Changing of the guard

For more than 25 hours straight in 2015, Bob Adler made his way mile by mile through the desert and mesas of southern Utah. Through pouring rain, slick mud, and dehydration, through moments of exhaustion but never wanting to quit, Adler kept on moving forward until he finished a 100-mile race.

The dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law had set a somewhat audacious goal to run the Zion 100-mile trail run in Virgin, Utah, in part as a personal challenge when he turned 60. But the broader strategy for the veteran ultramarathoner centered around another passion: advocating for law students and the pursuit of excellence in legal education.

Adler’s ability to keep a steady pace while weathering rough terrain in the Zion 100 is emblematic of his tenure as dean at the College of Law, which ends in July after six years of service.  Adler’s 100/100 initiative, as he dubbed it, will remain one of his crowning achievements. He completed the Zion 100 Mile course to bring awareness to a goal he has for the College of Law to reach 100-percent Bar passage and 100-percent professional employment placement among its law school graduates.

Leading up to the race, he touted the 100/100 initiative as the perfect metaphor for law school: aspirational goals help people to keep pushing to find the right formula for success in and outside the classroom. Over the years, Adler’s welcome address to incoming law students during orientation week compared the experience of law school to a marathon. If you start out too fast, you’ll burn out and not be able to finish at the end, Adler said. If you start out too slow, you’ll ha

Bob Adler on a training run for the 100/100 initiative.

ve to play catch up near the finish line.  Finding the right pace is half the battle, he told students.

That metaphor also proved true for Adler in his role as dean.

Adler found his stride on a number of initiatives at the College of Law. He oversaw completion of the law school’s new $62.5 million building on the southwest corner of the University of Utah campus, celebrating when the sustainable infrastructure was awarded a prestigious LEED platinum designation for its environmental design in 2016.  He launched the College of Law’s first new degree program in more than a quarter century, with the debut of the Master of Legal Studies program in the fall of 2018.  And he kept the law school on a forward trajectory during a timeframe when applications to law school dipped nationwide and job placements for new graduates struggled to recover after the great recession.

“I think Bob will be remembered for successfully navigating the transition to the new law building with his community both on campus and off campus, and for strengthening relationships with the college’s advisory board, the legal community, and our alums,” said Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah.

“During Bob’s time as dean he made some great hires, people who are well positioned to lead the college forward. He also really focused on excellence in students and innovations in programs during a challenging time in legal education. He also cultivated a good relationship between the college and the legal community,” she added.

Falling into a leadership role

Adler never aspired to climb the ladder of administration, but the job eventually found him.

The New York native had been practicing law for 15 years after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center, first in Pennsylvania and Alaska, and later in Washington, D.C. at the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the time, one of his student law clerks was attending the University of Virginia’s law school, which had no environmental law program.  The student asked Adler to teach an environmental law course at the institution, and his wife, Michele Straube, who was also an environmental lawyer, received a similar request. The couple co-taught their first environmental law course together, an experience in which Adler learned he enjoyed teaching.

A year later, in 1994, he sought a full-time law professor position. Utah was hiring. His goal was to reinvigorate the environmental practice program and clinical program. He also taught civil procedure.

“I loved the mountains and the West, so it was both the perfect job and the perfect location,” said Adler.

He’s watched the U and the law school change dramatically in past decades.

“I knew nothing about the University of Utah when I moved here. I knew a little bit about the law school. I knew it was a high-quality public law school with an excellent faculty and a growing reputation in my field, which is why I was excited to become a part of it. I did know how excellent the university as a whole was and that it was a hotbed of innovation and interdisciplinary scholarship.”

He played an integral role in helping colleague Bob Keiter build the law school’s environmental law program and the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, for example, by launching the law school’s environmental law moot court program which has won numerous awards in national competitions. Those combined efforts elevated the law school’s environmental law rankings in U.S. News & World Report into a top-10 force.

When former College of Law Dean Scott Matheson stepped down in 2006, Adler was asked to co-chair the committee for a replacement. The assignment led to an offer of an associate deanship under Matheson’s successor, Hiram Chodosh. Adler later chaired the building committee to plan for a new law school building.

Adler became the 11th dean of the College of Law in 2013 upon Chodosh’s departure, He initially agreed to a one-year term as Interim Dean while a new dean was selected, but later was asked to serve an additional 5-year term. He became the inaugural Jefferson B. and Rita E. Fordham Presidential Dean after he secured a large endowment from Dean Jefferson Fordham’s widow Rita Fordham (who is now also deceased) to support that named position, which will be bestowed on all future College of Law deans.

“I never thought about being a dean, I never aspired to be a dean. I don’t want this to sound like I was reluctant about it, but it wasn’t something I was pushing for,” said Adler.  “It was that my colleagues in central administration and on the faculty asked me to do it as a service to the school. And when I agree to do something, I embrace it.”

It was a time of great change and turmoil in legal education following the recessions. But the College of Law was moving ahead with its new building and making strong faculty hires. The U came through the rough years strong than many other law schools, Adler said.

A new stage

Adler jokes he will be promoted back to the faculty after leaving the dean’s suite, returning to the job he loves most: teaching environmental law students in the classroom and researching water law and other environmental and public lands issues. Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the first female dean named to the college in its 106-year history, succeeds him on July 1.

A new dean isn’t the only change ahead.  Several other notable and longstanding employees at the College of Law are also on the move.

Barbara Dickey, associate dean of student affairs, retired at the end of the academic year. The College of Law’s Young Alumni Association set up the YAA Barbara J. Dickey Scholarship in her honor to offer financial aid to a current law student who may not otherwise qualify for scholarship opportunities. The scholarship focuses on a student’s extracurricular activities, volunteer participation, support of classmates, and other relevant experience.

Kay Shelton, an associate director in the law school’s clinical program, is also retiring after many years of service. Linda F. Smith, who led the clinical program, will step into a new role after serving as director of the program for decades.

And Associate Dean Lincoln Davies will leave his position for a deanship at Ohio State University.

All the changes bring an air of excitement, but also a chance to reflect on the many contributions of those who are leaving, said David Leta, an alumnus and president of the College of Law’s Board of Trustees.

“What stands out in my mind is Bob’s leadership style as a critical thinker and cooperative listener,” said Leta. “Bob’s influences on the growth, prestige, and recognition of the college will last long after he leaves office.”

Added Michele Ballantyne, an alumna who also served as president of the Board of Trustees during Adler’s tenure: “It has been a pleasure to work with Bob in his role as dean of the law school.  Bob has shown unwavering commitment to building the College of Law— from completing the new building, ensuring a smooth transition to the new building, hiring new faculty, growing our programs, working effectively with our alumni to increase their connection to the school, conducting fundraising for critical scholarships—the list goes on.   He has shown integrity, dedication, and leadership in every endeavor.  As alumni, we so appreciate his service and will miss working with him as dean.”

Watkins said Adler has left the College of Law in a solid position.

“He is leaving the college in great shape. We are optimistic, we’re strong, we are well positioned,” she said.  “The College of Law has an instrumental role in numerous initiatives and efforts on our campus. It is a key player in our One U vision. The college—and its Stegner Center—has much to contribute to discussions of environmental issues, from air quality to water, as it brings expertise in policy and law. Faculty also are instrumental in discussions of ethics, medical humanities, bridging international policies, and other major interdisciplinary research initiatives.”

Adler said he too will miss the position, but he’s ready for the next chapter.

“The law has always been interdisciplinary. The law deals with every single aspect of life. But we’ve not always acted that way. We have very often in legal education siloed ourselves and separated ourselves from the university. That has changed around the country, it has changed here, and it can change more,” said Adler.  “I see more room for growth in those areas.”

He looks forward to having more time for his personal life, to travel with his wife, and to teach more.

“I like to think I have a positive influence on my students and I very much looking forward on my field of scholarship,” said Adler. “My time will be filled, just in different ways.”