June 24, 2008 — John C. Jeffries Jr. may know the University of Virginia School of Law better than any other person. He's been intimately attached to Virginia for more than 35 years, serving as editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review in his student days, then joining the faculty two years after graduation. As dean for the past seven years, Jeffries has led the school through a number of important transitions. Now he's ready for the next big change.
"I thought it was time for a new generation of leadership, time for a shift to younger leadership and the different perspectives that younger leadership will provide," Jeffries said in a recent interview. He is stepping down July 1, when Professor Paul G. Mahoney will become dean.
Change has been a theme of both Jeffries' deanship and of the legal landscape in recent years. Lawyers now switch jobs more frequently, and so do law professors.
"This is a distinctly more competitive world than the one that existed seven or eight years ago," he said. "It's more competitive at recruiting and retaining faculty, and it's more competitive in recruiting students as well."
Many faculty members who know Jeffries believe he was destined to be dean. Jeffries clerked for Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. immediately after law school — a rare feat, as law graduates typically clerk for a federal appeals court judge first. He served in the U.S. Army before heading back to Virginia, where he has specialized in teaching courses in constitutional law, criminal law, federal courts and civil rights. He has co-authored casebooks on civil rights, federal courts and criminal law, and has published scholarly articles in those fields. He also wrote a biography of Justice Powell.
Having been a member of the University community for many years, Jeffries was able to move on several of his goals quickly after becoming dean. He helped the Law School establish a new fiscal model, known as "financial self-sufficiency," under which the University allows the Law School greater flexibility in setting tuition and managing its own in exchange for relinquishing state funds.
To counter the increased tuition that comes with financial self-sufficiency, Jeffries has nearly tripled the financial aid budget. After graduation, students entering public service positions or lower-paying jobs in rural parts of Virginia now benefit from having their loans forgiven through the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program.
"Creating for the Law School an entirely different financial structure was a necessary response to the continued decline in state funds," Jeffries said. "It's working remarkably well , and I hope and believe it will be durable."
Jeffries said he was also proud of students' improved academic credentials, and he credited the Admissions Office for building classes that significantly raised Law School Admission Test and grade-point average medians over the course of his deanship.
"We've raised the academic standards of the entering class without losing the qualities of personal balance, leadership, character and civility that have always been hallmarks of Virginia students," he said.
Jeffries brought the basics of business education into the Law School to answer alumni calls to "teach young lawyers something about what their clients actually do," he said. Hundreds of students have participated in the Law & Business Program's curricular offerings, including the basic accounting and finance classes, advanced courses in business law and short courses taught by business leaders.
"Much more remains to be done, and no doubt Paul Mahoney will do it," he said.
From traveling to meet with alumni and raise funds to working alongside University administrators to effect change, Jeffries has seen the gamut of issues facing higher education.
"Every problem in the Law School, whether internal or external, ultimately comes to this office," he said. "The Law School is extremely well staffed, and without that kind of internal leadership, I don't think the job of the dean would be doable."
The dean's team is quick to return the praise.
"John Jeffries accomplished three things — negotiation of financial self-sufficiency, creation of the Law & Business program and the design of a generous and innovative loan forgiveness program — any one of which would be the highlight of a successful deanship," said Mahoney. "He leaves the Law School in exceptional shape from a pedagogical, financial and intellectual standpoint."
Luis Alvarez, the president and chief executive officer of the Law School Foundation, said Jeffries' talent for concentrating his attention on matters of real concern or benefit to the Law School was the hallmark of his deanship.
"John was intent on not getting distracted, and he was completely committed to our success," he said. "He made it all look effortless, but he worked tirelessly on the road and at home to advance the Law School."
Alvarez traveled extensively with the dean, meeting with alumni individually and in large groups, and worked with Jeffries developing and executing the current capital campaign. The Law School has raised more than 67 percent of its $150 million goal less than halfway through the campaign. The last two annual giving campaigns — in which more than 50 percent of alumni made gifts to the Law School — set school and national records for alumni participation among law schools.
"John uses every opportunity when he's before somebody to make the case for the Law School," Alvarez said. "He treats every graduate and friend of the Law School with courtesy and respect. He always made a point of stating his appreciation for their time, attention and support. And I think our alumni saw the best of Virginia reflected in their dealings with John."
Jeffries estimated he spent as much as a quarter of his time traveling and meeting with alumni.
"Everyone who doesn't know much about deaning believes that the relationships with alumni will be a burden in some way, and in fact they're not; they're a joy," he said. "Seeing alums is perhaps the best part of the job."
Long known for his classroom fireworks, Jeffries is also an important role model for students, said Student Bar Association President Ryan Quillian.
"From a student's perspective, you could not ask for more from a professor or from a dean," said Quillian, who took criminal law and civil rights litigation from Jeffries. "Dean Jeffries' energy, humor and structure make his classes both entertaining and easy to follow. Outside the classroom, he has provided a tremendous amount of support to the students and our endeavors."
While Jeffries jokes that he'll "miss people pretending that what I say matters," he said he is happy to have so qualified a successor.
"I think we're very lucky to have a dean from Virginia. If a dean came from outside, no matter how talented she or he might be, there would be a year or so of learning about this institution — not the Law School only, but also the University," he said. "Paul comes with the advantage of knowing the Law School intimately, of having had substantial experience of interaction with the University and also of knowing many of our graduates."
He pointed to the fact that all of the students in Mahoney's first class made gifts to the Law School in his honor at their 15th reunion this year. "Paul's experience is advantage in terms of standing with your alumni that no outsider could possibly have."
Jeffries passed on offering advice, suggesting that goals are now moving targets in the legal academy. His aspirations for the Law School remain the same today as they did when he became dean.
"I think of excellence as a process — it's an activity. So I hope we will still be able to attract and retain wonderful scholars. We have a culture in this building that is absolutely worth preserving. I hope the graduates of the Law School 10 or 15 years from now are as loyal to it and as affectionate about their experience here as is true today."
With his time as dean wrapping up, Jeffries also hopes to pick up a few of his now long-lost hobbies — hiking in the woods with a golden retriever at his side (he names his dogs after British generals) and catching up on Virginia basketball.
But mostly he hopes to get back to the classroom. After a sabbatical to be spent teaching at the Columbia and University of Southern California law schools next year, Jeffries will return to Virginia. "Teaching is my first love," Jeffries said, "and I'm eager to get back to it."