Meet Dean Colin Crawford

Meet Dean Colin Crawford

Dean Colin Crawford

On January 1, 2018, Colin Crawford began his tenure as the Brandeis School of Law’s 24th dean.

He’s a new face at the University of Louisville, but he’s no stranger to the demands of a university administrator — or to Kentucky, where his father’s family has roots.

From his father’s hometown in western Kentucky came a career that has taken Crawford across the country and around the world. He brings a distinct international perspective to Brandeis Law; he speaks three languages and has lectured and taught in several countries, including Brazil, China, Colombia and Spain.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Crawford is a self-described academic entrepreneur with scholarly interests in environmental, urban development and land-use issues.

He comes to Brandeis Law from Tulane University, where he was a law professor and director of an international development center for undergraduate and graduate students.

Here, he shares a bit about what he admires about the Brandeis School of Law and his hopes for the school in the changing landscape of legal education.

What attracted you to Brandeis?

“Louisville was especially attractive to me, first for family reasons. My father was from western Kentucky. He was from a town called Corydon. Although he spent most of his childhood school years in Denver, where I was raised, his father’s family raised trotting horses and his father was killed in a riding accident when my dad was under a year old.

“His mother, a nurse, then moved to Colorado to find work. A brother had gone there for asthma treatment. She got a job in one of the asthma hospitals. But my grandfather was the youngest of 10 children and the only boy, and my father was the only child. So he would go back in the summers and he’d be like a little king, doted on by all these relatives of the only boy and the youngest child, now dead. That’s all a long way of saying that Kentucky as a state figures very large in my mental imagination and my family emotional life. Even though I’d only been a couple of time before myself, it was very, very big part of our family history.

“My father really credited all of his success — he became a very successful lawyer and he really came from virtually nothing — to a family friend whom he thought of as a de facto uncle, namely Albert “Happy” Chandler (44th and 49th governor of Kentucky). So the chance to live in Kentucky was the first attraction of Louisville.

“Then, of course, the Brandeis name is very appealing. I knew it was a very old law school and the Brandeis inheritance is an important one. I think Brandeis, especially in these very polarized political times, is an interesting figure because he doesn’t neatly fit in to our current conservative or liberal categories. That’s partly because he was a person in a different time. But I really think he was a very nuanced and complicated person and thinker. The thought of being associated with a school that tries to channel that inheritance is very appealing.”

What do you see as some of the law school’s strengths?

“All of my interactions with staff and with faculty — and not just at Brandeis but with the university — were very positive. I also thought the city was very beautiful. It seemed like it’d be a nice place to live, with a strong business community. The law school seemed to be peopled with a terrifically nice, hard-working, interesting group of people.

“Since then, I’ve been very attracted to the very strong faculty-student bond. I’ve had current students write me out of the blue and say how glad they are that I’m coming and they’re looking forward to meeting me, which I think speaks very well for the school culture.

“Particularly given the current budget circumstances in the university and in law schools generally, it’s just very impressive the range of things that a relatively small school does. Brandeis is really fighting above its weight. It’s doing a lot more than one would expect with the resources.

“The strong commitment to working in the community I think is really important in a state school, especially. My best teaching experiences actually have been at state schools, so I like that mission very much.”

Law schools nationally are facing changes in enrollment and funding that make the role of a dean challenging in new ways. What made you want to take on this role?

“I have lots of friends who are deans or senior administrators and I explored this question with them. Why would anyone want to do this job at this difficult moment? But on reflection I came to feel that it really played to some of my strengths.

“Not by design but just the way my career has worked out, I turned out to be a kind of academic entrepreneur, so I actually think I have some skill in administration. I like administration. I like building institutions.

“One thing I think that is true of all the positions I’ve had is that I’ve really worked to make the institutions better. There are people who make institutions better by being outstanding scholars or teachers, and that’s an important role. But I’ve really thrown myself more into administrative tasks to make them better. I felt that it would be a challenge that would be really interesting at a challenging time.

“There’s been great work that’s been done by former Dean Susan Duncan, particularly building up the alumni base, and I felt there was room to then build upon those successes. There are  some new possibilities and opportunities to keep on pushing the school further ahead. It seemed like an interesting challenge — and I’m very tired of the New Orleans weather too.”

What do you see as opportunities for growth at the Brandeis School of Law?

“I think this school could be a little more outward-looking, a little more international in its outlook. Commerce today is very global and there are opportunities to do things in the world. You can be based in a commercial city like Louisville, and you can be doing things with other countries. I really think that there are some terrific opportunities to try to develop internationally.

“I also think there are some commonalities, at least as seen from the outside, in faculty strengths and I’d like to try to package those to emphasize to the world what we have to offer, besides a very friendly, student-focused and talented faculty. I think it’s really important in today’s legal market to give students a sense of what their training is going to get them, how they get from A to B. Some of the older models of legal education may not be as convincing or compelling as they once were. I’d like to see us think about shaping the existing strengths in different ways.

“I’d like to help promote a really robust intellectual legal environment on campus as well. I don’t mean that students have to become deeply involved in academic legal writing, but I do believe it is useful for law students to understand that ideas power the law and result in legal change and that we’re in a profession that is a debate about principles and values and ideas, and how to make them concrete and so to change people’s lives.

“I was able to negotiate some support from central administration for a couple of years to start some new initiatives with junior faculty in particular. I’m already getting applications to do that. Just last week I had an hour-long meeting with a junior faculty member by phone to discuss her ideas, so we’ll be planning things even before I get there.  Some of the things that young faculty are doing on really cutting-edge issues — issues of major consequence in the United States and in the world right now. And I hope that can show our students and also the world that the Brandeis School of Law is a really dynamic place.

“In the longer term, I have some ideas about curriculum reform and different ways you can structure courses. I think in law schools in the United States in general, legal education is following an older model than some other disciplines, and I think there are some dynamic ways to try and break up the curriculum and to do different things. This is challenging at a school like Brandeis because it’s small. You have to cover some basics and generally they have to be covered in traditional ways, across the arc of a 14- or 15-week semester. But beyond that, I’d like to explore some other ways of learning and teaching.

“And, finally, I’m already starting to talk to the development office about different ways we might try and create new student opportunities that would help find students complementary experiences to their legal education, perhaps by means of trying to create some competitive fellowships with distinctive features. Of course, that means finding alums and other donors who share the view that such initiatives merit their support!”

“Everything I say is conditioned upon having the support of the faculty and the students. It’s not the Colin Crawford show.”

You have a wide range of international experience. Why is that important to you?

“I’ve lived for several years abroad. I speak different languages. It just comes from a deep curiosity about the world.

“I think that international education makes better lawyers because you understand that there are other ways of doing things in the world. Some countries do things better than other countries. Some countries do things better in the law than the United States, while in other ways, we’re a world leader. It’s very useful to have those comparative experiences because I think it enriches your sense of your obligations and your potential as a lawyer. It changes the way you see the world.

“It helps us all, I think, to acknowledge that there’s such a rapid and intense rate of international connection now. If you’re not on that wagon, you’re going to be missing out on something. International legal experiences are a way to make yourself a better job candidate when you’re a student and a more competitive lawyer when you’re in practice – both because you have different contacts and have different experiences to build upon.

“I think there are ways to create international experiences for students, moreover, that don’t have to be break-the-bank. They can be more modest, shorter-term experiences. But even a short experience can have a really transformative effect a student’s career, just as they’ve had on mine.”

Can you share a bit about your past roles?

“I spent seven years at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, which I really enjoyed. I arrived at a really good moment there because they were doing some internal reorganization in the university and the Provost at the time created a competition to start some new initiatives. I won two grants in that effort. One was to start a foreign studies program, which then ended up having as many as 90 students in 10 different courses. I educated about 400 students in Brazil over 10 years through that program.

“In addition, we got some funding to start a new comparative urban studies center, which has a very long name: the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth. It’s still going strong. Several of the programs that I’ve started are still thriving. I’m very proud of that work. I hope that I can replicate similar kinds of initiatives at Brandeis.

“I was then recruited to go to Tulane because of that administrative experience. The Payson Center for International Development, which I went to Tulane to lead, was big — 300 students (200 undergraduates, 100 graduate students), anywhere from nine to 12 faculty and about half as many staff. We had development projects in four continents. Not just in law — but in many related areas, including economic development, women’s health development projects, food security projects. Payson, created in 1996, was one of the first development studies centers in the United States. Going to Tulane to lead it was an exciting challenge.

“For administrative reasons, it ended up going into the law school and that’s when they hired me. They needed a tenure-able person in law who had done development work. We created an LLM in development. We doubled our numbers in our joint JD/master’s program. We doubled the number of undergraduate majors in international development. To sum up, the Payson Center was both a research- and project-oriented resource, providing applied research for government entities and NGOs on four continents and it has a robust academic program for undergraduates and graduate students in development studies.”

There’s an emphasis in higher education on interdisciplinary studies. How do you hope to further that idea at the law school?

“As I indicated in my previous answer, the Payson Center was an interdisciplinary endeavor. Law faculties can be very challenging places to do interdisciplinary work, for historical reasons. Professional schools have generally tended to be boats that sail on their own. I’m not sure that’s as realistic to do that as it once was. Therefore, I’d like to promote more interdisciplinary education. It’s hard because different disciplines speak different professional languages and use different research methodologies and techniques.

“However, a strength of law as a discipline is that law is a reactive discipline. It reacts to things that are identified, that are discovered and are argued over in other areas. That means that lawyers are needed to help order and give shape to new ideas and discoveries. In other words, lawyers are well-placed to work in interdisciplinary spaces.

“One way to help promote this, I think, is to strength the good menu of existing joint degree programs is. Students don’t often realize what these opportunities are, but it generally helps students to have a joint degree because, in a competitive market, they have two different skill sets. This also helps turn law students into, better lawyers, I think, because they understand the world not just through a couple of lenses.” 

Quick facts

Hometown: Denver, Colorado

Undergrad: B.A. in history, Columbia University

Graduate studies: M.A. in history and PhD candidate in history, University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College

Law school: J.D., Harvard Law School

Previous permanent positions at: Tulane University, Georgia State University College of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Brooklyn Law School

Languages spoken: English (native), Portuguese (fluent), Spanish (fluent), French (basic conversational)

Get to know Dean Crawford 

Why did you gravitate toward the law?
"My father was a lawyer who specialized in securities law. I grew up respecting the skill and commitment of lawyers to help resolve people’s challenges and problems as efficiently and with as little conflict as possible."

What was your first job?
"Starting at the age of 13, I worked at what has since become a famous independent bookstore, the Tattered Cover, in Denver. At that time, it was a little hole in the wall. I unpacked new stock and sent back returns. It gave me a great sense of the issues and trends of the day. I loved it, but it was not glamorous."

How do you relax?
"Exercise, bike ride, read, travel, listen to music."

How has law school changed since you were a law student?
"When I was in law school, it was a seller’s market, and companies were more dependent on outside counsel than they are today. So there were lots of jobs, and they were well-paid. But the education was also more formal and less experiential, although that was starting to change. The tighter market and the transformation in modes of legal service delivery is forcing a powerful transformation in legal education; we are still in the midst of it."

Why did you gravitate toward your areas of scholarship?
"Our family took one foreign trip — to Mexico — when I was a teenager. I instantly loved Mexico City — the vibrant street life, the unexpected beauty, the variety, the food. On that trip, I thought: 'I want to understand cities better.'

"But I also spent a lot of time outside, in nature, and thus became involved with the growing environmental movement. My parents were strong advocates for expanded social equality and opportunity as well — as was my extended family. So all of these things came together in my focus on urban and environmental justice."