Q & A with Interim Dean James Speta: “These Are Incredibly Difficult Times”


Faculty Scholarship
James Speta

On August 1, James Speta, Elizabeth Froehling Horner Professor of Law, stepped into the role of interim dean at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Speta has been a member of the faculty since 1999, and has held a number of key administrative positions at the Law School.  Most recently, he served as vice dean under Kimberly Yuracko, who has transitioned into the role of associate provost for academic projects. Prior to his role as vice dean, he served as senior associate dean for academic affairs and international initiatives.

 “Jim Speta will bring a wealth of legal knowledge and Northwestern Law experience to the job of interim dean of the Law School, and I am very pleased he has agreed to serve in this new role,” said Provost Kathleen Hagerty. “Jim understands the challenges facing our students, faculty and staff in these uncertain economic times and how the legal profession is undergoing transformative change at this moment in history.”

What I’ve learned and will bring most to this role is an appreciation for the strength of our community and how people—from the faculty to the students to the staff and alumni—pull together to get really hard things done. And we have a lot of really hard things to do.

Interim Dean James Speta

Speta’s research interests include telecommunications and internet policy, antitrust, administrative law and market organization. He has written most frequently about nondiscrimination rules as applied to Internet companies, as well as the regulatory authority of the FCC over the Internet and other issues affecting the competitiveness of Internet markets. He is a co-author of a leading casebook on Internet and telecommunication regulation.  More recently, he has applied the lessons learned from deregulatory transitions to other markets, such as ridesharing and those affected as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As an administrator, he has been particularly active furthering the Law School’s efforts internationally: developing partnerships, recruiting students and engaging with international alumni. He is also member of the University’s Global Council and the Provost’s Advisory Council on Women Faculty.

In his first days as interim dean, Speta discussed his immediate priorities, how the Law School will navigate the educational challenges posed by a pandemic, and what distinguishes Northwestern Law.

You are stepping into this role at an unprecedented time, for the US and the world, but also for legal education. Given that, what are your urgent priorities as interim dean?

In the short run, the first priority is to maintain the health and safety of our community in the midst of the global pandemic. What we have done, consistent with state, local and CDC guidance, is to substantially reduce the capacity of our building and the use of live classes. Our curriculum will substantially be taught remotely this semester, and our in-person experiences will require masks and social distancing and a relatively controlled population in the Law School.

The second priority is to maintain the Northwestern educational and community experience. We have spent an enormous amount of time this summer working on improving remote teaching capabilities, both from a technical perspective and from a pedagogical perspective. Our faculty, led by a faculty committee and our staff experts in IT and AV and course design, has worked hard to put together a great remote curriculum. And our student services, our office of inclusion and engagement, and our administrative team in general has worked hard to find new ways to engage students.

And, finally, I am committed to doing real work on issues of diversity and inclusion and anti-racism. Dean Yuracko engaged an outside consultant to help us compose and administer a climate survey to the community in order to really understand the ways in which different populations experience Northwestern Pritzker Law, and that work has begun.  Anti-racism trainings for the senior leadership team are underway, and, in partnership with the University, we will be rolling out additional trainings to the rest of the administration and staff, as well as to the faculty. And based on inquiries from faculty, we’ve developed resources on racial and social justice issues for individual classes that have been made available through the library. We’ve also hosted conversations about how to pursue inclusive teaching and social justice issues inside the classroom.

We have spent an enormous amount of time this summer working on improving remote teaching capabilities, both from a technical perspective and from a pedagogical perspective.

You mentioned the necessity of maintaining the educational and community experience. What does a Law School class look like in a remote teaching model?

Remote teaching takes a variety of flavors. Compared to a classic online program, law school teaching includes a lot more synchronous instruction, since the core of legal education is the Socratic method in the classroom, the live clinical experience, and simulation experiences. We have done our best, and I think pretty successfully, to replicate those synchronous experiences. But many faculty, particularly those who teach doctrinal classes, are also introducing asynchronous elements such as the use of prerecorded videos, discussion boards, online quizzes, and really the whole panoply of remote and online education.

I should note, maintaining the community experience isn’t just about classroom engagement, it’s also about support. These are incredibly difficult times for the students, some of whom are living alone, some of whom have childcare responsibilities or family-care responsibilities, some of whom have their own health challenges. At the same time, the job market is incredibly uncertain. So we are doing a lot to assist students with a variety of challenges.

Do you think the incorporation of new technologies in the classroom might change some aspects of legal education for the long haul?

This crisis has forced people, faculty included, to try new things and many have adopted and in fact quite liked the tools and the experience. Some of my torts students said aspects of the course were better once we went online in the spring, and I’m taking that to heart. And I think our faculty will take to heart the lessons they’ve learned as we emerge from the pandemic into, hopefully, a lot more in-person instruction. I definitely think we’ll see the use of remote tools and asynchronous materials in the Law School curriculum going forward.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Northwestern Law right now, specifically in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Given the uncertainties created by the pandemic, budget issues will definitely be a challenge. Another important issue is the uncertainty that has been created for our international students. Combinations of restrictions on travel rising from the pandemic, as well as Administration actions directed at international students, have made it difficult, if not impossible, for many of these very important members of our educational community to be here. We’ve taken steps to make provisions for them, to enable them to participate in limited ways remotely, although that’s not their preference—their interest is being in Chicago. We’ve created new starts for those students in January and May, but that’s an important issue that we will have to continue to attend to.

You have served as vice dean for the past two academic years. What have you learned about the Law School community in that role, and how will those learnings inform your approach to this role?

In addition to being vice dean, I’ve been an associate dean of various portfolios over the previous eight years, and what I’ve learned and will bring most to this role is an appreciation for the strength of our community and how people—from the faculty to the students to the staff and alumni—pull together to get really hard things done. And we have a lot of really hard things to do. To be sure, I’ve accumulated a lot of exposure to the operational environment and structure of the Law School and the University, particularly in the past five years. I’ve met alums as I’ve traveled, I’ve met people in Evanston at the central administration of the University. I will say, based on just a few days, that being dean is a very different role, but I’ve had the benefit of watching and working with three former deans, each of whom taught me a fair bit. So I’m excited to work with the community on all we have to tackle right now.