Law dean reflects on time at post

By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 13, 2013

After lunch Friday, Law School Dean Evan Caminker leaned back in one of the leather armchairs in his bright Hutchins Hall office.

“What’d I do this morning? Define this morning,” he said.

Even as Caminker concludes his second, final term as dean he doesn’t have much time to relax. After a decade at his post, Caminker hasn’t slowed down — his days typically begin before dawn and end after 2 a.m.

Nodding at the can of Diet Dr. Pepper resting on a coaster in front of him, Caminker talked about the e-mails, reports and appointments that kept him awake until 4 a.m. the night before.

“The day is so jam packed with doing things and meeting with people, I don’t have time during the day to make decisions or execute,” Caminker said. “And maybe that means I’m not the most efficient person in the history of the universe; I can’t deny the possibility that someone could do this job more quickly than I could.”

But for Caminker, speed is not crucial, quality is.

“I think that in everything I’ve tried to do here, I’ve tried to maintain authenticity and integrity,” Caminker said. “There are lots of splashy ways to pretend you are doing something new and different. I think we try and do things the right way and for the right reasons.”

Before his appointment, Caminker served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and practiced law in public interest and private firms. After a diverse range of legal experiences, Caminker entered education as a faculty member at University of California, Los Angeles Law School.

In 1999, Caminker joined the University’s Law School faculty and was later appointed as associate dean for academic affairs.

In addition to passion for teaching, Caminker said legal study opens possibilities not available to those who practice in government or private sectors.

“I really liked the idea of being able to select the problems that I wanted to try and solve, and one advantage of being a scholar is you generally have free reign to figure out what are the problems in society that really need attention and how you could you then go figure out how to best contribute to a conversation.”

Caminker’s attention to detail and pressing issues is a trait that has permeated most aspects of his time as dean, including the massive facilities project of constructing Aikens Commons and South Hall.

Michele Frasier Wing, the law school’s director of finance and planning, spent the last three years working with Caminker on initiatives such as the building projects and financial aid improvements.

“He’s an incredibly smart and deliberative person, but the thing that I think stands out the most for me is that he has a tremendous amount of integrity in the way he approaches all of the decisions he has to make,” Frasier Wing said. “He takes it extraordinarily seriously.”

Frasier Wing said Caminker cares deeply about the student experience, a characteristic that may help him as he moves on to become a member of the school's faculty. She said he worked diligently to ensure the largest expansion to the law school campus since its construction.

Law School student Elizabeth Och, president of the school’s senate, said the upgrades have drastically improved the student experience.

“The space that has opened up has completely changed the face of the law school and a change in a really positive way — the way that students are able to engage with each other,” Och said. “Nobody really imagines what life was like before it. It feels like it belongs.”

In addition to spearheading the construction projects, which continue with renovations to the Lawyer’s Club, Caminker has ushered University law education into the 21st century.

While in previous decades law firms often trained new hires in firm-specific techniques, Caminker said most firms are now looking for graduates to be ready to begin practice right away.

To prepare graduates for these demands, Caminker led the effort to more than triple the number of clinical programs, which provide experiential training and allow students to provide real representation to clients under faculty guidance. Many of the new clinics, which include topics such as human trafficking and environmental law, are housed within the recently laid stone of South Hall, visible just outside Caminker’s window.

On a different wall in Caminker’s office, there’s a framed black portrait of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. — another emblem of Caminker’s tenure. Caminker has organized lectures by three Supreme Court justices in his time here.

The portrait is also representative of his first day as dean in 2003 — a day when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, the landmark affirmative action case against the school. University President Mary Sue Coleman worked closely with Caminker during the court proceedings, which eventually upheld the University’s narrow use of affirmative action in race-based decisions.

Och, who has closely worked with Caminker during her term as Law School Student Senate president, recognizes his ability work through any problem whether they are student complaints or new projects for student organizations.

“First and foremost, he’s very thorough,” Och said. “He’s definitely always willing to listen to any sort of complaint or listen to input on how to solve a project. He always does his homework to get the full picture moving forward. He makes sure to involve lots of different viewpoints in his decisions, and he’s also very mindful of making decisions that fit with the spirit of the school and the character of Michigan Law.”

Och remembers sitting next to Caminker at an event, where, after speaking to a student about his interests and law school experience, he was concerned he couldn’t remember the student’s name. Och said Caminker could have brushed it off, but he instead asked her about it so he could put a face to a name.

Whether he’s dancing on a table to raise money for public-interest summer programs, or speaking on a serious topic with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Och said students admire the dean.

And for Caminker, it’s all part of maintaining the culture that drew him to the University in the first place.

“The thing that attracted me (to the University) was this sense of community and culture,” Caminker said. “There was a combination of seriousness of purpose but a friendliness and playfulness that I don’t think I’ve ever seen at any other law school.”