COVID-19 First-Person Perspective: Dean Jane Aiken, Wake Forest University

Like many leaders, I have been called to rise — to quickly assess and reimagine the delivery of legal education. To act deliberately during an era defined by global pandemic. To inspire hope and a sense of responsibility for justice during a time of seemingly insurmountable uncertainty.

But unlike many, I found myself navigating the unprecedented moments of 2020 during my first year as a dean at Wake Forest Law School. Indeed, I have been a “COVID Dean” longer than I was an “On-Ground Dean.”

Luckily, I am surrounded by a terrific faculty who stepped up and committed themselves to ensuring that our first-year students were mask to mask, approximating, as best we could, a traditional first-year experience. The faculty also recognized that they needed to re-engineer their courses to accommodate Zoom classrooms. They formed learning communities in which they spent several weeks over the summer learning innovative teaching methodologies designed for the online platform.

The faculty also formed a Law School COVID Task Force to help make all the decisions, big and small, ensuring both safety for our community and quality education. The faculty also produced scholarship on the legal and ethical issues that emerged through the management of the COVID pandemic. They created a webinar, drawing on experts throughout the nation, entitled Isolated By Law. They produced CLE materials on Small Business Bankruptcy and offered it for free to lawyers to enhance their ability to advise their clients on their choices as they faced economic disruption.

The students stepped up as well. They developed important pro bono projects responsive to the pandemic. They spent their summer helping community members apply for unemployment insurance and COVID-related benefits as they faced job loss and the consequent economic loss. Pro bono did not end when classes began. Students continue to conduct food drives and clothing drives. They assist people facing COVID-related evictions to negotiate staying in their homes. They help their fellow students, often isolated by the pandemic, to feel engaged in the law school community and provide activities to promote wellness.

I continue to be energized and motivated by the work of my students and colleagues at Wake Forest Law. Although this year has tested all of us in so many ways, at Wake Forest, we have continued to show our commitment to action — to solving the issues of our time — and to upholding our values and dedication to service and to helping those who need it most. As we continue to navigate this moment in history, I know that Wake Forest Law School will emerge stronger and better and our students will be prepared to meet future challenges with creativity, confidence, and resilience.

Jane Aiken serves as Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Law.

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