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Leading by Connecting

A look back at the career of Virginia B. Gordan, assistant dean for international affairs

By Randy H. Milgrom

Virginia B. Gordan

Deborah Burand, director of the International Transactions Clinic, spent part of a recent afternoon in her South Hall office enthusing about the woman who had helped draw her to Michigan Law. The first of its kind, and still unique within legal academia, the Clinic was the brainchild of a group of Law School faculty and administrators, including Virginia B. Gordan, assistant dean for international affairs, who retired over the summer.

Gordan made a point of calling Burand in an effort to recruit her, and that extended outreach was one of the major reasons Burand was persuaded to come to Michigan. "Virginia showed me the kind of collegial atmosphere I would find here," Burand says. "I was being asked to be an academic entrepreneur, but I had a great safety net. And that safety net was Virginia."

Gordan joined the Law School in 1981 as coordinator of academic affairs, and two years later became assistant dean of student affairs—a position she held until 1996. At that time, Dean Jeffrey Lehman, '81, "understood the implications of increasing globalization and appreciated our historical teaching and scholarship strengths in cross-border issues," says Gordan. "So he felt it was important to have a full-time administrator focused entirely on international endeavors."

When Lehman asked Gordan if she would become the first assistant dean for international affairs, she was enthusiastic. Though sad to let go of some of the responsibilities for student affairs, she thought "it was the perfect opportunity to have two wonderful careers at one fabulous institution."

As assistant dean for international affairs, Gordan created and oversaw many internationally oriented academic and professional opportunities for students, both here and abroad. She contributed significantly to the Law School's efforts to attract and supporta strong faculty with global expertise. She built relationships with key legal institutions and actors in the United States and around the world. And she organized countless speaker series and symposia, provided academic and professional advising to decades of JD and graduate students, and was the mainstay of the graduate program.

As then-Dean Caminker noted at her farewell reception, "Virginia has been an incredible force with respect to the development of all sorts of our programming in the international sphere" and "essentially created the model that many other law schools have copied for having an assistant dean for international affairs."

Gordan's long and productive tenure came to an end with her retirement this summer, but Michigan's deeply ingrained standing as one of the foremost academic leaders in international legal initiatives will remain.

Steven R. Ratner, the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law, emphasizes that Gordan brought so much to the School's international efforts because she cares so much about her students. "She thinks about them constantly. What will help them intellectually, what will help them start an international law career—and even what will help them socially."

Gordan is mindful of faculty members in much the same way, says Ratner, "and her relationships with alumni—especially foreign alumni—are unbelievable," he adds, recalling a recent alumni reunion in Paris, where "Virginia was the person everyone wanted to see."

Susan Esserman, '77, current chair of Steptoe & Johnson LLP's International Department in Washington, D.C., and former deputy U.S. trade representative, says Gordan has reached out to her regularly and was responsible for Esserman's membership on Michigan Law's International Advisory Board. Esserman also was impressed by what she saw at the Paris reunion. "I had developed a great respect for Virginia, and a real friendship with her, and that event made it obvious to me how many others had built that kind of relationship with her as well," says Esserman. "She has a genuine interest in others' practices and careers, which has enabled her to further Michigan Law's global network. I can't imagine a more effective ambassador."

Students agree. "She's always professional," says Zachee Pouga Tinhaga, '13, from Cameroon, "but she also has a way of rising to a personal level, and joking and advising as a parent or a sister might." Dean Gordan "did a lot of things for me, but most important was making me feel like I was not a stranger at Michigan. She made me feel like I belonged."

Gordan points out that it was only possible to grow interesting and compelling international programs because of the Law School's already-strong foundation, including one of the world's finest law libraries, faculty members who have been seminal thinkers on international and comparative law issues since the beginning of the 20th century, a highly distinguished group of alumni, and deans throughout her tenure dedicated to global initiatives.

Succeeding Dean Gordan is Roopal Shah, '95. Gordan says Shah—whom she knew as a student—"is a superb choice by the search committee to lead the Law School's international efforts into the future."

Gordan intends to continue to make her home in Ann Arbor, and she hopes to consult in her areas of expertise—education in general, and international legal educational issues in particular—as well as rule-of-law and gender issues.

"I'll miss that big world of students and alumni and other professional connections I've made," Gordan says. "But I hope to remain in contact with as many as I can."

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