POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2012:
TU Law Dean Janet Levit seeks to make the community part of the classroom
When Janet Levit speaks, it's with a mix of lawyerly consideration and natural thoughtfulness.
That doesn't mean she can't be blunt.
"Our education system, for many children is -- it's failing them. And the consequence is going to be that it's failing this country," Levit said.
Dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law since 2008, Levit in January began a formal advisory role with Teach for America, co-chairing a local board with her husband, Ken, executive director for the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
The foundation has been a longtime supporter of the nonprofit organization, which places high-achieving recent college graduates into teaching jobs in urban and rural schools. Last year Teach for America selected Tulsa as one of nine cities to host a teacher training institute.
Levit sometimes speaks in bullet points -- "So that's number one. Number two ..." -- and often interrupts herself with a short, breathy laugh, even when there's not much humor in what she's actually saying.
Seated in her office at a small, round glass table, the only other major piece of furniture in the office besides a non-descript desk, Levit openly mused if the Teach for America model could work for law students.
"There are a lot of people who say there are too many lawyers, that we're producing too many lawyers, that there are too many law students, that there are too many law schools," Levit said. "But that's very inconsistent with the fact that there are so many legal needs for so many just regular people that go unmet."
Already, Levit and the law school make community service a priority for students.
For several years, the school has hosted an in-house legal clinic focused on immigration law.
"Our students primarily work on political asylum cases and violence against women cases," Levit said. Students "often travel to places like Oklahoma City or Houston to represent them at various levels, and our record has been really fantastic," Levit said. All work is done under the supervision of faculty.
Recently, Levit said she's been working with a Tulsa program called Women in Recovery, which offers drug treatment and other services as an alternative to prison for women convicted of nonviolent crimes.
"What this program has discovered is that these women have a host of noncriminal legal issues which really are very critical to their well-being," Levit said. The program also receives funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Levit said students will work with the women on issues like family law. Another goal is to have students work with people struggling with eviction or foreclosure. Students also have opportunities to volunteer in a variety of other programs, such as Legal Help for Vets and Tulsa Lawyers for Children.
"It is my hope and goal, and I believe that this has the support of the new president, that every one of our students before they graduate will spend at least a semester working in one of these areas serving the community and at the same time getting on-the-ground practical training," Levit said.
About 60 percent of TU law students -- recent classes have numbered about 110 -- stay in Oklahoma, compared to about 50 percent who already lived in the state before arriving on campus.
Levit likes to say the school is a "net importer" of talent, but she herself has been exploring opportunities outside the state. Published reports stated she was a finalist this year to be a law school dean at Arizona State University and Brooklyn Law School.
Asked how ambition fuels her choices, Levit didn't embrace the word as an apt descriptor of her career.
"Those experiences -- call them ambition -- to me they were learning experiences, and the learning that I brought back here is, we have a great institution in a great community, and not one that I am really anxious to leave," Levit said, calling the job interviews "part of a learning experience, a learning trajectory ... not something that is just a part of blind, naked ambition for ambition's sake."
Levit also reportedly had been considered last year for a federal appeals court vacancy, with a published report from The Oklahoman describing how U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn "shot down" her nomination out of concern for Levit's particular legal expertise, which is international law.
Levit noted the Constitution created a system of checks and balances, with legislative approval required for such appointments.
"While on a personal level, I may not have been thrilled to read those headlines, on a higher level, which I, over time have really come to, it is critically important that our system of checks and balances continues to work," Levit said. Asked about the specific claim that her background in international law impeded her nomination, she was more circumspect: "I'm just not going to comment on that," Levit said.
Whether ambition is the right word for Levit's career sensibilities, she seems serious about exploring a grand plan for post-graduate lawyers.
"I've said, 'Why couldn't we do Advocacy for America?'" Levit remarked. A friend at Ohio State University voiced the idea to her last year, "where new law graduates would in a very, in a much grander way than has been done through traditional legal aid organizations, really go and try to make a dent in some of these unmet legal needs."
Levit noted that the analogy between Teach for America breaks down when it comes to paying the young attorneys in such a program.
Still, "I don't think it's insurmountable," Levit said. She explained that law schools everywhere struggle to get students practical experience, with pressure to develop a more "clinical" approach to education similar to medical school.
To create something like Advocacy for America "may be a vehicle to get there, but it will require a lot of collective action among law schools," Levit said.
She described her office, most notable for rows of shelving pegged to a back wall filled with family photos, a "work-in-progress," and Levit seems to relish the professional challenges that remain in front of her on the job at TU.
"It's just a real transition moment for legal education, I believe," she said.
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