'Most stressful time of my career': Law deans reflect on pandemic

The Brooklyn Law School in New York City, U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • New survey reveals deep concern over student wellbeing
  • Some deans felt political pressure to hold in-person classes

(Reuters) - Law school deans have lost plenty of sleep during the pandemic, according to a newly published survey in which top law school administrators reported high levels of COVID-related stress.

It wasn’t just the health of their law school communities that kept deans up at night during the early months of the pandemic. They were also worried about potential budget shortfalls and the learning experience for students who abruptly traded in-person courses for online classes, according to the survey, which was published last week. It was conducted in November by University of Toledo Law Dean Benjamin Barros and 2021 Toledo law graduate Cameron Morrissey, and generated responses from 51 deans – or about a quarter of those who lead American Bar Association-accredited law schools.

“I’ve had some stressful days as a dean,” Barros said in an interview with Reuters. “But that April, May, June period early in the pandemic was hands down the most stressful time of my career.”

In addition to quickly figuring out how to move his school online, Barros said he was bracing for a 20% budget cut from the state because Ohio officials were unsure of how the pandemic would impact tax revenue. The state funding reduction ended up being less than anticipated, but the scramble to quickly identify costs savings was unnerving, he said.

Barros surveyed his colleagues in November of 2020, in part to create a historical record of how the pandemic was felt across legal education. The resulting article, titled, “A Survey of Law School Deans On the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” appears in the latest edition of the University of Toledo Law Review.

The survey looks to be the first to document that law deans at some public schools felt political pressure to hold classes in-person. Only eight of the responding deans indicated a strong degree of political pressure to teach in person, the survey found, but all eight were from public law schools. The survey results were anonymous and did not disclose where the deans who reported political pressure were located.

All but four responding deans said their schools went remote in the spring of 2020. For the fall 2020 semester, 63% of courses were given online, on average.

The deans generally reported low rates of COVID-19 within their law school communities. When asked what percentage of students and staff had tested positive for the virus in the first nine months of the pandemic, the average response was 3% among students and less than 2% among staff and faculty.

But the mental well-being of both students and faculty emerged as a major source of concern among the deans, the survey found. On a scale of 0 to 7, all but six rated the “impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the mental wellbeing of your students” as a four or higher. The results were similar when asked about the mental wellness of faculty and staff. When asked to report the extent to which the pandemic had negatively impacted their own stress level, all but 10 of the responding deans responded with a four or higher.

Barros noted that he conducted the survey at a time when vaccines were about to become widely available and the end of the pandemic seemed to be on the horizon. But the rise of the Delta variant has meant deans are still grappling with COVID-19.

“All of us were hoping we’d be past this right now, and we aren’t,” he said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com