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Tobin looks back at 8 years of change at Maryland Carey Law

After eight years as dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Donald Tobin will step down at the end of this academic year and return to teaching full time.

In an interview with The Daily Record, Tobin reflected on his time in leadership at the state’s top law school, starting amid a crisis in legal education after the Great Recession. Tobin also led Maryland Carey Law through the 2015 unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, and saw the school through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tobin said he looks forward to spending more time in the classroom, where his focus is in tax law.

“At its core, lawyers care about the rule of law, and they care about justice and they care about fairness,” he said. “We can’t forget that as a profession.”

An announcement about Tobin’s successor as dean is expected in the next month. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

After eight years as dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Donald Tobin will step down at the end of this academic year.

Q: Why did you decide this was the right time to step back and return to teaching?

Tobin: I think there are two driving forces. One is I love our students and I love teaching and I miss being in the classroom and getting to interact with them on a regular basis. So I’m excited about that opportunity.

The second is that institutions have sort of a flow to them and a way in which they are able to move forward and do things. We’ve accomplished a tremendous number of things over the last eight years. I felt like this was a time where the school was ready for another push. We’ve been pushing pretty hard for the last eight years and have gotten ourselves to a great place, and this was a good time for someone else to come in and make a new push for new ideas and move things forward.

Q: How would you define that push that you’re describing from your time as dean?

There were two major goals when I came on as dean, and the first was to help the law school through the structural changes that occurred because of the 2008 recession. There was a significant downturn in enrollment in law schools. There were financial difficulties at law schools around the country, and we needed to figure out how to restructure and reinvent our law school. That’s been a huge part of the last eight years.

The second part was how we wanted to leverage our involvement in the community. We have been very active in the community for a long time … but about six months after I came on as dean, Baltimore experienced the Freddie Gray unrest and I got the faculty together and I said, “This is going to define who we are as a school. How do we want to respond to what’s happening around us?”

We put together a plan to do three important things. One was to be more involved in schools, especially in Baltimore. The second was to broaden our teaching. We always had taught, but continued and strengthened our teaching about, some of the underlying structural problems that existed in Baltimore and cities around the country. And the third was really how we would be more involved in the community while leveraging our important strengths and making sure that we were fulfilling our mission to educate the next generation of great lawyers and leaders. I would say those two things have guided me.

Q: You’ve seen the law school through some pretty turbulent times. Now we’re in the COVID-19 pandemic. What would you say you took away from those events?

I took away a great appreciation for our people. Our students, through all of, it have shown great creativity, thoughtfulness, passion and resilience. Our faculty have shown a deep sense of care about the success of our students and how we were able to help them thrive in this environment, whether it be dealing with the racial and social unrest in the country, or with COVID, and staff was really willing to buckle down and do what needs to be done for our greater mission. I think my biggest takeaway is people are pretty amazing when they put their mind to a goal and want to make something work. If anything defines for me the resilience and passion of the people who do this work, it is what happened when we had the first COVID shutdown.

We were able to go to online instruction without a single day of missed class. We were a little earlier, I think, than some in seeing what was happening. So we were able to get the technology ordered and get people who maybe were not familiar with what Zoom was or how you could teach remotely, and we got everybody online teaching remotely.

That showed a student willingness to be flexible and deal with people who didn’t know the technology, maybe, as well as they did. It showed an amazing dedication (from) our staff and faculty. … Everybody had to think of new ways to do things. It’s hard when some of your proudest moments are that we were able to continue, but when you watch what people did, not just at Maryland Carey Law, but around the country in responding to this crisis, it’s pretty incredible.

Q: What would you say to someone who is considering going to law school?

This is an amazing profession. Lawyers change the world. That is the cornerstone of what we do, whether it is helping a transaction come to fruition or helping set up the rules of the game, whatever the game is, so that people interact with each other in a fair, honest and just way.

But most importantly, if you think of most major changes in society, they have been driven by a place with stable rule of law, with a just system so that everyone can thrive. … Lawyers are at the forefront of that. We can’t cure cancer, and I can’t do an organ transplant. That’s not where I make a difference in the world, but I make a difference in trying to create systems where people who are doing those things thrive and where we all feel that we can live in a just and equitable society. We’re not there. So there’s a lot to do in law.