On January 1, 2018, Colin Crawford began his tenure as the Brandeis School of Law’s 24th dean.
He’s a new face at the University of Louisville, but he’s no stranger to the demands of a university administrator — or to Kentucky, where his father’s family has roots.
From his father’s hometown in western Kentucky came a career that has taken Crawford across the country and around the world. He brings a distinct international perspective to Brandeis Law; he speaks three languages and has lectured and taught in several countries, including Brazil, China, Colombia and Spain.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Crawford is a self-described academic entrepreneur with scholarly interests in environmental, urban development and land-use issues.
He comes to Brandeis Law from Tulane University, where he was a law professor and director of an international development center for undergraduate and graduate students.
He had the chance to share a bit about what he admires about the Brandeis School of Law and his hopes for the school in the changing landscape of legal education.
UofL News: What attracted you to Brandeis?
Colin Crawford: Louisville was especially attractive to me, first for family reasons. My father was from western Kentucky. Although he spent most of his childhood school years in Denver, where I was raised, his father’s family raised trotting horses and his father was killed in a riding accident when my dad was under a year old.
His mother, a nurse, then moved to Colorado to find work. A brother had gone there for asthma treatment. She got a job in one of the asthma hospitals. But my grandfather was the youngest of 10 children and the only boy, and my father was the only child. So he would go back in the summers and he’d be like a little king, doted on by all these relatives of the only boy and the youngest child, now dead. That’s all a long way of saying that Kentucky as a state figures very large in my mental imagination and my family emotional life. Even though I’d only been a couple of times before myself, it was very, very big part of our family history.
Then, of course, the Brandeis name is very appealing. I knew it was a very old law school and the Brandeis inheritance is an important one. I think Brandeis, especially in these very polarized political times, is an interesting figure because he doesn’t neatly fit in to our current conservative or liberal categories. That’s partly because he was a person in a different time. But I really think he was a very nuanced and complicated person and thinker. The thought of being associated with a school that tries to channel that inheritance is very appealing.
UofL News: What do you see as some of the law school’s strengths?
Colin Crawford: All of my interactions with staff and with faculty — and not just at Brandeis but with the university — were very positive. I also thought the city was very beautiful. It seemed like it’d be a nice place to live, with a strong business community. The law school seemed to be peopled with a terrifically nice, hard-working, interesting group of people.
Since then, I’ve been very attracted to the very strong faculty-student bond. I’ve had current students write me out of the blue and say how glad they are that I’m coming and they’re looking forward to meeting me, which I think speaks very well for the school culture.
Particularly given the current budget circumstances in the university and in law schools generally, it’s just very impressive the range of things that a relatively small school does. Brandeis is really fighting above its weight. It’s doing a lot more than one would expect with the resources.
The strong commitment to working in the community I think is really important in a state school, especially. My best teaching experiences actually have been at state schools, so I like that mission very much.
UofL News: Law schools nationally are facing changes in enrollment and funding that make the role of a dean challenging in new ways. What made you want to take on this role?
Colin Crawford: I have lots of friends who are deans or senior administrators and I explored this question with them. Why would anyone want to do this job at this difficult moment? But on reflection I came to feel that it really played to some of my strengths.
Not by design but just the way my career has worked out, I turned out to be a kind of academic entrepreneur, so I actually think I have some skill in administration. I like administration. I like building institutions.
There’s been great work that’s been done by former Dean Susan Duncan, particularly building up the alumni base, and I felt there was room to then build upon those successes. There are some new possibilities and opportunities to keep on pushing the school further ahead. It seemed like an interesting challenge — and I’m very tired of the New Orleans weather, too.
UofL News: What do you see as opportunities for growth at the Brandeis School of Law?
Colin Crawford: I think this school could be a little more outward-looking, a little more international in its outlook. Commerce today is very global and there are opportunities to do things in the world. You can be based in a commercial city like Louisville, and you can be doing things with other countries. I really think that there are some terrific opportunities to try to develop internationally.
I also think there are some commonalities, at least as seen from the outside, in faculty strengths and I’d like to try to package those to emphasize to the world what we have to offer, besides a very friendly, student-focused and talented faculty. I think it’s really important in today’s legal market to give students a sense of what their training is going to get them, how they get from A to B. Some of the older models of legal education may not be as convincing or compelling as they once were. I’d like to see us think about shaping the existing strengths in different ways.
I’d like to help promote a really robust intellectual legal environment on campus as well. I don’t mean that students have to become deeply involved in academic legal writing, but I do believe it is useful for law students to understand that ideas power the law and result in legal change and that we’re in a profession that is a debate about principles and values and ideas, and how to make them concrete and so to change people’s lives.
In the longer term, I have some ideas about curriculum reform and different ways you can structure courses. I think in law schools in the United States in general, legal education is following an older model than some other disciplines, and I think there are some dynamic ways to try and break up the curriculum and to do different things. This is challenging at a school like Brandeis because it’s small. You have to cover some basics and generally they have to be covered in traditional ways, across the arc of a 14- or 15-week semester. But beyond that, I’d like to explore some other ways of learning and teaching.
And, finally, I’m already starting to talk to the development office about different ways we might try and create new student opportunities that would help find students complementary experiences to their legal education, perhaps by means of trying to create some competitive fellowships with distinctive features. Of course, that means finding alums and other donors who share the view that such initiatives merit their support.
Everything I say is conditioned upon having the support of the faculty and the students. It’s not the Colin Crawford show.
Quick facts about Dean Crawford
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
Undergrad: BA in history, Columbia University
Graduate studies: MA in history and PhD candidate in history, University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College
Law school: JD, Harvard Law School
Previous permanent positions at: Tulane University, Georgia State University College of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Brooklyn Law School
Languages spoken: English (native), Portuguese (fluent), Spanish (fluent), French (basic conversational)