U names Johnson Law School dean after eight-month search

by Tom Ford

After a two-year stint as a University professor in the early 1980s, Alex Johnson Jr. decided he wanted to spend his life teaching instead of practicing law.

Now Johnson will return to where his career diverged, set to take charge of the University’s legal education.

The University has named Johnson the next Law School dean. He will be the first black dean in the Law School’s history.

“This is a superb law school with an excellent reputation,” Johnson said. “I’m familiar with the place and even some of the people.”

Currently a law professor and vice provost at the University of Virginia, Johnson is also chairman of the Law School Admission Council, the national organization that produces and administers the Law School Admission Test. His background is mainly in property and real estate law.

Stephen Befort, a University law professor who was chairman of the 13-member dean search committee, said Johnson’s experience with the council would benefit the school.

“He’s a national player in legal education,” Befort said. “He brings to the table that he knows how to converse with leaders in American legal education.”

The University picked Johnson from a pool of 30 applicants after an eight-month national search. The search process began last summer when the current dean, E. Thomas Sullivan, announced he’d resign at the end of this school year, his seventh year in the position.

“We’ve had a lot of major changes (at the Law School), including the beginning and ending of a major capital campaign and a major building addition,” Sullivan said. “All of that had come to conclusion, so it was just an ideal time to have a new dean come in.”

Sullivan will remain at the Law School as a professor.

Johnson, who will take over July 1 if approved by the Board of Regents in June, said he will address recurrent problems such as high student-to-faculty ratios, difficulty retaining high-profile professors, and rising costs of legal education.

Although the burden for University students is below national averages, Johnson said, law school graduates are often saddled with more than $40,000 in debt.

“We need to do things like loan forgiveness programs for those students who want to get into public service or pro bono work,” he said. “We need to make sure students aren’t shackled by their debts and forced to go into a type of practice they would prefer not to do.”

In addition, Johnson said, he intends to travel across the country to recruit a diverse class of students and raise money for the Law School library.

He said during the last decade library funding has lagged behind inflation and exponentially increasing costs of collections and subscriptions.

“To be a top-tier law school, you need resources, and the library is the principal resource,” Johnson said. “One of my priorities is to narrow the gap between what we need and what we have.”

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]