long-term goal of increasing the number of tenure-track faculty to thirty-five by 2026 while continuing to give current faculty the resources they need to advance the teaching and research components of the Law School’s mission.
Work is also underway to dramatically expand the flexibility of the Law School’s clinical options and guarantee a clinical opportunity to every student who wants one.
“Those are things we can do relatively quickly,” says Tokaji.
On the other hand, maintaining the affordability and quality of a UW Law education while simultaneously strengthening the faculty and meeting other resource-intensive goals such as improving the Law School building and infrastructure (Priority Area 9) will be a heavier lift.
And as Ohnesorge explains, under the Law School’s shared governance model, some changes will require approval by the faculty. For example, enhancing student competitiveness on the job market could involve changing the curves on which students are currently graded. And the faculty would need to vote on a specific proposal to that effect.
Reading through the plan, it becomes clear that the various priority areas are related in ways both obvious and subtle.
For example, while three priority areas explicitly address DEI issues, the themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion — not only racial and ethnic, but intellectual and socioeconomic — run through all the other priority areas as well. Other examples are embedded in additional priority areas and include the call for greater support for first-generation students and the emphasis on diversity in faculty hiring.
Such interconnections are hardly surprising. The plan as a whole is suffused by UW Law’s historic commitment to equal justice under law and its concomitant dedication to Law in Action and the Wisconsin Idea, with their complementary emphases on how the law is applied in the real world and how the Law School can improve the lives of people across the state and around the globe.
Those animating principles appear in everything from the recurring emphasis on enhancing the clinical experience to the action item devoted to deepening the Law School’s collaborations with Native peoples in Wisconsin and across the country.
The result, says Tokaji, is a plan that will have a transformative effect on the Law School and those whom it educates.
“Our students and the things they go on to accomplish are at the center of everything we do,” he says, adding that the new strategic plan will allow UW Law to give students “unparalleled preparation for their careers as lawyers and their lives as leaders” for many years to come.
Nine Priority Areas & Selected Action Items
Here’s a guide to the new strategic plan, including all nine priority areas and a selection of action items in each one. For a comprehensive listing, visit law.wisc.edu/about/mission/.
Deliver an outstanding and affordable legal education, while development flexible curricular choices to allow students to explore diverse legal subjects and learning methodologies.
Along with the expansion of our faculty, this resource-intensive priority area represents the greatest challenge for the years ahead. Maintaining affordability and access for all students is crucial to achieving UW Law’s mission of educating a diverse group of exceptional lawyers and leaders.
Key action items include:
- Providing more clinical opportunities with more flexible options for students;
- Helping students meet degree and bar admission requirements more efficiently;
- Expanding financial aid so that a UW Law education remains accessible to all who have the capacity to excel as lawyers and leaders.
Cultivate an inclusive community that supports the success, well-being, and belonging of all our students, staff, and faculty, dedicating resources to help them thrive.
“We’ve got to pay attention to student well-being alongside educational opportunities,” says Dean Dan Tokaji. “This has been especially true during the pandemic, when we’ve seen a lot of mental health challenges for students. But it’s also true in ordinary times.”
Students and alumni agree. In listening sessions, both groups said they wanted more support for student wellness, including mental health.
Action items include:
- Expanding academic counseling and support through the Academic Enhancement Program;
- Helping first-generation students acclimate to law school and the legal profession;
- Providing faculty, staff, and students with opportunities to learn how they can help develop a more inclusive and equitable learning environment.
Be a campus and national leader in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, with an emphasis on racial and social justice.
DEI is nothing new at UW Law: the LEO program dates back decades, and the Law School has historically been a national leader on diversity. This priority area will ensure that it remains so well into the future.
Action items include:
- Establishing a senior leadership position dedicated to DEI (learn more about Associate Dean Michael States);
- Creating a pipeline for underrepresented groups to explore law school and the legal profession;
- Providing scholarships to ensure diversity in all dimensions.
Empower students to engage in 4 effective job searches spanning diverse practice areas and locations.
Students with strong job prospects experience less stress and greater well-being. And as Tokaji says, “We owe it to our students to help them find satisfying careers.”
Key action items include:
- Heightening students’ ability to compete for jobs nationally and globally by expanding the Law School’s network of employers;
- Developing programs highlighting the wide variety of legal careers available;
- Promoting satisfying job prospects for all students by considering changes to everything from the curriculum to financial aid.
Prepare students to be change agents in a diverse society grappling with persistent racial, social, and economic inequities.
This priority area builds on the Wisconsin Idea and our law-in-action tradition.
“We want our students not only to be capable and skilled lawyers, but to address some of the big-picture problems in our society,” says Tokaji. “We provide a legal education that will prepare them to make a real difference in real people’s lives.”
Key items include:
- Incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion into the curriculum;
- Recruiting students, faculty, and staff who embody different identities, backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints;
- Expanding the Law School’s presence in Indigenous law.
Advance our position as a premier research and teaching institution by strengthening our faculty.
As the Law School continues to tackle some of society’s most complex and pressing issues, it is critical to build upon the already impressive faculty community, giving students access to incredible legal thought.
Key action areas include:
- Increasing the size of our tenure-track faculty to thirty-five by 2026, hiring professors who are or will become leaders in their fields;
- Considering lateral as well as entry-level candidates every year, informed by long-term teaching, research, and engagement goals;
- Retaining the outstanding clinical, legal research and writing, and tenure-track faculty we have.
Provide an intellectual environment and resources that will enable our faculty to be productive scholars.
With a commitment to excellence in research and a faculty embracing a wide variety of substantive concerns and methodological approaches, UW Law School is doubling down on its support to create a rich intellectual environment.
Key action areas include:
- Improving research support, including research assistants and help in obtaining external funding for research;
- Ensuring that research-productive faculty members receive two months summer salary or the equivalent;
- Surveying faculty to determine what additional resources would best help them improve the quality and quantity of their scholarship.
Increase the visibility of our faculty and the impact of their scholarly endeavors.
The strength of the faculty and the quality of their research have a direct bearing on the Law School’s teaching mission and its commitment to making positive social change.
“Our mission of educating great lawyers and future leaders is intimately connected to the research that our faculty do,” says Tokaji. “Being leaders in their fields helps make them better teachers, and our students deserve to learn from the very best.”
Key items include:
- Raising the Law School’s scholarly profile and stature, by highlighting the excellence and diversity of our faculty to external audiences;
- Emphasizing our strengths in research that crosses national and disciplinary boundaries, including law and society scholarship;
- Fostering faculty and staff engagement with communities at the local, state, national, and international levels, including efforts at law and policy reform.
Improve the Law School building and infrastructure, focusing on functions that are essential to our students.
“We have a great building, but there are many places where it needs some updating, especially in student-facing areas,” Tokaji says. Key focus areas include:
- Creating a new Legal Research and Writing Center and new office suites for the Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic and the Office of Career and Professional Development;
- Creating a new shared office suite for the offices of Admissions and Financial Aid, Graduate Programs, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
- Providing a more welcoming space for the Academic Enhancement Program.