By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Richard Gershon once said he’d like to retire in Oxford.
These days, the new dean of the University of Mississippi’s law school may know more about what he was wishing for.
Gershon, a 53-year-old runner, is adding up the miles to shed new light on how great he believes the state’s only public law school is.
He’s also begun a strategic planning process to move the law school into the higher ranks of training for lawyers.
Gershon looks the part of a runner. He’s tall and lean and has a head full of salt-and-pepper curls. He looks fit and ready for the task ahead – to chart a new, updated course for the 157-year-old University of Mississippi School of Law.
He’s also enjoying the recent build-up and celebration after moving into the new, $50 million Robert C. Khayat Law Center on the Oxford campus’ west side.
“I had heard a lot about the University of Mississippi law school,” he recalled during his previous professional stint as founding dean of the University of Charleston in South Carolina.
Although he wasn’t involved in the new building’s planning or design, it embodies some of his thoughts about where the school must go.
The massive structure opens up in the middle, up and down the elegant staircases, for ease of access and communication between students and faculty.
It’s a physically more effective openness with streaming natural light so different from the old building, with its cavernous atrium and artificially dim lighting.
Today, Gershon is fairly shouting his enthusiasm for its assets and plans for the years ahead.
He praises what he terms “an under-appreciated” program, full of excellence, such as the Mississippi Innocence Project, which seeks to help wrongfully convicted people gain their freedom, and the law school clinics, which offer help to disadvantaged people in need of legal assistance. And he praised faculty stars, such as Mercer Bullard, who is no stranger to testifying before Congress on securities issues.
“We’re doing a lot of good work, we’re just not gaming the system,” Gershon said about how some law schools skew their rankings by enticing top-notch first-year students with what they call “merit” scholarships, which often dry up when the students’ grades turn less than stellar in a bell-curve system.
He noted that top ratings by such publications at U.S. News & World Report only look at first-year students’ credentials.
Other schools also have been known to hire many immediate graduates to show rating services that they’ve found jobs for all their students.
“We’re not going to play games with our students’ careers,” he said. “We offer an outstanding education for students who won’t leave here with $100,000 in debt.”
He insists Ole Miss’ law school deserves a Top 100 rank, sitting at No. 107 by U.S. News & World Report. National Jurist magazine recently ranked it a Top 10 Value with high Bar exam passage and a high rate of job placement.
Why should a law school’s rank matter?
Gershon said it matters as a tool used by potential students when they look for their school.
But the reality is that a student needs to look for the best fit for themselves. He said they need to see if the school is welcoming and if it has good teachers.
Among Ole Miss Law’s other assets, the dean lists, are a “great” new building to create a sense of community, a healthy competition among students and a strong roster of outstanding graduates to whom current students can look for connections and motivation.
He’s looking at developing a law school entry program that begins in a college student’s fourth year, traditionally the undergrad senior year.
“It may be a good way to help retain our brightest students that we don’t want to lose after their senior year,” he said.
And he wants to increase Ole Miss Law’s application numbers from Mississippi’s best students.
Gershon’s appointment as Ole Miss Law dean came nearly a year ago. At that time, Alice Clark, vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, said his ability to build consensus and shared vision would be great assets for the law school.
“Professor Gershon brings to this position a unique combination of leadership, experience, understanding of legal education trends and issues, reputation as a legal scholar and selfless commitment to the success of students and faculty,” said Clark, who chaired the search committee that recommended him.
His starting date was July 1, 2010.
A lot’s happened since then, including completion of the new Khayat Law Center and a massive yet orderly move of faculty, staff and students into the facility across from Tad Smith Coliseum.
The new building’s dedication is behind him now, and it’s time to sink everybody’s teeth into charting a course for the short- and long-haul.
“We must have a strategic plan – to know where we want to go and how to get there,” he said.
Soon, faculty, alumni and students will provide their views to answer those questions.
Gershon thinks Ole Miss Law is on the right track, as a school that trains students to be lawyers right off the bat.
“Some law schools see themselves as graduate schools, training more for the academic side of law and thinking their students will learn their professional skills on the job,” he said. “That’s not reality.”
He sees his school’s future also in becoming a specialist in unique programs it already offers, like the National Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law Center and the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law.
“We should play to our strengths,” he said.
Gershon also is ready to ask alumni to be greater participants in their alma mater, saying less than 10 percent make any contributions to the school.
“Participation and input from our alums is very important,” he said. “We want their involvement.”
Sometimes, the leaves from the Tree of Life just fall into the right spot at the right time.
Gershon’s wife, editor Donna Levine, has been interested in Oxford for a long time and developed relationships with numerous writers in the area.
Gershon, who was born in Atlanta, said they liked Charleston but thought it was a little too large for their personal goals of rearing their young daughters, now 10 and 12.
“We were looking for a college town” like Oxford, he said.
Gershon points to earlier, long-distance relationships for his wife as editor of Garden & Gun magazine with Oxford poet Beth Ann Fennelly, chef/restaurateur John Currence and Southern Foodways chief John T Edge. Now, everybody’s local.
He said she once turned to him and said of Oxford, “That’s where I want to live.”
With their move, Gershon says the whole family is getting what they need, from professional satisfaction to public school and extra-curricular fulfillment.
Their older daughter, Claire, is a middle school drama lover and enjoys its theater program. Eve, the younger, takes advantage of strong local gymnastic activities.
As for the family’s grownups, they’re trying out rollerblades and soaking up as much as they can of the world-famous literary community.
“For a small town, there’s really lots to do,” Gershon observed. “It’s a perfect fit for us.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.