Dear alumni and friends:
With the new sights and sounds of spring on the Cornell campus, there is also an unmistakable sense of change in the air. Throughout the university, life has started to return to normal as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. And within the Law School itself, a major transition is underway as we bid a fond farewell to former Dean Eduardo Peñalver and prepare for the announcement of who will be the seventeenth dean of the school.
In a sign of how far we have come since last year, on May 22 we were thrilled to hold a masked and socially distanced in-person Convocation for the Class of 2021 at Schoellkopf Stadium. Graduates were even permitted to have two guests each in attendance. (See photos of the ceremony.) And in early April, Cornell President Martha Pollack announced that the entire university will return to full in-person instruction for the fall semester as long as certain benchmarks are reached.
We begin this issue with a retrospective on the deanship of Eduardo Peñalver, who helped guide the Law School through one of its most challenging periods in recent history. Shortly after the pandemic began, Eduardo told us that, “Like the past generations of Cornellians who experienced their own times of crisis, we will get through this one and come out the other side with a deeper appreciation of the blessing that this law school community represents.” Thanks to his exemplary leadership, I believe this is exactly how things will turn out. Although we are not yet fully on the other side of this crisis, it’s clear that Eduardo did a masterful job of navigating the Law School through the unchartered territory of how to safely provide the very best legal education during a pandemic. Our students have continued to excel in spite of the challenges and have indicated they are very happy with their courses and professors. Our legal clinics are still meeting with clients, the job market remains promising, especially at large law firms, and Law School administrators are planning for courses and clinics that address racial justice.
Having had the privilege of being vice dean during most of Eduardo’s term as dean, I can tell you that his management of the pandemic is only a small part of the story. The growth in fundraising that Eduardo oversaw enabled the Law School to more than double its spending on financial aid, allowing more than 40 percent of students to now graduate without debt. Increased fundraising also gave a big boost to the recruitment and retention of faculty, enabling him to create seven newly named professorships. Eduardo also greatly expanded experiential learning opportunities, launched two new degree programs, and improved the caliber and diversity of incoming Law School students. Apart from his myriad accomplishments, Eduardo brought a spirit of collegiality and caring, a willingness to try new things, and a determination to nurture and grow the Law School’s unique sense of community.
In the second feature article, we take a close look at what is has been like to teach and learn the law during the pandemic. You’ll hear from Law School students, faculty, and staff about the trials and triumphs they faced while adapting to the world of social distancing and online learning over the past three semesters. Fortunately, through a combination of resiliency, dedication, generosity, and flexibility, the Law School continued to function quite smoothly during this unprecedented period. And although it was a struggle at times for everyone to adjust to new technologies and new teaching modalities, the article points out that the most difficult part was losing the human connections that used to happen so naturally. To their credit, professors and administrators found creative ways to reimagine many of these connections virtually. The article also discusses how we made it a priority to preserve as much of the normal 1L experience as possible since it is such a foundational period in the overall law school experience. This meant, more than anything, giving 1Ls as many opportunities as possible to take classes in person. Students in all different years responded amazingly well overall to a difficult situation, making the most of their learning opportunities whether they were online, in-person, or in a hybrid of the two.
A question on the minds of many alumni is whether the pandemic will bring lasting changes to legal education. I do think that some of the ideas and innovations discovered during online teaching are likely to stick around, but I don’t believe there will be a big push toward distance learning in the legal academy as some may fear. In the Faculty Essay in this issue, Brad Wendel recounts his largely positive experience with online teaching and how he hopes to incorporate some of the lessons he learned into the traditional classroom experience. Within the Law School as a whole, we hope to use online and hybrid learning to deepen our partnership with Cornell Tech and our collaborations with overseas law schools, but in a way that does not compromise our DNA as a residential law school.
I hope you will continue to be involved in our efforts to make the Law School even stronger, more dynamic, and more relevant. On behalf of everyone at the Law School, I thank you for your continued interest and support.
Jens David Ohlin
Interim Dean and Professor of Law