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Dean John Valery White, Challenges and Successes

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BY KRISTEN BENNET T, STAFF WRITER A year and a half after taking over as dean of the UNLV Boyd School of Law, John Valery White has experienced ups and downs, victories and trials.
White joined the law school in July 2007 after the retirement of founding Dean Dick Morgan. Joining this expanding school in one of the fastest-growing states in the union was an exciting opportunity for this son of a smalltown, southern lawyer. White grew up in Plaisance, a town near Lafayette in southwest Louisiana. His father was one of the few black attorneys in town, and the first person in his family to go to college. White said he always assumed that he himself would go to law school, and was thankful when he got the opportunity to do so. “I was born into the law, or something like that,” White says. He attended college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and then law school at Yale. Instead of going into practice, White ended up in academics, teaching at Louisiana State University for 15 years. He explored other options but teaching was the most attractive career path to him. “It gave me an opportunity to think about issues that intrigued me about the law,” White says. There is a difficult question about social change being disruptive of the status quo, and law being typically protective of it. “We do know from the 50s, 60s and 70s that law can be an instrument of change. How those two reconcile themselves is what interested me, both theoretically and practically.” Being in practice would have allowed no such time or freedom. Attorneys in practice are driven by the clients’ individual interests and not by societal interests as a whole. However, White says that a downside of academic law is that “you disconnect yourself from doing things about it.” He did have an early opportunity to work for social change when, as a fellow in 1990 and 1991, he traveled to Egypt as part of an effort by Human Rights Watch. His group revisited what was, then, a 10-year-old Amnesty International report on the prevalence of torture in Egypt. They spent about four weeks there interviewing people and doing prison inspections (with permission from the Egyptian government). “At the time, the U.S. State Department was very deeply engaged with Egypt, and trying to get them to improve human rights,” White says. His group produced two reports, one on the use of torture in Egypt and the other on prison conditions in Egypt. The reports were published and made widely available.
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It was while White was working for Human Rights Watch that he chose to go into teaching. After his fellowship he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University in 1992, and served there until he came to Boyd in 2007. White found Boyd an attractive opportunity, both because it was an extremely successful, young school and because of its location. Nevada “is a place where anything is possible, a place looking to the future rather than looking to the past,” says White. In the south in general, and Louisiana in particular, he says, people strive very hard to find reasons not to do things as opposed to reasons to do them. “I think that the spirit of ‘anything is possible’ animates Nevada today, even given the [economic] downturn.” The economic downturn has had a substantial impact on higher education in the state. Less gambling revenue means less tax revenue, and the UNLV Board of Regents met in December 2008 to discuss departmental budget cuts and hiring and raise freezes. White and his fellow faculty and students at Boyd Law School had plans for growth that must now be implemented at a slower pace. However, White believes that growth will be important to future economic stability for the state as a whole, and that the school and the state will survive and prosper. His formative years in the small-town south give him a “farmer’s perspective” on the economic situation. “The thing about farming is that you know sometimes you get catastrophic weather and it destroys
your crops for a couple of years and if you can make it through, you persevere and you continue on,” he says. “You have faith and take an optimistic perspective and in the meantime you plan for what might happen that could be bad.” The law school continues to grow, if more slowly. In the short term, the school is hoping to launch a more formalized gaming law program that will have long-term effects. “We already lead the country in gaming offerings,” says White. The school has gaming expert adjunct professors in-house who can train students in Nevada. Doing so more formally, says White, “can help the development of gaming law and preserve Nevada’s position as the preeminent gaming regulatory entity.” White foresees possible specialized business and gaming courts in Nevada’s future. The school is also hoping to increase its international focus. White says this would include specific programs like gaming, and more generally, business. “Business has become much more interconnected and global, and it’s necessary to have that kind of component within the law school.” White notes that Boyd has a number of faculty members who specialize in international law or comparative law. “Formalizing that program in the medium term, I think, will be important both in terms of creating opportunities for our faculty and students, and also in terms of a long-desired diversification of the Nevada economy,” says White. “In the long term we can be of assistance.”
Despite slowed-down plans for growth, White is proud of what he and the school have achieved so far. “I think given the budget situation, just maintaining our status has been easily the biggest achievement,” he says. He also is hopeful for the law school’s future. He believes that “the Legislature is aware of what kind of jewel we’ve created here in the law school, and I think they have an interest in doing their best to try not to do structural, long-term damage.” White is also proud of Boyd students. Graduates have consistently performed well on the Nevada bar examination. The class graduating this year is one that White has had time to get to know, and a strength of the current students, he says, is that “this is an extraordinarily active and involved student body.” He believes it’s especially remarkable given that roughly a quarter of Boyd’s students are evening students, who are out working, and yet who still show a lot of initiative. The students and their activism in the community and in working with the law school have helped create some of the infrastructure. “It’s really satisfying as the dean to have students who are so eager and excited about their professional career,” he says. “Hopefully we can build on that and continue to preserve a really active student body and one that I think is really engaged in the community.” White is also pleased that so many Boyd graduates stay in Nevada. “This is a place of opportunity in a lot of different ways and our students have jumped in and taken on the challenge of attempting to address the needs of southern Nevada and Nevada in general,” he says. The curriculum at Boyd also emphasizes professionalism, to help graduates have a developed package of skills going out. Nevada attorneys primarily practice in small and solo firms, which can’t always offer the support system young attorneys may need. “A really skilled and smart attorney who doesn’t have the professional ethics that are appropriate to the law undercuts the law in general,” White says. So far, White is enjoying Nevada and its normally dry and mild weather. He also wants everyone to know that he is enjoying his time at the law school. He looks forward to further growth. “We’ve not really been in a position to engage any bold new initiatives but we’ve planned some out and we’re kind of poised to go forward when we have the revenue for it.”

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