UDM Law interim dean sees opportunity on school's doorstep

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Professor Troy Harris, who joined University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 2010 as a visiting professor, began serving as interim dean effective Aug. 1.

Photo by Steve Thorpe

Harris to remain in role until search comittee finds new dean

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Troy Harris has checked many boxes on a distinguished legal career that spans private practice, business and academia. Now he’s checking a box that never occurred to him.

Professor Harris agreed to serve as interim dean for the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law effective Aug. 1. He will remain in that role while the law school’s search committee, chaired by Professor Steve Vogel, continues its work in the search for a permanent dean for the school.

Harris joined UDM Law as a visiting assistant professor in 2010 and became an assistant professor in May of 2011. He teaches International Commercial Arbitration, Sales, Contracts, and Construction Law. Before joining UDM, he practiced international arbitration and construction law with the Atlanta office of King & Spalding. He’s also taught at Cornell Law School, Emory Law School and the  Georgia Institute of Technology.

An accomplished specialist in the field of international law, Harris is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and a member of the Executive Committee of its North American Branch. He also serves on the Commercial Panel of Arbitrators of the American Arbitration Association, the Approved Faculty List for the Chartered Institute, and is on the roster of the State Department’s Fulbright Specialist Program in the area of international arbitration.

Harris says that he’s not surprised that the school needed an interim dean, but he was a bit surprised to find himself in the seat.

“We had been conducting a dean search most of last year,” he says. “It became apparent in late spring that we might not have a permanent candidate yet, so everyone’s attention shifted to the question of what will we do if we come up empty? In that sense, it was not a big surprise that we needed an interim dean. It came as a bit of a surprise to me when one of the senior faculty members came and asked me if I would be willing to take on (the interim deanship). I said that, if asked to serve, I would.”

He’s also not surprised that the school picked, as it had with his predecessor, an individual with a strong background in business and plenty of time in private practice.

“As I’ve looked at the CVs of other deans, it’s quite common for them to have spent a significant amount of time practicing, many of them, like Lloyd (Semple) coming from leadership positions,” he says. “My time has been about 50/50 in academia and the practice of law.”

The “interim” in his title might suggest that his role is to simply keep his hand on the tiller until the real change agent arrives. Harris doesn’t see it that way.

“The way I conceive my role is to help get this law school to a place where it will be even more attractive to a candidate for permanent dean, to the extent that I can in a year’s time,” he says. “I’ve made changes, some of which I’ve already implemented, such as reorganizing reporting to the dean. The dean formerly had about a dozen direct reports and I’ve got that down to three. The different functions now have an associate dean in charge of them who can report to me, freeing up my time so I can go out and talk to employers, alums and prospective students.”

Harris also is acutely aware of the challenges facing all law schools right now and concedes that there’s probably never been a tougher time to be a dean.

“Well, if there has been, I’m not aware of it,” he says. “Not just for legal education, but for the legal profession in general. As you probably know, law practice has undergone something of a sea change. To give an example: When I was at King & Spalding, we had a summer class of second year law students. At its peak, it was probably around 40 students in the Atlanta office. When I left in 2010, the summer program was down to about eight students. That’s not uncommon.”

Part of what drew Harris to UDM Law in the first place was the strength of its international programs.

“The joint degree programs we have in Canada and Mexico were very attractive to me, precisely because of my international arbitration practice at King & Spalding,” he says. “International construction arbitration is still the area that I write on and teach in. The program is something that I think is the wave of the future.”

Detroit’s geography just serves to intensify that “international flavor” and makes UDM Law a natural place for such programs.

“Where we’re situated, with Canada, our biggest trading partner, just across the river, it makes a huge amount of sense for us to build on those existing programs,” he says. “One of the things we’re doing in our strategic planning is looking at other international programs. What can we do to strengthen what we’ve already got? It’s absolutely key to our future.”

Harris is also watching the headlines as the story of work on a planned additional international bridge unfolds.

“From the perspective of an international construction lawyer, I’m very interested in how the new bridge comes along,” he says. “In my old office here, I could actually see across the river.”

Harris is still very student-oriented and likes that his current role allows him to interact with even more students than the average professor. It also allows him to emphasize two qualities important to both him and the school —  character and values.

“We had our first year orientation last night where we welcomed students,” he says.  “I had an opportunity to address the students about the school’s expectations of them. One of the points I stressed is that, just as faculty are expected to contribute to the law school community and to the profession through service, so we expect the students to contribute to the community at large and to the profession. The opportunities are — literally — on our doorstep.”
 

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