COVID-19 First-Person Perspective: Dean Kerry Abrams, Duke

I became the dean of Duke Law School on July 1, 2018. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that less than two years later I would be steering the school through a pandemic.

Duke Law’s mission statement says that we “prepare students for responsible and productive lives in the legal profession by providing a rigorous legal education within a collaborative, supportive, and diverse environment.” An important challenge we faced this fall was how to carry out that mission in a learning environment that was almost completely online. We decided to go mostly online for several reasons: Once we accounted for social distancing, we were left with 20 percent of the classroom space we usually have, so under any scenario, most of our courses would be online. In addition, about 25 percent of our students — who come to Duke from all around the country and the world — decided to live with their families or friends in their hometowns this year.

Many of our faculty were not comfortable teaching in person, either for personal health reasons or out of concern for elderly relatives or the need to supervise small kids who are homeschooling. Given these factors, as well as the sheer uncertainty of the future course of the pandemic, we thought our faculty’s time was best spent preparing to teach online at a very high level.

Overall, this approach has been very successful. Our students have expressed surprise and appreciation for the success of their online classes. Online events have opened up new avenues to us: Alumni in New York or Los Angeles or Shanghai can pop in for 30 minutes to chat with a group of students who are interested in their area of legal practice, and we’ve been able to host guest speakers, such as Senators Cory Booker and Chris Murphy, who probably wouldn’t have been able to travel to Durham for an in-person event. Many members of our broader community in North Carolina have experienced extraordinary adversity during this time, including eviction, denial of access to needed health care, and deportation, so we are proud that we have been able to maintain a very high level of representation in our 11 legal clinics. We also — so far — have managed to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 among our students, faculty, and staff. All in all, the fall has gone very well, and I’m proud of community for coming together to make the most of a tough situation.

Even so, I can’t deny that I yearn for the pandemic to be over. There is something about meeting your classmates and colleagues in person that makes it easier to develop friendships and strong working relationships. Even in-person activities feel different right now — wearing a mask and standing six feet apart is necessary for public health reasons, but it creates a barrier to bonding. We have been exploring various approaches to compensate for the loss of those everyday, serendipitous encounters that we usually have with one another. We’ve had scavenger hunts, online pumpkin carving contests, small group meetings between 1Ls and their upper-class mentors and professors in the Law School building, and all sorts of other activities. I’ve made a personal effort to meet more frequently (online, of course) with student groups and staff teams, and have been sending weekly video chats to the entire community. But I think we are experiencing at our school what so many of us are experiencing in our professional, social, and family lives right now — that there is no substitute for actual human contact, and we look forward to the day when we can talk face to face, share meals, exchange hugs, and feel fully “human.”

Kerry Abrams is the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean and Professor of Law at Duke Law School.

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