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
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of the Law School's beautiful-but-outdated facilities; 2) increase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
"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.'"
"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
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
"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."
"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
—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
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."
"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,"
"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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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.