Northwestern cutting back on staff after years of adding faculty

By Jack Crittenden 

Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s new dean, Kimberly Yuracko, has put an end to the law school’s unprecedented increase in faculty hiring.

The law school grew from 161 faculty members in 2000 to 352 last year, an increase of 119 percent. The increase in full-time faculty was even greater, growing from 57 faculty members to 135, or 136 percent.

During the first half of that period, J.D. enrollment increased from 650 to 814 in 2010. But since then, it has dropped back down to 664 students.

The law school has been running at a budget deficit in recent years, and Yuracko felt it was time to bring better balance to the faculty-to-student ratio.

“We have had a lot of growth in faculty over the last 20 years, and one of the things we did, like most law schools in the last five years, is shrunk our J.D. class size,” she said. "Good management is to make sure your size fits with your mission. We want to use tuition dollars wisely and carefully.”

Yuracko, who took over as dean on Sept. 1, announced staff and non-tenured lecturer position cutbacks a few weeks later. In a message to staff, she said the school was in a “challenging financial position.”

To make ends meet, the law school is reducing staff, clinical, and lecture positions by eliminating vacant jobs and not renewing some short-term teaching contracts.

“What makes this news is a perception that academic institutions don’t do this,” she said. “[But] We have an obligation to use our student’s tuition dollars wisely. This is part of sound management.”

Yuracko said “no one has left the building,” and that she feel good about the current staffing level. 

Yuracko, who was announced as the new dean in May, inherited a budget deficit from her predecessor, Daniel Rodriguez, who was dean for six years. Under Rodriguez’s leadership, the Chicago school had its most successful fundraising period in its history. It nearly reached a $250 million fundraising goal, which included the largest donation in the school’s history and the second largest a law school has ever received — a $100 million donation from J.B. Pritzker in 2015.

But Rodriguez significantly increased the size of the school’s faculty at a time when J.D. applications and enrollment were dropping. Rodriguez did not start the faculty boom at Northwestern. His predecessor, David Van Zandt, also oversaw a substantial increase during his tenure. But enrollment did not drop until after Van Zandt left Northwestern to become president of The New School in New York City.

Rodriguez, who was previously dean at the University of San Diego School of Law, told that Northwestern’s current deficit is not that large.

“Whether it’s a large or small deficit is clearly a matter of perspective,” he said. “I regard it as a relatively small deficit, but not meaningless. Kim is attentive and attune to ensuring that we don’t dig a hole for ourselves that is harder to come out of.”

But the university clearly saw the deficit as an urgent matter. It announced Yuracko as the new law dean in April and, at the direction of the university, she spent much of the summer reviewing the school’s financial situation with faculty committees and university administrators. Yuracko has been at the law school since 2002 and previously served as associate dean for academic affairs for faculty and research, and was interim dean in 2011. But she did not hold any administrative positions during Rodriguez’s tenure.

“Through the dean search process, I learned that we have made significant financial aid commitments, for good reason, but that we would not be able to maintain them without changes,” she said. “Then over the summer, the university had financial issues and asked each school to make its owns reductions. That prompted us to do things faster than otherwise would have happened.”

The overall university cut jobs in the summer and ordered expense reductions of 5 to 10 percent at its campuses, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. While university enrollment is up, the school was also discounting undergraduate tuition at a higher percent. In addition, it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new initiatives and buildings.

Yuracko said financial cutbacks were necessary even though the law school has brought in record donations.

“Yes, we have money,” she said. “But we have a tremendous sense of obligation to steward that money wisely.”

Yuracko said the law school is not in dire financial straits. But, the school’s operating expenses will surpass revenues this year, requiring it to draw on reserves to cover the difference. That is something she wants to avoid in the future.

Expense cuts will impact the law school’s Bluhm Clinic, which houses more than 20 clinic programs and 14 centers. But Yuracko said it will not impact the quality of the offerings. She said there were unused seats in the clinic, and the focus is on better utilization.

“We will continue to fully satisfy the level of student interest in the clinics,” she said. “Over 90 percent of our students participate in clincis, on average for two years. We will be able to fully satisfy that.”

She said the school will have a lower faculty-to-student ratio in its clinic than all of its peer law schools.

“These cuts don’t hurt the student experience,” she said. “It will help it by letting us better use our funds.”

Yuracko also plans to increase the size of its LL.M. class to increase revenue. In 2016, Northwestern had 276 non-J.D. students, of which 194 were LL.M. students. That made it the 10th largest non-J.D. program in the nation, and represented almost 30 percent of all students. But increasing that enrollment would not be unheard of, even for a highly-ranked school. New York University School of Law has more than 700 LL.M. students, who make up 35 percent of the school’s total enrollment. 

Yuracko’s plans as dean go beyond balancing the budget. She is focused on improving support services for students and alumni and diversifying the law school, especially in regards to first-generation students.




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