The Chair Man

Associate Dean Don Welch reflects on his 25-year career as the law school's administrative officer.
by Grace Renshaw Don Welch

When Don Welch accepted a job in the provost's office at Vanderbilt University in 1977, shortly after earning his Ph.D. in ethics and political theory at Vanderbilt in 1976, he expected to spend fewer than five years at Vanderbilt. "My dissertation focused on the relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and Congress, using as a case study the CIA's intervention in Chile when [Marxist President Salvador] Allendé was overthrown," Welch says. "I thought I'd work at Vanderbilt three or four years and then join the faculty of a small liberal arts college. But plans change."

"Don has assured me that he did not interpret the fact that Vanderbilt presented him with a rocking chair as a hint," said Dean Chris Guthrie. "In fact, I've told him he can't retire while I'm dean!"

Vanderbilt professors who serve for 25 years are given a chair—not an academic chair; the kind you actually sit in.

Welch recently celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as the law school's administrative dean and his thirty-second year as a Vanderbilt employee, having started his Vanderbilt career as an assistant dean for academic services in the provost's office. He was asked to oversee the affirmative action program for Vanderbilt faculty while working in the provost's office. To gain a better understanding of employment discrimination law and policy, Welch took Professor Robert Belton's employment discrimination course. But a chance phone call from Professor Don Hall, who was then serving as associate dean, ultimately led Welch to his current position.

"Don had prepared an advertisement for a new administrative dean at the law school and wanted to read it to me to make sure the language met all university equal opportunity requirements," Welch recalls. "My interest was piqued when I heard Don say that the law school would consider a candidate who wasn't an attorney. I didn't want to put Dent Bostick in an awkward position, since I worked with the budgets of all Vanderbilt schools, so I called later to ask if an application from me would be welcome." Bostick gave Welch the green light to apply and then hired him. Welch has now held that position through the administrations of six deans (including one interim).

By chance, Welch's arrival coincided with Professor Sam Stumpf Sr.'s retirement from Vanderbilt's faculty, which prompted Dean Bostick to tap Welch to teach the Law and Morals and Law, Medicine and Society courses previously taught by Stumpf. So Welch also joined the faculty as a lecturer at the same time he joined the staff as administrative dean, rising through the ranks to become a full professor by 1998. He also holds a secondary faculty appointment in the Graduate Department of Religion.

Welch's administrative duties touch every aspect of its operations. Among other tasks, he develops the law school's annual operating budget and monitors compliance. Despite that workload, he has authored three books over the course of his career, including a history of the law school published by the Vanderbilt University Press in 2008. He also has an edited volume to his credit along with a long list of scholarly articles dealing with a broad range of topics, including legal and professional ethics, law curriculum, public policy, and the intersection of law and morality.

Welch credits his long tenure to a measure of "Texas stubbornness" (he grew up in McAllen, Texas), but primarily to Vanderbilt's collaborative culture. "I think there's a kind of self-selection at work here," Welch says. "The people who come to work or study at this law school are those who value a collegial culture. Obviously, I've never worked at another law school, but my sense is that, by and large, this is a different kind of place than most elite graduate schools." He notes that the law school's culture is a product of a campus where "we have many interdisciplinary programs and opportunities for people who want to stretch across academic disciplines, and people are really open to working together."

One of the more interesting periods Welch can remember is the major renovation the law school underwent between 1999 and 2002. Professor Jim Ely was working in his office when a cable swinging from a crane crashed through his window, fortunately leaving him unscathed but destroying some of his office furniture. Dean Kent Syverud was working at his desk when a drill bored a hole through the floor of his office, missing his foot by inches. Faculty, students and staff endured dust, noise and inconsistent heat and air-conditioning. "We also spent an inordinate amount of time planning, and raising the funds to pay for, that expansion," Welch recalls. "But the result—one of the best law school buildings in the country—was worth the short-term discomfort.

"Any time you go through a period of change, there's some discomfort, even if the change is positive," Welch says. "But the changes we've seen at Vanderbilt Law School over the last 25 years have made this an interesting and exciting job for me. I may be working in the same place, but I know that from one year to the next, I'll always have the opportunity to do at least one new thing."

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