Professor Morris Ratner has assumed the role of academic dean at UC Hastings, effective August 1st, 2017.
A specialist in civil procedure and legal ethics, Ratner has also overseen the law school’s expanding concurrent degree offerings and recently served as associate dean for academic and professional success. Previously, he worked as a litigator on high-profile cases, including historic class action lawsuits against Swiss, German, Austrian, and French corporations that profited from Nazi atrocities by retaining dormant bank accounts of Holocaust victims and using slave labor, among other activities. The litigation resulted in $8 billion in settlements for victims of Nazi persecution.
Q: What is your vision for the future of UC Hastings?
As a community, we developed a strategic plan in 2011, at a time when the forces roiling the legal services market were coming into sharp relief. That plan remains a guiding lodestar. It’s a set of commitments—for example, to engaged scholarship, skillful teaching, and diversity—that are specific enough to highlight our core values, yet broad enough to give us room to meet new challenges and explore new opportunities. My vision of the role of the academic dean is faithful to that plan insofar as it marries our values to a willingness to change.
We have to remain nimble by getting out in front of globalization, changes in technology, and shifts in expectations of law students upon graduation. Our global programs and rich array of experiential learning opportunities are examples of our capacity to tailor our academic program to changing circumstances.
One of the academic dean’s main functions is to facilitate this kind of innovation, to match people within our community to each other and to opportunities, and to give them resources and encouragement. Another primary responsibility is to make sure that in looking forward, we keep our feet firmly on the ground so that we don’t lose sight of the basics. Yes, the legal services market is constantly in motion such that, to be effective, lawyers need new skills and perspectives. But lawyers also still need to be able to communicate well and to research and analyze the law.
Q: What are some of the challenges and opportunities that you see on the horizon?
One of the biggest challenges from the students’ vantage point is time scarcity. After the 1L year, when the curriculum is largely set, students have only four semesters to complete their legal education. I think we’ve done a terrific job creating a rich array of course offerings, but for most students, the challenge is finding space in their schedules. Frankly, it’s a great problem to have, but it means that students have to make hard curricular choices.
From a curricular planning vantage point, this same issue suggests that we need to pick up some of the threads of prior-year efforts to offer courses at the right frequency, and with the right number of sections, to meet student demand. It also means that we have to think carefully about how we guide students when they make curricular choices and about how we grow the curriculum.
Q: You received the Student Choice Award of Professor of the Year in 2015 and 2017, and the Rutter Award for Teaching Excellence in 2016. What has this meant to you?
The vast majority of students come to law school with the idea that they will devote their professional lives to pursuing justice. Of course, they also want to make a good and honorable living. They take a leap of faith that the years of hard work they put into earning their degrees—not to mention the expense—will be rewarded with the opportunity to become members of our noble profession. They place their trust in us, and I accept that trust as a personal responsibility.
So do my colleagues. Our faculty is fortunate to include people who are great scholars, effective administrators, and committed teachers. The academic dean’s job is to support them on all of those dimensions so our students can be enveloped in a vibrant intellectual and research community while in law school, and also can acquire the knowledge and skills they need to realize their professional ambitions.
We can assess the quality of our instruction using various yardsticks. One important yardstick is, of course, how students feel about us as faculty members. We can also do outcomes assessment. On that measure, we’re doing well, as indicated by our Class of 2016 employment figures; and by the National Law Journal’s recent ranking of UC Hastings as No. 29, nationally, in terms of the placement of our graduates in top law firms, and as No. 23 in terms of the number of our graduates elevated to partner status at law firms in 2016.
Q: You became associate dean for academic and professional success last year. What were some highlights of this position?
My original charge was to focus primarily on academic support programs. What I quickly realized is that to be most effective, we have to provide explicit and iterative skills instruction using certain pedagogical methods—including individualized and formative assessment, active learning, and the cultivation of self-reflection or metacognition—across the curriculum. Providing this kind of instruction moves us ever further away from the Langdellian model of asking students to learn mostly by inference via the Socratic method. One highlight of the job has been the opportunity to apply these methods in my own doctrinal classroom and to watch the “lightbulb-going-off” expressions on my students’ faces. Nothing beats making that connection with a student.
This announcement is a slightly adapted preview of an article entitled "Vision Quest," forthcoming in the Fall 2017 edition of UC Hastings magazine.