Guest Post: Towards Data-Driven “Deaning”

Camille A. Nelson
Dean and Professor of Law
American University Washington College of Law

Surprisingly, there are few opportunities as a dean to ascertain student engagement, insights, and concerns in a manner that is comparative, data-driven, and longitudinal. LSSSE presents an opportunity to intentionally harness student-derived and student-driven data in service of the aspirations of one’s law school community, and to ensure a continuous drive for excellence in a marketplace for legal education that is relentlessly competitive.

we are often simultaneously seeking to improve metrics, especially those
reported to outside entities, while ensuring the maintenance and embrace of
core values in service of a shared vision, such data and information is
extremely helpful. While it is not easy to move all of the needles at once, the
LSSSE survey provides a good deal of information from our students as we try to
improve our schools in ways that help us better serve and support our students
and alumni. Having such student-centric data from our students, combined with
the information on how similarly situated schools are faring along comparable
trajectories is important to our ability to recognize challenges and
opportunities, and to be more diagnostic in our problem solving towards
informed solutions.

the students are the heart of any great law school, it is interesting, and
unfortunate, that their views are seldom collected in durable ways that provide
data over time for enterprise improvement. If we take “customer service”
seriously, LSSSE appears to be one of the few, if not the only, mechanism
through which to glean the holistic well-being and effective functionality of
the law school as a student focused enterprise over time. For instance, despite
the profound impact of the US News and World Report (USNWR) on legal education,
there are no input variables that are student generated in the USNWR law school
rankings from which to ascertain insight into the student experience, both
specifically and comparatively.

the dearth of student generated data available to law school administrators and
faculty, LSSSE is a helpful mechanism through which to learn, analytically, as
opposed to anecdotally, about the student experience and organizational
pinch-points. Deans need to learn of areas in need of trouble-shooting,
especially areas that might encumber student success and well-being, or which
impede the creation and maintenance of durable institutional good-will.  So while I recognize that no tool is perfect, LSSSE
data proves valuable in providing deans with the ability to study and assess,
in protensive ways, areas that must be of importance to law schools, and legal
education more generally.[1]

may bristle at the notion of customer service in an academic setting as inappropriately
consumerist, perhaps fawning and misguided. However, for many of our students,
and often their families, their monetary investment in graduate and
professional schools, especially given rising tuition,[2]
not surprisingly, nor unreasonably, enhances expectations for such a student
facing and customer-driven focus. I empathize with the impetus for assurances
along the lines of customer service -- these are often fueled by increased debt
loads and what some are calling a national student debt crisis.[3]

an average annual tuition rate of $27,160 for public law schools and $47,754 for
private law schools,[4]
we should expect that our students want what some may view as more from us, but
which may reasonably be interpreted as value for their dollar, and for their
debt. For such outlays of money and the assumption of debt, would we too not do
the same in every other space of personal investment and expenditure? Such
expectations are especially the case in areas that bode well for student
preparation for their professional opportunities, be that from wellness and
counselling, to legal research, writing and the search for employment, skills that
all intersect with and amplify doctrinal and substantive acumen.

striving to be more of a data-driven dean, LSSSE can help. I look to LSSSE to
help me/us improve both our appreciation of student feedback, and also to provide
a basis upon which we assess our adherence to, and support of, core values we
hold dear, starting with the embrace and uplift of our students.

[1] LSSSE data
supports the opportunity to study various aspects of the law school experience,
including how students utilize law school services, how they study, and what
their employment goals are, and how it changes over time. LSSSE,

[2] According to data
compiled by Law School Transparency, average in-state tuition for public law
schools in 1985 was $2,006, while average tuition for private schools was
$7,526; by 2018, average tuition had risen to $27,160 and $47,754 respectively.
Law School Costs,

[3] Sandy Baum and
Patricia Steele, Graduate and Professional School Debt: How Much Students
Borrow (January 4, 2018). AccessLex Institute Research Paper No. 18-02, or; Kristin Blagg,
Underwater on Student Debt: Understanding Consumer Credit and Student Loan
Default (August 2018),; National Center
for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2018 - Trends in Student
Loan Debt for Graduate School Completers,; Federal Reserve
Bank of New York, Research & Statistics Group, Quarterly Report on
Household Debt and Credit, Q1 2019 (May 2019),; Josh Mitchell,
The Long Road to the Student Debt Crisis, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2019,

Farrington, The 2020 Presidential Candidates’ Proposals for Student Loan Debt,
Forbes (April 24, 2019),; Jacob Pramuk,
Elizabeth Warren and 2020 Democrats Want to Erase Student Loan Debt – Here’s
How It Could Affect the Economy, CNBC (April 23, 2019), Also refer to
increasing conversation amongst presidential candidates about same.

[4] Law School Costs,
Law School Transparency (2018 data, most recent available)