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The Right Dean at the Right Time

The Right Dean at the Right Time

By Katie Vloet
Photo by Leisa Thompson Photography

"Michigan, these past 10 years, has had a real superstar dean. The school has been very lucky, and legal education has been very lucky."
—Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan

A few days after Evan Caminker was named dean in 2003, he offered to resign.

While interviewing for the deanship, he had distilled a three-point agenda for President Mary Sue Coleman and then-Provost Paul N. Courant: 1) design, raise funds for, and oversee the expansion and renovation of the Law School's beautiful-but-outdated facilities; 2) increase the size of and bring greater attention to the reputation of the faculty; and 3) see the school through the likely fallout following Grutter v. Bollinger—the case that challenged the use of affirmative action at the Law School and that, at the time, was widely expected to overrule the 1978 Bakke decision and preclude race-conscious admissions.

Coleman and Courant recommended to the Board of Regents that Caminker be named the 16th dean of the Law School. After regental approval, the University sent out the press release on a Thursday. The following Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced its decision: The justices rejected the University's undergraduate admissions policy in Gratz but upheld the Law School's admissions policy in Grutter.

University officials gathered on the campus Diag at noon to meet the press. Caminker, who as associate dean had been asked to work on the University's legal defense of the case, walked the couple of blocks north from Hutchins Hall to attend. He spotted President Coleman.

"I told her I was quitting," Caminker says. "I told her I had wanted to accomplish three things as dean, and I accomplished one of them over the weekend. I said, 'That's the best bang for the buck you're ever going to get from a dean.'"

Playing Chess in a World of Checkers

"Dean Caminker both understands and embodies the character of Michigan Law."
—2l Liz Och

Coleman, of course, rejected the jesting resignation, and Caminker began his 10 years in the job as dean ready to focus on other goals and ambitions. Now, he is completing a tenure that has been filled with a string of accomplishments, many of which were completed under difficult economic and societal circumstances.

Through it all, Caminker has built a reputation as a fair-minded, thoughtful, and unflappable leader who also has the tenacity to push forward on difficult projects in spite of numerous obstacles.

"I think he'll be regarded as perhaps the outstanding dean since the second World War. He has done so many things of scale and significance during a very, very difficult time for law schools," says Richard Pogue, '53, chair of the Law School Dean's Advisory Council and former managing partner at Jones Day.

Caminker came to Michigan in 1999 from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, where he served on the faculty from 1991 to 1999. He arrived with a wealth of experience from his work in the academic, governmental, public interest, and private sectors. From May 2000 through January 2001, he served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, while on leave from the U-M Law School. Earlier in his career, he clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and Judge William A. Norris of the Ninth Circuit of Court of Appeals. He practiced law at the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles and with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale) in Washington, D.C. His academic writing was widely published and highly regarded.

Caminker knew he faced many challenges when he began his job as dean, notwithstanding the Grutter decision. The global, national, and statewide economies faltered. The planned addition to the Law School became infeasible and unreasonably expensive and either had to be scrapped or significantly changed in location, scale, and details large and small. Applications dropped because of web- and media-chatter that denounced legal education as too costly and not financially worthwhile.

Meanwhile, faculty still had to be hired and promoted. Caminker needed to make decisions about everything from roofing materials to the skits in which he would participate for the students' Culture Show video. He ultimately had to shepherd changes in the Law School's admissions policy after Michigan voters approved Proposal 2 in 2006, a state constitutional amendment which, among other things, prohibited the consideration of race in admissions decisions. He conducted interviews with Supreme Court justices in front of standing-room-only crowds, and served as an auctioneer for the Student Funded Fellowships auction. He met with top donors, and gave the winning answer at the Knowledge Bowl contest between students and faculty. (Do you know which U.S. president was the last to argue a case before the Supreme Court?).

"He's left a school that is so much improved in terms of what we can offer our students that it's night and day and makes us so much more competitive," says Barrie Loeks, '79, formerly the co-CEO of Sony's Loews Theatres, founder of the Star Theatres movie theater chain and now a lecturer at Michigan Law. "I think his deanship is a high point in the Law School's history—a period of time when the Law School was really transformed programmatically, and of course physically."

Through it all, say those who worked closely with Caminker, he managed to keep up with all the ongoing changes in the economy, technology, and legal profession and even to stay ahead of the game.

"He's playing one dimension ahead of the rest," says John Nannes, '73, a partner in Skadden's Washington office. "In a world where everyone is playing checkers, Evan is playing chess."

Nearly any assessment of Caminker includes the observation that he is thorough in his efforts to understand things from all sides, whether it involves people, issues, or the construction of a five-level building.

"Evan has had to be a finance person, he has had to deal with the media in terms of rankings by U.S. News and others that have made the quality of legal education into something like a sport, he's had to think very deeply about innovations in the curriculum," says John Denniston, '83, a venture capitalist with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "With the building projects, he went to accelerated design and architecture school. He's also great at management, great at recruitment of faculty, great at navigating the School through a period of declining demand for law schools in general.

"I think we were incredibly lucky, the whole University of Michigan community," Denniston says, "to have had Dean Caminker at the helm during the past 10 years. I think he'll be remembered as one of the finest Law School deans we've ever had."

Bricks and Mortar, Heart and Soul

"It always amazes me, with all the things he has on his plate, that he's completely committed to what you're working on with him."
—Bridget McCormack, current state supreme court justice and former dean for clinical affairs

When Caminker became dean, he inherited a plan that his predecessor, Jeffrey Lehman, '81, had developed with architects: a 170,000-square-foot addition to the Law School to be built on the southeast corner of the Law Quadrangle. But as Caminker worked with both alumni and the architectural team, he grew increasingly concerned that the then-envisioned project was not right for the School at that point in its history.

As Caminker told readers of this magazine in 2007, the building project "would have required a financial investment that was sobering, [with early estimates of] $135 million, and which [had] since ballooned via construction cost increases to over $175 million, with further significant annual increases in the offing. This was clearly stretching the School's capacity, notwithstanding the support of many generous alumni and friends who have already invested in the building expansion."

On top of the costs, Caminker was concerned that the length of time of the construction project—six years—would've been too disruptive to students. The School would have had to enroll four classes of entering students who would endure disruptive construction without enjoying the fruits thereof before leaving. He also wanted to secure the spot that then was a parking lot on the southeast corner of State and Monroe streets before it was snatched up by another part of the University, thus leaving the Law School landlocked.

After concluding that the inherited plan would be the wrong move for the Law School, he set out on a listening tour with alumni and other interested parties, many of whom were fans of the initial building design and who supported the concept of "completing the Quad" north of Monroe. Caminker's task of persuading them was tricky, but he knew it had to be done. He listened to people's views, explained the problems with the venture, and ultimately convinced the constituencies that the project faced significant challenges and was not ideal.

"Evan deserves a lot of credit for having the foresight to change the direction of a building plan that had already been launched," says Bruce Bickner, '68, chair of the Development and Alumni Relations Committee, which helped guide the fundraising for the new building. "He really put a lot of effort into making sure that he heard people's concerns about the original plan, and he took the time to explain to donors why the original plan wasn't the best way for the Law School to expand."

It was time to find a plan B or to scrap plans for an expansion entirely. Caminker chose the former, which meant starting over with a new architect, a new site, and a new approach. The southeast corner of State and Monroe invited the new academic building, and the unused grassy plot between Hutchins, the Reading Room, and the Stacks Building seemed a great home for a new commons area. Caminker became the fundraiser-in-chief, head decisionmaker and cheerleader, and architect-in-training for these academic and community buildings.

"He did something you don't expect to see in a dean; he became really immersed in the design project. He threw himself into it, heart and soul," says Bickner, a retired DEKALB and Monsanto executive.

The economy did not cooperate. Banks failed, stock markets bottomed-out, the housing bubble burst—all resulting in the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Yet Caminker plugged away at talking with donors about the new academic building, as well as the proposed new commons to be situated between Hutchins Hall and Legal Research, and the benefit they would have to students.

"In my view, the Law School had perhaps the most magnificent set of academic buildings in the country when viewed from the outside, but their size, layout, and lack of functionality created obstacles for our 21st century pedagogic vision," Caminker says. "Given our ambition to remain one of the world's greatest training grounds for lawyers and civic leaders, failure to revamp our facilities was simply not an acceptable option."

"He was just an incredible model of a fundraiser. He started off by getting to know us. He really built a friendship," says Diann Kim, '83, who, along with husband John Frank, also '83, made a gift of $2 million to the building project (read more here). "It was really wonderful. As opposed to so many things where you get somebody who says, 'Hi, give me money,' his approach was, 'Hi, can we do this together?' I really feel like he was a partner in this gift."

By now, this story really holds no suspense; we know the new academic building and commons were built, that they are beautiful, that students and faculty love holding classes and conversations in them. But even with the generosity of donors, the building fundraising effort was never easy. Caminker and the School's development team, as well as advisers such as the members of the Development and Alumni Relations Committee, made it a reality.

"Evan was the best professional partner I can imagine in this endeavor, which, of course, was made all the more challenging by the uncertainties in the economy," says Todd Baily, assistant dean for development and alumni relations. "His vision for South Hall and the Aikens Commons was to provide first-class facilities to our Law School community, and he was tireless in this pursuit."

Classrooms, Clinics, and Colleagues

"Evan is just beyond reproach. He is the leader a public institution should have."
—Sarah Zearfoss, '92, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning

Since prior to Caminker's becoming dean he was a very engaged professor, perhaps it is no surprise that once he was dean he continued to focus a good deal of his attention on the advancement of pedagogy within the Law School.

The number of clinics expanded from six to 14, "in large part because of Evan's support for and commitment to clinical education," says Bridget McCormack, associate dean for clinical affairs through much of Caminker's tenure and now a Michigan Supreme Court Justice. Caminker also brought in highly regarded new faculty, including several with a global focus. He ensured that the School maintained its longstanding strength in doctrinal classes, while also adding more practical courses that teach the skills and competencies that law firms increasingly expect of graduates. And he supported adding a new legislation and regulation class to students' 1L requirements to, he says, "help our new students see not just how laws are made, but how agencies and the whole apparatus of government goes about ensuring those laws are implemented and obeyed."

"I think he's done really good things with the curriculum," says Robert Fiske Jr., '55, HLLD '97, senior counsel in Davis Polk's Litigation Department. "He's made it more practical so it's more in tune with what the legal community is looking for."

"He's an intellectual, but he's been able to emphasize the practical aspects of legal education," says Pogue. "That is something that will really benefit graduates when they enter the job market."

While many aspects of his job competed for his attention with the day-to-day academic life of the School, he still managed to attend scholarly events when time allowed and to maintain his participation in the intellectual life of the community.

"Despite all the time Evan obviously had to spend raising funds for all of these projects, he still managed to attend a large number of faculty presentations. He gave some fine, scholarly lectures himself while he was dean," says former Dean Ted St. Antoine, '54, the James E. & Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law Emeritus.

Students who have worked with him know he's been vitally interested in making sure they receive a great education at the School, and he values their thoughts on making the experience even better. "Dean Caminker has had an enormous impact on the quality of student life at Michigan Law. I have been consistently impressed with his willingness to not only seek out student input, but to also incorporate that input into the final result. He is always looking for ways to make the Law School experience even better, and in doing so, he is thoughtful, diplomatic, and approachable," says 2L Liz Och, president of the Law School Student Senate.

He also built close relationships with many faculty members. "It's not that I've always agreed with everything he's done. Is there anyone about whom that can honestly be said?" says Don Herzog, the Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law. "But I think all the faculty would say he's remarkably fair-minded, careful, thorough.

"People often marvel at how much he has thought through every issue. He's been very good about coming to the faculty and asking about our opinion on things. People feel like you're allowed to agree with Evan, or you're allowed to disagree with Evan."

He also genuinely is interested in hearing his colleagues' thoughts, opinions, and ideas, faculty members say.

"It always amazes me, with all the things he has on his plate, that he's completely committed to what you're working on with him," McCormack says.

Humor and Humility

"It's so hard to be effective and also pleasant. I think he managed it so well because of his humility on top of his confidence. I don't know anybody who doesn't like him."
—Adam Dubinsky, '07

Adam Dubinsky, '07, knew Caminker well. They spoke at many of the same events; Dubinsky recorded the dean gamely making fun of himself in a Mr. Wolverine video in which Caminker was brushing his hair and reading men's style magazines; and they roasted each other at one event, until Caminker put the one-upsmanship to an end by duct-taping Adam's mouth.

"I remember the dean calling me the Carson Daly of the Law School," Dubinsky recalls with a laugh, referring to the television personality from The Voice, "because I'm always hosting events and nobody has any idea why."

And therein lies one of the sources of Caminker's likability: his sense of humor. "He does write the most hilarious emails on Planet Earth," Diann Kim says.

That quality even helps to compensate for some qualities that otherwise would be less-than-lovable. "He will joke about his tendency to micro-manage," McCormack says. "He has a good sense of humor about it."

But there's another side of his personality that has inspired at least as much devotion: his warmth and innate goodness. Take Dubinsky, for instance: Caminker would joke with him when the time was right, but also was very caring and thoughtful when Dubinsky was scheduled to have heart surgery right after graduation.

Kim and Frank, too, were touched by Caminker's warmth. While he was talking with them about making a gift to the Law School, they also learned that he was caring for his dying uncle in their home town. "In every way, you felt like, 'Here's a really good person,' " Kim says. "You feel like you know the measure of the man who's going to take care of your gifts."

Sarah Zearfoss, '92, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning, says Caminker is "100 percent beyond reproach. You always know he's going to do the right thing."

Loeks says Caminker's combination of intelligence and kindness "is so rare in this world. ... I'm not sure I've ever heard a mean word cross his lips. Everyone wants him to be successful, partly because he's very selfless and always giving credit to everyone else."

Adds Nannes: "He's one of the poster children for the notion that you don't have to shout to be heard."

Bickner talks about how Caminker had to navigate differences with some alumni who disagreed with the Law School on issues such as the Grutter case and the School's admissions policy.

"I saw him as a good listener and as a quick study with empathy and understanding of people's opinions," says Bickner. "He's always very respectful of people, whether they agree or disagree with him."

Och, the LSSS president, says "the best (and most counterintuitive) evidence of how great Dean Caminker has been in this role is the fact that most students have absolutely no idea what the dean does. The moments that do stand out are illustrative; rarely does one find an administrator so willing to dance on a table to raise money for public interest students. We will certainly miss his enthusiasm and leadership."

Och and several other students and recent alumni also pointed out that they would miss having a bragging right over their friends at peer schools: having the dean who was named in the Above the Law blog in 2006 as the "Hottest Law School Dean." (Caminker, consistent with his penchant for sharing credit, characteristically described the award as a "team effort.")

Try to find something that people don't like about Caminker; you'll find it's no easy task. Some will say his attention to detail is sometimes a bit too attentive, but then they'll also talk about times they've appreciated his scrutiny. His late-night/early-morning emails are legendary, but even those are described more with admiration than scorn.

There is one negative, though, about which nearly everyone seems to agree. It relates to his clothing. Specifically, outerwear. More specifically, a pink-and-teal ski jacket with an elastic-banded bottom, purchased in 1986 for a clerkship ski trip.

"Really the ugliest thing you've ever seen," says one administrator.

In 2008, Professor Ellen Katz stole the jacket from Caminker's office and contributed it to the Student Funded Fellowships auction. "Hello? The 80s are over," declared the auction-item listing. Katz added: "The fashion faux pas that makes you cringe each time you see him in it. The reason why you almost went to Yale and why you pray for spring."

A group of students bought the jacket for $1,000. Caminker offered to buy it back from them but was told that they, uh, lost it. To this day, despite several investigative efforts over the years, he—and apparently everyone else willing to talk—has no idea what happened to it. But a few people who chose to remain anonymous dropped hints about a particular evening bonfire.

Rest in peace, awful jacket, 1980s-2008. You were color-challenged and outdated. And, it turns out, highly flammable.

What's Next

"Current and future generations of Michigan Law students and faculty owe a debt of gratitude to Evan Caminker for his leadership as dean. In the face of challenging economic times, Dean Caminker oversaw a critical physical expansion and renovation of Law School facilities, including the stunning South Hall, while building upon the academic strength of the program."
—UM President Mary Sue Coleman

The question everyone is asking Caminker now is, What's next? At press time, he planned to take a yearlong sabbatical and then return to the faculty.

"I love the Law School, and I love Ann Arbor. I'm just not sure exactly what the future holds," Caminker says. "Both of my predecessors [Deans Lee Bollinger and Jeffrey Lehman, '81] left for other posts in higher education and became presidents of Ivy League universities, so obviously some of my colleagues tease that the pressure is on."

He adds that there are many ways to continue contributing to the legal profession and the academy, but, for now, he really wants to carve out some time to sleep and, perish the thought, even read a book for pleasure.

And he'll spend more time with his family—"that verges on cliché, but it's true," he says—including his wife, their 10- and 7-year-old daughters, and their pet rats, Vicky and Vali (as in "Hail to the victors, valiant ...").

One of Caminker's predecessors, Ted St. Antoine, '54, says that being dean "is a job you really enjoy more in hindsight." It's difficult for Caminker to believe that is true—he has often said that he enjoys every minute of the job, though perhaps with a bit of a knowing smile—but he acknowledges that some of the more challenging aspects of the job may become even less pronounced "as my memory recedes."

He also hopes that some elements of the deanship will not become distant memories. For instance, he has loved attending Michigan football games with alumni and friends of the Law School. He loves the camaraderie of the games, as well as the burst of school pride one feels when sharing a win with 110,000 people along with a few good friends.

During that deanship-interview conversation more than a decade ago with President Coleman, she asked not only about his primary objectives, but also if Caminker had any questions for her.

He asked her, "As dean, do I get good football tickets?" She laughed in a way that suggested she had heard that question many times before, and she asked if he had serious questions. "Yes," Caminker replied. "When I step down as dean, do I get to keep my good football tickets?"

This time, Coleman laughed appreciatively, Caminker recalls, and she said, "I've never heard that question before. Clearly, you think several moves ahead."

Even now, he isn't sure of the answer. He's still hoping the answer is yes, as do a number of his alumni friends, who look forward to singing "The Victors" by his side.

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