UC Hastings' Renegade Dean

An isolated childhood may explain why he gravitated toward schools with a sense of community and belonging; it also shapes his vision for UC Hastings. “My goal is to build something here that’s different, that’s distinctive, that’s unique, and that is for people who understand mission and community.” However, that community is shrinking by design. True to his word, Wu has cut the class size. In 2011, UC Hastings graduated 411 students. The next year, only 317 students were enrolled and 331 students in 2013. He’s also adamant about an interdisciplinary focus. “I meet a lot of lawyers who say, ‘I don’t do numbers’ … My message to anyone who says that here is you’ve come to the wrong law school. This is a law school that does numbers.” Which is why the school offers such courses as Financial Basics for Lawyers.
Wu is also big on global and hands-on experience. “Frank came in with a bold vision for emphasizing our strengths in international programs and experiential learning,” says Shauna Marshall, UC Hastings’ academic dean. “He launched a strategic plan to really prepare students for the future and not just doing scholarship and research in the clouds,” she adds.
But change doesn’t come without its critics. Some have pointed out that UC Hastings laid off ten non-teaching employees and another 10 jobs were reduced from full time to part time after the enrollment cuts. Others point to an increase in resident tuition, which jumped up more than 16% in three years from $40,836 in 2011-2012 to $47,500 in 2014-2015. In others words, the classes may be smaller, but the students are quite literally paying for it. However, prospective students are still applying by the thousands. The school received 3,948 applications in 2013.
Students also appear willing to get behind a dean who’s willing to make the tough calls, even if it means paying a little more up front. U.C. Hastings student Jared Clark, 28, who graduated in May 2013, calls Wu a “vanguard” in recognizing that the traditional law school framework was simply not sufficient in the current economy. “When you go to law school and especially if you go to school these days when the future is not so clear for graduates as it was five years ago, you hope you have a dean that is forward thinking, energetic, and is willing to make the tough calls to make the future better for graduates of that school,” he says.
For Wu, the decision to shave enrollment goes beyond a desire to keep the caliber of students high during a nationwide dearth in law school applications. (One UC Hastings felt firsthand: The school received nearly 2,000 fewer applications in 2013 than in 2010).  Law schools shouldn’t simply react to the changing market; they need to lead the way by offering alternatives to the traditional J.D., according to Wu. Legal education is still worthwhile, but the J.D. may simply be overkill for some jobs. He compares it to the medical field, where once doctors and nurses did everything from drawing blood to scheduling appointments; now lab technicians take blood and analyze results, and administrators handle schedules.
Wu believes the same things are happening in law. There is plenty of “challenging, interesting, well-compensated work that is J.D. optional,” he contends. So the question then becomes how do law schools push people into these fields? One way is to give them the necessary skills without the classroom time and debt incurred with a J.D. In 2011, the school introduced a one-year Master of Studies in Law for health and science professionals who need legal skills to run a hospital or influence policy but aren’t looking to practice. It’s these gaps in education that need to be filled, according to Wu. “Is legal education worthless?” he asks. “I don’t think it’s worthless. That’s just silly. There are things that are worthless; I think it’s worthless to study astrology … but I believe in legal education. Everything in our democracy depends on law.”
The dean’s best work may be ahead of him still. Particularly if he takes his cues from UC Hastings’ seventh dean, David Snodgrass. Snodgrass, who served as dean from 1940 to 1963, scooped up law luminaries who were forced to retire from other law schools at age 65. This crew of sexagenarians became known as the Sixty-Five Club and included former law school deans, two California Supreme Court justices, and even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. “It’s a crazy idea. I mean just nuts. Even today, can you imagine someone saying, ‘I’m going to start a business, and the only people I’m going to hire are retirees?'” Wu asks. But, as he points out, ” Your great work in law almost always comes later in life.” At 46, Wu still has time on his side, and the legal community is waiting to see what he will do with it.
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