George Washington University has announced that the GW Law School’s dean Paul Schiff Berman will leave his position at the start of 2013 to take over as the school’s first vice provost for online education and academic innovation. GW leaders say that what inspired them to move Berman to the position — which was created specifically for him — was his willingness to experiment with delivering education outside the traditional law school paradigm.
In his new post, he will be responsible for fulfilling the great promise of online and hybrid education for the entire university.
This is a rapid promotion for someone who has only held the deanship at GW since July of last year. Prior to that, Berman headed up the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. After his promotion was announced, Berman spoke to The National Law Journal about the plans he has for his new position, and how things he learned as the head of the GMU law school will inform the decisions he will make in the future.
NLJ: It’s a little ironic that a law school dean will head an online education and academic innovation effort, given that law schools aren’t exactly known to embrace technology or change. How did you end up in this position?
Berman: I am very interested in thinking about the future of legal education and education more generally. I believe that there is a tremendous amount that is good and strong at the core of the educational structure, but I also think there is a lot that needs to change to make our education models work in the 21st Century. Legal academia is what I know, and so I have worked in both of my deanships to find places to innovate and try to transform some of the models for legal education. Increasingly, it is clear that innovation is necessary on a university level, and it is equally clear that—while I don’t think online will replace in-person universities—our university can’t avoid thinking about how to put educational models online.
Berman said that it was his willingness to identify and act on new ideas more rapidly than is common in the university system that set him apart from other administrators. His efforts to create a joint program with the university’s business school also drew attention. The program, packaged as a business master’s degree, was aimed at executives that wanted experience in the law and business of government contracting. During his time as the dean he also had a hand in creating an intellectual law program for those who weren’t interested in earning a law degree yet still wanted an insight into an area that has been preoccupying many businesses in the past decade.
Mainly, Berman credits his promotion to his willingness to consider how students pursuing degrees outside the law school might still be interested in expertise provided by academics working there.
NLJ: Innovation is a bit of a buzzword. What will you actually be doing in your new job?
Berman: It’s a little premature for me to say, precisely, what programs we’re going to launch. This is the beginning of a process. Having said that, I think that the opportunities are wide open. There are a number of different types of online education models that are interesting. I think that one of [George Washington's] great strengths is the fact that it is a great convening entity for thought leadership and policy discussions. It’s in D.C., so we have access to policymakers. I think that can be extended online to create more of a forum, in real time, for national and global public policy, think tank-type discussions that don’t require everyone to come to D.C. Can we expand the model of the academic conference so it has an even broader scope and scale? That’s one thing I’d love to explore.