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New dean upbeat on UT law school prospects


Benjamin Barros, 45, the new dean of the University of Toledo law school, is a Boston native and an optimist who is not discouraged by the declining enrollment.

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As a first-time law-school dean, Benjamin Barros arrived at the University of Toledo just as law schools across the United States slid into their fifth year of an enrollment slump. 

But don’t try to dampen his enthusiasm.

Mr. Barros, 45, a Boston native who spent the last 11 years on the faculty of the Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pa., is a confirmed optimist.

“I think we’re in a down cycle. I don’t think we’re going to stay down here. I think we are going to gradually trend up,” he said last week.

Mr. Barros said the first question he needs to answer is what size the law school ought to be. He’s not convinced the 157 first-year students UT welcomed in 2010 — the year before enrollment began its decline — is “the right size.”

Neither is this fall’s entering class of 70 — the smallest in recent history.

“Smaller is not necessarily worse,” Mr. Barros said. “Certainly every law-school dean in the United States would tell you they wish the enrollment market was better. It’s certainly a challenge, and small brings budget challenges, but I think there are a lot of advantages to being small.”

Students are not just a number, he said. They get to know the faculty. They benefit from small class sizes. Still, it’s clear UT needs to make changes.

“I very much want to get the enrollment trends reversed, and I want us to go up, and I would like us to increase our entering credentials, but I don’t know whether I want to increase it by 30 people or not,” Mr. Barros said. “Those are things I need to work with the university and the faculty and other stakeholders to explore.”

Nationwide, fewer college graduates are choosing to pursue law degrees because of those degrees’ high cost and uncertainty that the investment will result in a high-paying job — if any job at all.

In an effort to reverse the trend, UT’s board of trustees lowered annual tuition by 13 percent for law students beginning this fall to a competitive $17,900. For the third year, UT offered in-state tuition rates to students from Michigan, and for the first time offered in-state tuition to Indiana residents.

The results were not what they’d hoped for.

Applications to the law school were down from 472 last year to 338 this year.

The number of first-year students dropped from 79 last year to 70 this year. The College of Law’s total headcount dropped by 38 students, or 12.5 percent — from 304 last fall to 266 this fall.

Michigan enrollment declined from 29 first-year students last year to 23 this year. 

No Indiana residents joined this fall’s new class.

Mr. Barros said he’s concerned about another trend: declining numbers of women opting for law school.

In 2013, women made up nearly half of UT’s first-year students, but dropped to 41 percent in 2014 and just 36 percent this fall.

“There’s a strong trend line down and I don’t know why that is, and that really worries me,” he said. “That’s something that I want to address.”

He said he’d like to improve marketing efforts, get the law school’s message out more effectively, explore offering graduate certificates in law, and beef up recruiting.

He recently hired Jessica Mehl as assistant dean for law admissions. Ms. Mehl, who held the same position from 2010 to 2013, is already out recruiting, and Mr. Barros plans to do some of that as well.

Students say the dean has been very visible during his eight weeks on campus — speaking every day at orientation for first-year law students, meeting students, and keeping his door open.

“The dean said come talk to me if you have any ideas, any suggestions,” said Sarah Boldt, a first-year law student from Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Matt Wilfong of Ottawa Hills, who plans to graduate in December, said he hadn’t met the new dean yet but was impressed when Mr. Barros sent him a LinkedIn request.

“I thought, ‘Well, isn’t he on top of things?’ ” said Mr. Wilfong, who credited Mr. Barros with having quickly “gained a reputation as accessible.”

Mr. Barros said he hopes to get involved with the community, and at UT, to be an “outside dean.” An inside dean, he said, focuses on what’s going on inside the building.

“Most of my energy I want to be focused outside,” he said. “I want to be focused on enrollment, on doing what I can to help improve job prospects for graduates, and on fund-raising.”

Married with two sons — his wife, Jody King, is an attorney who worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Health before the family’s move to Sylvania — Mr. Barros said northwest Ohio is “the farthest west” he’s ever lived.

He graduated from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and Fordham University School of Law in New York. 

He worked at two large New York law firms before making the move to full-time teaching in 2004.

His academic specialty: property law and regulatory takings.

“Property is my passion,” Mr. Barros said. “It goes back to my first year in law school. I just fell in love with it in law school.”

He said he’d love to teach at UT and hopes to do that, but not this year. He’s got a lot on his plate.

Outgoing Dean Daniel Steinbock, who leaves this week to teach in Eastern Europe and volunteer with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative in Cairo, said he spent some time with the new dean and believes he has his priorities straight.

“He’s an excellent choice who is moving in the right directions,” Mr. Steinbock said. 

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-213-2134.

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