A Dean for Challenging Times

Vanderbilt Law School's fifteenth dean, Chris Guthrie, believes the school's best days are ahead.
by Grace Renshaw Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt Law Dean Chris Guthrie understands the importance of financial aid in attracting top students. As a graduating senior in Hutchinson, Kansas, a remote Kansas town where the SAT wasn't even administered, Guthrie was able to attend Stanford University because of a generous aid package.

When Guthrie became Vanderbilt Law School's fifteenth dean on July 1, his personal understanding of financial need helped shape one of his immediate priorities for the school: more funding for scholarships. He had grown up mostly in small towns all over the state of Kansas, where his desire to attend an Ivy League-level university was unusual. "Most of my high school classmates either weren't going to college or planned to go to community college or a state university," he says. "I wanted to do something different, and without financial aid, I could never have gone to a school like Stanford."

Once he arrived at Stanford, Guthrie's intellectual curiosity helped him weather a daunting discovery: "Academically, it was clear my level of preparation lagged dramatically behind most of my classmates'," he recalls. But Guthrie thrived, thanks to his enthusiasm for the intellectually engaging coursework. His "life-changing" classroom experiences at Stanford inform another of his priorities for Vanderbilt Law: faculty recruitment and retention. "I had great teachers in my undergraduate and law classes, and I saw firsthand how their scholarship informed their teaching," he says. "I was attracted to Vanderbilt Law from the beginning because it emphasized excellent teaching and scholarship. I want us to continue to build our faculty so we always offer our students their own life-changing experiences in our classrooms."

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and receiving Stanford's prestigious Dinkelspiel Award, awarded each year to one graduate in recognition of outstanding academic and extracurricular contributions, Guthrie spent a year working for the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) in Kansas City while deciding whether to pursue a degree in counseling psychology or law. He headed initially to Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where he earned a master's degree while working at a non-profit agency as a counselor advising low-income adults about educational and career opportunities. "That year, I concluded I was definitely interested in counseling, advising, and problem solving, but I also concluded that I wanted to do those things as a lawyer," he recalls. Guthrie loved the Stanford culture and the Northern California climate, so he chose to return there for law school. During his second and third years, he became interested in research focused on understanding how and why individuals involved in disputes—litigants, lawyers, judges, mediators, and so forth—resolve or fail to resolve them. With different sets of collaborators, he published articles in several top journals, including the Michigan Law Review and Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, while he was in law school.

Following law school, Guthrie joined Fenwick & West, a law firm co-founded by Vanderbilt Law School graduate Bill Fenwick '67. As an associate, Guthrie chose to focus on employment law because "I liked the fact that employment disputes have a really human face. People care deeply about their work, maybe more than anything other than family." But he was soon drawn to the legal academy. "I wanted autonomy as well as the luxury to think, read, write and teach about the issues I chose," he recalls. He joined the law faculty of the University of Missouri in 1996, winning teaching awards for his classes in Torts, Negotiation, and Family Law, and research awards for his scholarship.

In fall 2001, Guthrie visited at Vanderbilt Law School and "fell in love with the place," he recalls. "I joined the faculty permanently the following fall." At Missouri and then at Vanderbilt, Guthrie served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for several years. Given his original motivation for leaving practice to teach, he appreciates the irony of his decision to serve so much of his academic career in administrative roles. "As a dean or associate dean, you relinquish the autonomy you enjoy as a full-time professor, and you don't often have the luxury of thinking about the issues you choose," he says ruefully. "But it became clear to me early on that contributing as a teacher and a scholar wasn't enough for me, and that I derived more personal satisfaction out of my contributions to the overall institution. I have had a great training program: six years as an Associate Dean working with three very different deans in two different settings. I am fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Kent Syverud and Ed Rubin, both of whom mentored me."

By any measure, Guthrie has hit the ground running. Since his term began on July 1, he has met with, or spoken to, more than 1,000 of Vanderbilt's approximately 8,000 alumni. Reflecting his view that the right teachers matter more than the right courses, he has initiated an ambitious faculty hiring program. And given his deep concerns about the student experience at and after Vanderbilt, he has worked tirelessly to help students navigate the challenging employment environment and to raise funds to support the student experience at the law school. A group of alumni led by Robb Hough '79 and members of the 1979 Moot Court team announced a $100,000 pledge toward the endowment of a scholarship in honor of Professor Don Hall during Reunion 2009, and the group is working to raise additional funds to increase the scholarship's value.

Despite his fast start, Guthrie has hit a couple of speed bumps early on. His partner, Professor Tracey George, whom he met when both were newly hired faculty members at the University of Missouri, had a freak accident on the way into her first Contracts class in late August, a fall that broke her femur. "It was perversely a wonderful moment of community building," he says. "Within 24 hours of her accident, I was contacted by eight members of our faculty who offered to completely upend their professional lives to fill in for Tracey. Every colleague who could conceivably have made some sort of adjustment to his or her professional schedule volunteered to do so, out of concern for Tracey, for me, and for the nearly 200 1Ls she was scheduled to teach. Our faculty colleagues, staff, and students went out of their way, in several different ways, to help. Students sent notes, gifts and offered to run errands; staff took on extra work and sent notes and gifts; we even heard from alumni and parents of students. Tracey was truly grateful, and it reinforced for us what a unique place this is. It reminded us in a very palpable way how fortunate we are to have the friends and colleagues that we have here."

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