As the new dean of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Anthony Niedwiecki is taking the reins of a 120-year-old law school at an unusual time.
Even as concerns over COVID-19 have steered a move toward complete remote learning in the fall, he’s seen growing interest in the school’s blended online/on-campus learning program and in the practice of law in general.
Niedwiecki, a native of Michigan and the first in his family to attend college, began his career as a high school and community college math teacher. For the past three years, he had been dean of Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.
He previously served as city commissioner and vice mayor of Oakland Park, Fla. In 2007, he founded Fight OUT Loud, a gay rights organization, and he continues to serve as vice president.
Niedwiecki recently discussed his activism, COVID-19, online learning and what he calls the “Trump bump.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you give us a 45-second bio?
I went to Tulane Law School, and then I worked for a Chicago law firm in the Houston office, and after that I was a labor and employment lawyer in Dallas, and within the first year of being there I was offered a fellowship at Temple University, which educates lawyers who have a few years of experience that want to be law professors.
And from there I got my first teaching job at Arizona State, and then Temple asked me to come back as a regular faculty member. That’s really kind of where my career took off from.
William Mitchell School of Law has been around since 1900, and Hamline Law School since 1972. Since their 2015 merger, the combined law school has largely gone to a blended curriculum that it offers for working professionals who can take most courses remotely. Before the pandemic, maybe half the student body was enrolled in this model?
At this point it’s the majority. This coming fall is going to be the largest blended learning or hybrid program ever.
You’re seeing, I think, that law schools across the country are starting to venture into this world, because they know there’s that market out there. Across the country there are areas where people can’t get to a law school, especially people that are working full time.
I say there’s “law school deserts,” spaces in rural America, Alaska, you know, states like Nevada where they only have one law school.
Because there’s more schools that have opened up these type of hybrid programs, a lot of us were thinking that we would start seeing a decline in our applications, but that just hasn’t proved true this time. Applications were actually up across the board here.
I wonder if as the economy dips people start gravitating back to school?
I don’t think we’re at that point, to be honest, where we’re able to tie it to the economy. You usually see that happen about 18 months after the economy takes a dive, where people are starting to lose their job and trying to think through things.
You recently issued notice that the entire fall semester will be remote learning, which is a departure from what had been announced in June.
For the “bricks and mortar” students, we were going to have some classes that were on campus, some classes that were online, and some classes that would be a mixture of the two. There would be some students who were going to be in the classroom and some students that were going to be on Zoom, watching the classes.
But we made the decision we’re going fully online. I think we needed to. We saw this uptick in cases across the country. We saw the uptick in cases here in Minnesota. That usually gives us indications that we’re going to continue to see some more problems over the next few weeks.
I think because we have such a good history and understanding of online education that we were able to pivot very easily to having everybody online just for that one semester, and not having to take the risk of having people on campus.
We have a medical consultant who’s helping us through some of this stuff. I want to see a phased-in approach to having people on campus over the fall if that’s possible. But I think there’s so much up in the air, and people wondering what’s going to happen with flu season. There’s still just so many unknowns.
Financially, has COVID taken a toll on law schools, and on yours in particular?
I think that there’s a lot of students who are taking a gap year, so you’re seeing a big impact on universities, and that’s really where the financial situation happens. We’re not seeing the same melt-off of in our applications, and admissions are probably going to be pretty flat over the year. You’re not going to see the big hit. The good thing for us is we’re a standalone law school.
We’ve got the instructional designers, the multimedia people here. We didn’t have to invest in new people to help us do online programming. So we didn’t take that type of a hit. As a matter of fact, because we’re not going to be doing traveling this year or doing conferences here, we’re likely to have a little bit of a budget reduction. Students would normally compete and do trial advocacy or moot court competitions. That’s going to be a cost savings.
When you were hired pre-pandemic, you may have had a vision for things you wanted to do differently. Is any of that still on the table?
Whether it’s higher education or law schools in particular, I think the spring for most places was like, let’s just survive and get through this and figure out how to get through it.
But I also now see that people are starting to understand that there’s there’s opportunities technology opens up, opportunities to maybe present material or do teaching differently, and to improve student learning. So I think people’s minds are opening up to what’s possible.
For instance, courts right now are doing hearings by Zoom or by other types of video conferences. And I think that that’s probably going to stick around longer because it could be more efficient and more cost-effective for people to be able to do it that way.I’m not saying that trials are going to go that way, but most of what you do in a court case is through these smaller hearings over the course of their case. And I think if you’re able to do those online, you could get to things more quickly and more cost effectively for your clients.
I think some of these changes are going to be long lasting, and not just through a pandemic. The blended learning program that we have is a leader in legal education, and has been a model I think during COVID. Our people here were training other schools across the country and across the world on how to do distance education.
I wanted to make sure that the school was continuing to innovate and be a leader on how we can best educate law students, but also how can we teach students to be responsive to the constant changes of technology within law practice as well. And so this this helped just speed up that process of thinking that way. A crisis presents an opportunity. People think differently when there’s a crisis because the crisis forces them to think differently.
You mentioned that a lot of people show an interest in going back to law school after Trump was elected president. Why was that?
Right after Trump got into office they did this Muslim travel ban. And then all of a sudden you see all these lawyers at the airports there just to help people, not to make money. And I think it showed the good side of lawyers and the good that lawyers genuinely want to do in making the world a better place.
I also think that these changes that happened after Trump impacted a lot of people, whether it’s through immigration or the fear of losing health care. When I sit down and I talk to students and ask them how they came to law school, so many of them are talking about how their lives have been impacted, and they decided that they needed to do something to step up and make the change.
Even studies that they did on why people were taking the entrance exam, anywhere from 25 to 33 percent of the time, it was “We’re going to law school in response to Trump being elected, and the things that came along with that.” And so we call it the “Trump bump.”
Could you elaborate on co-founding Fight OUT Loud?
That’s a nonprofit organization that we started to help people in the LGBTQ community who suffered some discrimination that may not be legal. Our first thing that we dealt with was that the mayor of Fort Lauderdale made all these anti-gay statements while he was in office, and we organized protests against them. We got him thrown off the county tourism board.
And then we did a number of things in order to kind of change the culture and highlight the issues of his basic bigotry and hatred towards many different communities out there. We were able to galvanize the Caribbean American community, Black community, unions, because he had pretty much just ticked off everybody at one point or another.
What advice do you give students today?
Don’t be scared about the fact that we have to do things differently because of COVID. This is a good time to go to law school because there’s so many changes happening in the country, and we need smart, socially-conscious lawyers who are looking for good improvements in our justice system.
If you’re looking to go to law school, go check out the law school and see who does things well. I also recommend students always try to talk to some of the students at the school, see what that culture is like and what the school is really like. And that gives you some insight into what your experience would be like, whether it’s on campus or whether it’s online.