‘Thinking strategically’

Becoming dean of a law school wasn’t in Kent D. Syverud’s strategic plan. “I don’t believe in taking jobs because of the jobs they lead to,” says Syverud, J.D., dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor at the School of Law. “I believe in taking jobs because they’re the steps that are the most sensible growth experiences for you at the time. I didn’t become a professor to become a dean. I became a professor to become a professor. And I loved each step. I’ve gotten so much from each job I’ve taken.”

Kent D. Syverud, J.D., looks to the audience to take a question for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who visited the Danforth Campus in February at Syverud's request. Syverud was one of O'Connor's first clerks when she reached the bench.
Kent D. Syverud, J.D., looks to the audience to take a question for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who visited the Danforth Campus in February at Syverud’s request. Syverud was one of O’Connor’s first clerks when she reached the bench.

Now, Syverud is enjoying planning the future of the law school.

“My favorite part of my job right now is thinking strategically how to make this law school the best place to learn to be a lawyer,” Syverud says. “The faculty, staff and students at the law school are amazing, and I think you avoid complacency by refusing to assume that you’ve already fixed every problem and that the only thing you need to do is the same thing you did the year before. You constantly re-examine everything you do and ask how to make it better. That includes what you do in the classroom and what you do outside the classroom.”

Syverud notes that the law school’s plan for the future includes expansion of the faculty, substantial improvement of job opportunities for law students across the nation and the world, investment in interdisciplinary programs with other schools and colleges, development of exciting international programs — particularly in Asia and in Europe — and continued extraordinary attention to student recruitment.

“One of the things that makes Kent such an effective dean is that he has a strategic vision for the law school, and he tries to ensure that all of the programs of the school are contributing toward that vision,” says Daniel L. Keating, J.D., vice dean of the School of Law and the Tyrrell Williams Professor of Law. “The net result of this approach to leadership is that we are developing a cohesive identity as an institution. By working towards the same goal, we are better able to maximize the impact and visibility of our faculty’s energy and creativity.”

A homecoming

Before coming to the University, Syverud planned to return to the professor role after spending eight years as dean of Vanderbilt University Law School.

Serving on a Northwestern University accreditation team with WUSTL Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton helped convince him otherwise.

“I was going to spend a year teaching and writing at Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley and then return to the Vanderbilt faculty, but as things turned out, I gave up the Berkeley position in order to start as dean here,” he says.

“I spent two days with Mark at Northwestern and came to appreciate what a unique leader and person he is, and that made me willing to look at Washington University when the position became available,” he continues. “I had several friends who I’d known over the years who were on the faculty here who worked hard to recruit me, including Dan Keating. The more I looked at St. Louis and at Washington University, the more it seemed like a great opportunity.”

He became dean Jan. 1, 2006.

“Kent has been a wonderful addition to the senior leadership team at Washington University,” Wrighton says. “In his short tenure as dean, he has built a strong foundation for our School of Law as one of the premier institutions in the United States. This spring, Kent was instrumental in bringing Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Danforth Campus.”

Accepting the deanship at the law school also gave Syverud the opportunity to return to his geographical roots.

“My wife, Ruth Chen, and I very much liked returning to the Midwest,” he says. “My family is originally from South Dakota, and I grew up on the edges of the Midwest and lived most of my life in the Midwest. So for us, it’s returning home in many ways.”

Chen, Ph.D., is a research associate in the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Making a difference

Syverud entered graduate school thinking that he would earn a doctorate in economics and enter government service, but a scholarship stipulation requiring him to go to law school put him on a different path.

“I had an extraordinary teacher in law school who opened my eyes to both the intellectual possibilities in law and opportunity to make a difference in the world through law,” he says.

Kent D. Syverud

Title: Dean of the School of Law and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Georgetown University, 1977; juris doctoris, University of Michigan School of Law, 1981; master’s degree in economics, University of Michigan Rackham School of Graduate Studies, 1983

Family: Wife, Ruth Chi-Fen Chen, Ph.D., research associate in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and sons Steven, 21; Brian, 19; and David, 18

After law school, Syverud clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer and was chosen by O’Connor to be one of her first clerks.

“My clerkship with O’Connor was a very formative experience in my understanding of law,” he says. “While working for her, I was exposed to someone with a wide range of experiences that really changed how I looked at law.”

Syverud spent a few years as a trial lawyer in Washington before he decided to enter academia, where he developed an outstanding reputation as a teacher and a scholar in complex litigation, legal education and civil procedure.

“I loved every aspect of litigation,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who dislike litigators or the trial process. I enjoy both the competition and the efficacy in it. But then, once I got into my academic career, I just loved teaching and writing.”

Teaching is where Syverud found that he could make a difference through the law.

Prior to becoming dean at Vanderbilt law school, he was a professor at University of Michigan Law School.

“I’ve taught 5,000 students now in an array of courses,” he says. “I think the biggest impact professors have is through the students they teach; and therefore, I think my main impact has been the degree to which I’ve been a good teacher and a demanding teacher.”

Syverud especially has enjoyed teaching at WUSTL.

“I’ve taught five classes so far in the last year-and-a-half, so I’ve already taught several hundred students here,” he says. “They are the best students I’ve taught. They are smart, civil and argumentative, and they want to make a difference in the world. I find that that nourishes me every day. I’ve also enjoyed working with faculty — I’ve just been terrifically impressed by how dedicated they are to the institution.”