College of Law

Ever wonder what a law school’s chief administrator does?

Posted January 2, 2018

Throughout the month of January, University of Tennessee College of Law Dean Melanie Wilson shares her experience in leading the college, its faculty, staff, and students. Follow her journey through this blog.

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018:

As my grandma used to say — I was “up and at ’em” early today. I like to get up early when I teach, so that I have plenty of time to review my notes and materials one last time before class.

Getting up by 5 a.m. gave me a chance to feed the dogs and take my time getting ready before I left for school. But, because of the bitter cold — lows around 8 degrees, coupled with yesterday’s snow fall, by 5:30 we were notified that UT was on a delayed start. We were not opening until 10 a.m. As a result, my 8:30 class was canceled. That was a bummer, but I didn’t dwell on it because there is always plenty to do.

Dean Melanie Wilson meets with students as part of the College of Law MLK celebration activities.

I immediately shifted gears to all of the unfinished regular business — email review, letter drafting, thank-you note writing, and similar tasks. I met with a handful of staff and faculty on a variety of topics, and I prepared for tomorrow’s meetings, including our regularly scheduled faculty meeting and a meeting of the Council of Deans — a bi-monthly meeting of the deans, provost, and vice provosts. I also tied up some of the loose ends related to the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ upcoming “docket day” at the college. On February 20, we will have the honor of hosting a panel of the Court who will hear oral arguments in our building. That will obviously give our students a rare opportunity to see the Court in action.

The highlight of my day happened during the lunch hour. As part of our week-long celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., our faculty committee on community and inclusion hosted a lunch opportunity, complete with foods that Dr. King enjoyed. As part of that lunch, the committee organized small groups of interested students, staff, and faculty who ate together and talked about issues of diversity and inclusion. Law students led each discussion and selected the topics to guide the conversations.

My group covered a number of interesting topics touching on race, implicit bias, classism, fragility, immigration deportation, and others. I was so impressed with how these students showed thoughtfulness and risked vulnerability in sharing their ideas and challenges. I also noted how receptive they were to hearing opposing views, and that they understood that as a practicing attorney they would represent people from a variety of backgrounds, with different views, and biases and that they needed to be ready to counsel people that do not think like they think.

Spending this quality hour with these students and other members of the law school community, all of whom demonstrated a genuine interest in fostering diversity within the college, was inspiring. During the afternoon and evening, I reflected many times on this lunchtime conversation. The students gave me much to think on, as they always do. Boy, are they thoughtful and smart.

Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018:

Every Tuesday, I meet with about half of the college’s leadership team in 30-45 minute, one-on-one conferences.  Today, I met with our academic dean, director of our law library, director of academic success, director of the advocacy center and interim director of the clinic, our dean of finance and administration, and the director of our communications unit.  Because these folks are really capable and uniformly committed to the success of the college, these meetings are typically encouraging.  On average, at least half of each meeting is devoted to talking about progress on projects and plans for even more progress. And, of course, we brainstorm on any challenges we are facing in reaching our goals.

Every other Tuesday, (today included), we also meet as a group.  Each director and assistant or associate dean reports to the group on the latest news in her area of leadership.  This more inclusive meeting allows everyone to hear what others are accomplishing and tends to encourage collaboration among units and the exchange of information that sometimes sparks new ideas.

The College of Law enjoyed the first snowfall of the new year on Jan. 16, 2018.

Admittedly, as useful as all of these meetings are, they still involve a lot of sitting still and a lot of listening and talking.  There’s not much “action” for me on Tuesdays.  Because there is so much sitting, I make every effort to exercise on Tuesdays, either at the beginning or end of the day, if not both.  Today, my exercise came at the end of the day in the form of the elliptical, which is not my favorite.  I was stuck inside with the elliptical, other than a short walk in the snow with my female Dane, Choden, because today was an unusual weather day, complete with about an inch and a half of snow and falling temperatures.

Although most of the day was devoted to meetings (and a little to exercise), I did enjoy an opportunity during the lunch hour to hear UT Psychology Professor Michael Olson present to the law school community on the dangers of implicit bias.  Dr. Olson’s presentation was part of this week’s events to honor the legacy of Dr. King.  I learned quite a bit.  Perhaps the two most interesting take aways from his research for me:  1) even those of us who are mindful that we have biases are unable to control those biases simply because we genuinely care about equality and fairness; and 2) calling out implicit prejudice in others, even if glaring, will engender defensiveness and entrenchment of the prejudicial behavior.  In other words, our ingrained, subconscious biases are tough to combat.  Really interesting.

Stay safe and warm everyone.

Monday, Jan. 15, 2018

The College of Law was closed today in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy. Like so many others across the country, I took time to reflect on Dr. King’s courage, sacrifice, selflessness, and wisdom. There are so many lessons in Dr. King’s words and acts.
Dean Melanie Wilson enjoys a moment of down time over the weekend with her Great Dane.

I also used the day for some work tasks that required a block of time to complete. For example, I’m serving on a University committee that owes a recommendation to the Provost this week, so I spent some time on that project. I began preparation for my Wednesday and Friday classes because with a short week, most of my time Tuesday and Thursday will be filled with meetings. And, I spent time reviewing some of the college’s statistics for 2017, including trends about our fundraising, admissions, employment outcomes, and number of credits hours per faculty member

In the two and one half years I’ve enjoyed the honor of serving as dean, our fundraising, admissions and employment numbers have improved steadily. But, our 5- and 10-year trends on credit hours per faculty member have been in a decline because fewer students have been attending law schools nationally.

Before the sun set, I made time for my four-legged children. The temperature is predicted to gradually drop between now (Monday evening) and Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to make the most of the warm(ish) 42 degrees before the severe cold and (supposedly) snow returns. Like me, all of my babies like it warm and sunny, so the next two days will be rough on all of us.

 Hope everyone found inspiration from MLK, Jr., Day.

Sunday, January 14, 2018:

Sundays are nice. They allow for so much flexibility. I completed a number of work projects today — wrote some thank you notes, reviewed several memoranda, completed some administrative approvals, and also found time to spend with family and friends, feed the outdoor birds several times, walk dogs, and exercise.
University of Tennessee Lady Vols freshman guard Elvina Westbrook.

I probably would have accomplished even more, but for a couple of hours, I was engrossed by the Lady Vols’ away game against South Carolina.  No surprise that Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared looked very smooth on the court.

But, it was the freshmen who were most fascinating, especially Evina Westbrook, who scored 14 points and ran the floor like a veteran, and Anastasia Hayes, who really increased the tempo and focus of the game.

Hope everyone takes a few minutes tomorrow to reflect on the incredible progress Dr. King accomplished during his life and the courage and commitment he showed for civil liberties in the face of serious and dangerous opposition.  I often remember Dr. King’s words when I need inspiration to act or speak.  “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  And, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018:

The YWCA is one of the many impressive organizations in Knoxville. The organization’s slogan is “eliminating racism and empowering women.” And every year, the Y hosts a number of events and programs supportive of those aims. As part of our 2018 celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, the college fielded a team today for the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley 5K race against racism. Because the severe cold continued, the turnout overall was a bit small, as was our team. But, it was a quality team. And, there were a number of UT Law alumni and law students at the event too — Robyn and Jerry Askew, Beth Ford, and Savannah Flowers, among them.
Ellen Cole and Dean Melanie Wilson participate in Phyllis Wheatley 5K race sponsored by the Knoxville YWCA.

Thankfully, my colleague Ellen Cole was racing for our team. Ellen works in our development office and is a powerfully positive force. I’ve never seen Ellen have a bad day or fail to find the bright side of a challenge. So, there was no way I could skip the race (even if it was 26 degrees that felt like 16 when the race began). I’m not saying I didn’t have thoughts of staying home and warm, and catching up on some work. But, I couldn’t let my team down, and it’s hard not to support an organization committed to “eliminating racism and empowering women.”

Even with the cold, once we were underway, it was enjoyable. The camaraderie, the worthwhile cause, the exercise that one might otherwise forgo on such a cold day — it was all good. Although it was tough to find your teammates in the crowd. Everyone was so bundled in hats and layers, we all looked the same.
Having already braved the cold for several hours to take part in the race and related activities, when I returned home, I decided to take my pups for walks. As a result, I achieved my “steps” goal for today. Now, I’m going to catch up on my email while I watch recordings of this afternoon’s Tennessee-Texas A&M and KU-K-State men’s basketball games.
Thanks team for another great day.

Friday, Jan. 12, 2018:

The cold, icy, and snowy weather in Middle Tennessee foiled my plans to drive to Nashville this afternoon to attend a dinner hosted by the Tennessee Bar Foundation. Once Nashville decided to close the public schools, and the milk, bread, and cat food started disappearing from the grocery shelves in the city, I figured that the odds were strong that the Foundation dinner would be cancelled. It was certainly the right call for safety, but I am disappointed to lose a chance to spend time with the impressive fellows of the Foundation, many of whom are alumni of our college.
Thankfully, the weather did not spoil my criminal procedure class earlier in the day. Although it’s only day two of the course, I’m convinced that the members of the class are going to challenge and learn from one another and keep me on my toes.  Many of them were unimpressed by the Supreme Court’s holding in United States v. Drayton. After less than 90 minutes of in-class study of the Fourth Amendment, many students wanted to explain why the majority was wrong in finding that Mr. Drayton and his traveling companion, Mr. Brown, voluntarily consented when law enforcement asked to search their luggage and pat down their bodies. In other words, my students are already thinking deeply about how these important constitutional principles impact real people in their day-to-day lives. I love it!

Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018

Students have returned to the College of Law following the winter break from classes.

Today was a catch up day.  By the usual standards, things were slow. Besides the typical email flow, I participated in a couple of meetings — one with some of my leadership team to brainstorm about a possible collaboration with theChancellor’s Honors Program, another with the college’s associate dean for faculty development to talk about external funding for research.

I also spent part of the afternoon preparing for tomorrow morning’s criminal procedure class. In the first part of the class, we will wrap up our discussion of Hodari D by watching a video clip. I want the students to determine at what point the Fourth Amendment is implicated.

The video shows a police officer chasing, and eventually tripping, a suspect. And, no discussion of 4th Amendment seizures would be complete without an analysis of Drayton, the bus case. After we cover those cases completely, we will examine the major U.S. Supreme Court cases involving road blocks — Sitz and Edmond — before we wrap up with cases on stop and identify statutes — Brown and Hiibel.

The ease of the day’s schedule allowed me to take a few minutes to walk the hallways visiting with staff and faculty who were making sure that the first week of classes is going well for students. It is so good to have the students back in the building.  After all, they are why we do what we do.

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018:

What a satisfying day. The 2 and 3Ls in my criminal procedure class were on-time, prepared, and engaged. They demonstrated that they had read the assigned materials carefully and were thoughtful and analytical when I posed hypotheticals changing the facts of our cases in small, but important, ways. The 75-minute class flew by. I’m already looking forward to Friday’s class when we resume our discussion on how to distinguish seizures of a person that implicate the Fourth Amendment from consensual interactions between police and citizens that don’t.
I also enjoyed kicking off the new

semester (and the new year) alongside many of my staff and faculty colleagues. Rather than a December holiday gathering, this year, we opted to host a January new year’s lunch, and even the weather cooperated. It’s rare that so many of us have any opportunity to go off campus together, let alone sit together and enjoy a meal with one another.  It was really nice.
After lunch, I worked on some nominations of faculty for University awards, wrote thank you notes to several alumni and faculty who have made recent gifts to the college, and answered a few dozen emails, before I caught up on the most recent oral arguments in criminal procedure cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Byrd v. United States, the Court heard oral argument this week on the Fourth Amendment rights of a person who drives a rental car but is not listed as an authorized driver in the rental documents. In Collins v. Virginia, the Court heard argument on the parameters of the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment as it relates to the police’s search of a motorcycle stored on private property near a home.

Having a job that requires me to engage with bright students, dedicated colleagues, and cutting edge legal decisions – priceless – not to mention the 60 degree January weather here in Knoxville today.

I’m definitely going to find some time this evening to walk dogs.  It would be a crime to miss this opportunity to get outside this evening.

Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018:

Classes begin tomorrow — can’t wait for students to be back in the building!!!! But that means time flies and the pace of everything increases.

Once the semester officially begins, I have to find time to properly prepare for class in addition to keeping the momentum on our other projects – supporting graduates who are preparing for the February bar exam and those who are still looking for just the right law job, attracting the best and brightest future students, brainstorming with my leadership team and faculty on innovations and ideas, fundraising. I feel so fortunate to serve as dean here. Definitely keeps me hopping.

Our hallways are empty today, but just wait until tomorrow when classes begin.

From our faculty coffee this morning (a new idea I’m trying out this semester — to get the faculty together once per month for coffee and bagels, so we can catch up without necessarily talking business), to my individual meetings with various program directors, to our senior management team meeting, there has not been one spare moment today. Wouldn’t be bad – usually I like busy – except I stayed up late watching Georgia almost beat Alabama.

So, tonight, I catch up on my class preparation.  I’m going to put on my slippers, get my Mastiff-Dane helpers in place for moral support, and prepare for my first class of the semester.

Criminal Procedure is great stuff. Tomorrow we will take a look at the justice system generally, including exploring the pros and cons of the broad discretion in the system.  That means exploring the disparate impact our system has on the imprisonment of African American men, the benefits and risks of using “snitch” witnesses to prosecutor others, the secrecy involved in the grand jury system, and many, many other interesting and sometimes controversial topics. We will also begin our study of the Fourth Amendment. Students are almost always surprised how little protection the Fourth Amendment actually provides for our privacy and liberty.

Can’t wait.

Monday, Jan. 8, 2018:

This morning I was up early to spend some time with my pups before attending this year’s Fundraising Summit for Academic Leaders and Development Officers, which began at 8 a.m. Most of the deans were there, as were most of our development professionals, even our regional representatives from miles away.

Provost John Zomchick led off the summit with some thank yous to everyone for their extensive fundraising efforts, noting how important private giving has become in the face of declining state support. Vice Chancellor Chip Bryant gave everyone a quick update on campaign progress and last year’s giving (through November) before we heard from John Tannous, Director of Research Delivery.
John Tannous, UT Director of Research Delivery, speaks at the fundraising summit for academic leaders and development officers.

Tannous talked about gen-xers and millennial donors, opportunities for creative stewardship, entrepreneurs and fundraising,  and facilitated some group brain-storming exercises to allow colleges to take a few minutes to work together in thinking innovatively about these issues.

We concluded just after 12:30, and I headed back to the College of Law to catch up on mail (we are still receiving a few end-of-year gifts) and to meet with one of our technical librarians who is helping me try a new teaching program in my criminal procedure course this semester. I’m learning to use “Nearpod,” which is an interactive classroom computer platform, allowing a teacher to play videos, engage students with quizzes, and display important points in easy-to-read print.  I’m usually fairly low tech when I teach, but we know that today’s students communicate differently. They grew up using technology, so I’m attempting to meet them where they are. We shall see how it goes.

If it doesn’t work well, I can always resort to the old methods, but I’m optimistic that mixing up delivery methods in the classroom will keep students engaged and energized about some really serious and important material. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. First class is this Wednesday, after all.  In fact, I need to put the final touches on my syllabus.

Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018:

Dean Wilson enjoys her pets, Stella Mae, an English Mastiff, and Choden, a blue Great Dane.
Today was rest and family day.
I slept in a little this morning and then spent some quality time walking and playing with my dogs, apologizing to my cats (if you have cats, you understand), and feeding the outdoor birds who have had a tough, cold week.

I managed to get my remaining emails answered and then worked a bit on my criminal procedure syllabus.  And, of course, I watched the Lady Vols prevail over Vanderbilt to reach a perfect 15-0 record.

I bet there will be some students back in the building tomorrow because classes start Wednesday.  Looking forward to that energy and enthusiasm.

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018:

Today was a travel day. My flight from San Diego to Houston departed a bit after 8 a.m. My next flight From Houston to Knoxville left at 2:25 p.m. But with time changes, I landed in Knoxville a bit after 5:30p.m. So, not much accomplished today, other than sending and responding to a few emails and making some notes on the conference.

Oh, and I read an interesting article from The Guardian while on the plane. It explored the increasing use of brain scans and brain science in criminal cases, particularly during the sentencing phase of cases seeking the death penalty.

It’s great to be home. Lots of wags waiting for me. Even warm weather can’t beat that.

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018:

Even given the time change, 6 a.m. seemed early today. Last night’s dinner honoring outgoing female law deans Gail Agrawal of the University of Iowa, Jane Korn of Gonzaga University, Stacy Leeds of the University of Arkansas, and Maureen O’Rourke of Boston University (who was unable to travel due to weather) went late into the evening. But, it was really fantastic. In attendance were two of the very first female law deans who are living pioneers. After all, these women attended law school as students when there were fewer than ten women in an entire law school class. Then, they went on to become deans at a time when there were no women in those leadership roles. That dinner was great inspiration and especially energizing for today’s marathon deans program.

The Law School Admission Council has announced that as of Dec. 29, 2017, law school applications are up 17.1% over last year.

Today, all of the deans attending this conference have met in one place. This year’s program is titled “Effective Deaning.” It began with a breakfast business meeting at 8 a.m. We heard from Kellye Testy, president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council, about the slight increase this year so far in law school applications. Later, there was a session revealing some of the findings from a Gallup field survey to determine how undergraduate students make decisions about whether to pursue law school. Then, we broke out into smaller sessions to talk about various challenges facing our law schools. I chose the session that delved further into the Gallup findings. After the morning sessions, we participated in a working lunch hosted by the ABA section of legal education and heard from Barry Currier, managing director of the ABA section. Later this afternoon, we will meet in more break out sessions before we finish at 4 p.m.

As soon as that meeting concludes, I’ll be scurrying over to the California Western Law School for the Society of American Law Teachers awards celebration. My former Kansas colleague, Lua Yuille, is being honored with a junior faculty teaching award. Then, I’ll hurry back to the AALS meeting for the Women’s Leadership in Academia presentation, and I’ll wrap up the day at the AALS President’s Reception where Paul Marcus officially completes his term as president.

It’s a tight schedule, but it’s all really informative and enjoyable. My only regret is that I’ve been unable to hear my UT Law colleagues’ presentations and see them longer than passing in the hallway. Joan Heminway is receiving an award for her influential mentoring of other professors. Brian Krumm is part of a discussion on community economic development and access to justice. Jonathan Rohr is presenting at a session on agency, partnership, LLCs, and unincorporated associations. And these are just a few examples.

I’m feeling very proud of my talented UT colleagues today. And, that makes me fortified to get back to Knoxville tomorrow, even if it is still very cold.

Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018

My mind and body still think we are in a Knoxville time zone. So, I struggled to sleep until 5 a.m. this morning. But it was nice to get moving early. I managed to find the hotel gym last night, so I was moving a little slow this morning from muscle soreness anyway. And, the extra time gave me a chance to review today’s conference schedule and get in 20 minutes of meditation.

At 8:30, I met some of my former Kansas colleagues for tea. It’s always interesting to hear how different law schools approach the various challenges facing us, as well as how they approach different aspects of teaching and scholarship. Plus, these are such nice people. I like keeping up on how and what they are doing. One is pregnant with her third child, for example.

After tea, it was on to the conference. My friend, Paul Marcus, moderated a panel discussion on access to justice. And, thankfully, I ran into Paul yesterday late and was able to spend a little time hearing about his year as AALS president and to congratulate him on a recent teaching award from William & Mary. Paul and I also talked a little business. We co-author three publications together, so there are always loose ends there to tie – on deadlines or new editions.

In one of the panels I attended called “Design Thinking for Law Professors,” Daniel Linna from Michigan State introduced me to the term “lean thinking” as it relates to continuous improvement toward excellence. Another panelist talked about how important it is to “flip” your view of problem solving when trying to innovate and how it can be important to use more visuals and fewer words when brainstorming ideas.

I’m going to take a quick walk and grab some lunch before I attend the 1:30 (PST) session on book publishing, but this afternoon will be busy and enjoyable, too. At 4:30, I’m attending the AALS reception to mingle with others from across the country before I attend a reception and dinner for several female deans who are stepping down this year. After that, I’m meeting my friend and former boss, Stephen Mazza, for coffee/tea to catch up.

Hope all of you are staying warm.

Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018

This morning I awoke early — at 4:15. My flight from Knoxville, connecting in Houston for San Diego, departed at 7 a.m.

The airport has been busy with longer security lines lately. When you take that into account along with the time that it takes to feed and care for Mastiffs, Danes, and cats in the morning, well … you get the point.
My flights were mostly on time, and I made it to the hotel in San Diego by 12:30 (PST) (3:30 (EST)).  I am now on the hunt for a quick bite of food before I walk to the law professors’ (AALS) conference just down the block.  There’s not enough time for me to catch too many sessions today, but I definitely want to make it to the session on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession. And, of course, the conference is a fantastic opportunity to connect with other deans and professors across the country. We compare notes and ideas. It’s not uncommon for collaborations to develop during this conference. Really energizing stuff.
Oh, and of course, I’ll make time tonight to respond to email. There are always plenty of those.

Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

It’s great to be back in the college this morning after our new year’s holiday. I’m energized for a fantastic 2018! It’s still quiet in the hallways, as the students don’t start classes again for another week, and many faculty are working on their research and wrapping up grading from home. This has allowed me to catch up on my mail, and meet with some of my leadership team. We each set goals for the new year and brain storm on strategies to begin the year with a positive momentum.

In addition to these meetings, I’m writing thank you notes to gracious end-of-year donors and preparing for my trip to San Diego, which begins tomorrow, for the yearly meeting of law professors and law deans. My friend, Paul Marcus, a law professor at William & Mary, is the outgoing president of the organization (the Association of American Law Schools) that hosts the meeting. I’ll be able to visit with Paul and many colleagues from across the country while I’m there.  It’s a long way to travel for a meeting, but it’s always an information-packed conference. And, this year, we are co-hosting a women’s leadership in academia event with the University of Georgia on Jan. 5.