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UF Law successfully navigates the pandemic, prepares for the future

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Laura Rosenbury

Laura Rosenbury

Laura Ann Rosenbury was poised to celebrate her five-year anniversary as dean of the University of Florida College of Law, as well as a big leap in the school’s national ranking, when COVID-19 struck.

More than a year later, UF Law is returning to normal operations, but still feeling the pandemic’s reverberations with a phenomenal surge in applications, Rosenbury said.

“When I arrived in 2015, we had about 1,300 applications for that cycle,” Rosenbury said. “This year, we had 3,800.”

According to Law School Admission Council figures cited in a recent Bloomberg report, U.S. law schools are experiencing a 28% jump in applications over the previous year.

The trend has allowed UF Law to be more selective, with the next class boasting some of the highest LSAT scores and undergraduate achievement in UF Law history, Rosenbury said.

“When I arrived, we were at 3.5 GPA, and our previous high had been 3.69,” she said. “This coming fall, our median undergraduate GPA will be 3.86, so we’re really excited that increased applications will enable us to pick some of the best and brightest.”

Equally encouraging, Rosenbury said, is that some 30% of the class identifies as racially or ethnically diverse.

A year ago, UF was savoring a new U.S. News & World Report ranking of 24th among law schools, and seventh among public law schools, a 24-point jump in overall ranking from 2016.

But a public announcement had to be canceled as the pandemic descended and doubts about the next school year began to creep in.

Today, Rosenbury recalls with satisfaction how the school rapidly transitioned to online instruction, then a “high-flex” model that blended online with in-person, and still managed to climb in the national rankings, all while avoiding her worst fear.

“My biggest fear was that as we brought students back to campus earlier than many other law schools…that we would have transmission on campus, and someone would die.”

Rosenbury credits the law school’s close collaboration with UF Health for more than preventing a worst-case scenario.

Health protocols included a strict masking policy, rigorous contact tracing, social distancing, plexiglass barriers, signage, one-way footpaths, and even frequent testing of the law school’s sewage for telltale signs of the disease.

A handful of students tested positive, but contact tracing showed they were exposed elsewhere, Rosenbury said. The students who became ill recovered at home, and the school received no reports of hospitalizations or deaths, Rosenbury said.

“There was no — zero — exposure on our campus,” she said.

Some students who turned down UF Law changed their minds when they learned that in-person classes would be available, Rosenbury said.

In the end, about 90% of first-year students chose in-person instruction, with the rest opting for online, Rosenbury said.

The split was 60% in-person and 40% online for 2Ls, and the opposite for 3Ls — 40% in-person and 60% online, she said.

The transition was sometimes bumpy, Rosenbury acknowledges.

“Early on, audio was a problem,” she said. “The remote students could easily hear the professors, but in our Socratic method, comments from the other classmates are important, and they were hard to hear.”

The problem was eventually overcome, she said.

When some faculty members were uncomfortable returning to the classroom, Rosenbury filled the gap. For the first time since she became UF’s dean, Rosenbury taught a required course, Property Law.

“Fortunately, property law doesn’t change a great deal,” she said.

Social distancing required her to divide the 70-member class into two sections, and teach a morning and afternoon class, three days a week.

Initially, it was difficult to gauge class response when all of the students are separated by a barrier and wearing surgical masks, Rosenbury said.

“After I had been with the students for six class sessions, I learned how to read a student’s expression by looking at their eyes,” she said.

The pandemic left a lasting mark on the students and the institution, Rosenbury acknowledges.

“Our graduates from the class of 2020 were hardest hit,” she said. “They had the stress of a cancelled bar exam. . . and most of them had to start their jobs remotely, and those who would have found themselves in the courtroom just weren’t.”

With the courts switching to mostly online proceedings, it made more sense to continue teaching some classes online, Rosenbury said.

“There are certain types of legal practice where online skills will continue to be very important,” she said. “During the pandemic, we realized that many mediations can be very effectively handled 100% online, so we did all of our mediation courses 100% online, we didn’t even try to high flex.”

This reality gave law professors an opportunity to focus on teaching methods, Rosenbury said.

“The pandemic forced all of us, all of the faculty to be more intentional about pedagogy, to examine what we have been doing in the live classroom, to see how it translated, and that was a good thing,” she said.

The latest U.S. News & World Report ranking shows that UF Law not only maintained its top 25 ranking, but rose from 24th to 21st overall, and from seventh to sixth among public schools.

Rosenbury said the ranking is more significant considering that for the first time, evaluators looked at average student indebtedness.

“UF Law is now Number 3 in the nation, among all law schools, public or private, for return-on-investment,” she said. “The reason was because of our job placement success, that makes up 25% of the overall ranking.”

Because some of the averages were based on 2019 figures, it may be difficult for UF Law to maintain that ranking next year, when the economic fallout from the pandemic starts to register, Rosenbury said. But then again, “the pandemic effected everyone,” she said.

The study showed that UF Law ranks 10th in the nation in terms of its average student debt, at about $65,000, Rosenbury said.

“At UVA (the University of Virginia), it’s $165,000,” she said.

Faculty deserves much of the credit, Rosenbury said, as do UF Law alumni for giving meaning to the old saw that “Gators hire Gators.” The State of Florida also deserves credit for investing in higher education, Rosenbury said. UF Law has not had to raise tuition since 2010, she said.

“Looking back, I’m like, how did we do it?” she said. “Because we had to change so much so quickly and we had so much uncertainty, but I have an amazing team of staff and faculty who constantly put the students’ needs first.”

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