Royal Furgeson Jr.

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi

 

For the second time, Royal Furgeson Jr. is voluntarily retiring from a high-profile public service job that others might choose to keep for decades—or even for life.

“You always want to leave a little too early, not a little too late,” said the retired U.S. District Judge, who announced on Monday that he’s also retiring as the founding dean of the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law. He’ll remain at work until June 30, 2018, so he can see students graduate, log five years as dean, and give the school time for a national search for a new dean. Afterwards, Furgeson plans to volunteer to help the school with fundraising and finding jobs for students, while he also dabbles in mediating, arbitrating, consulting and working as an expert witness.

As founding dean, Furgeson guided the law school through the tumultuous task of gaining provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The school won provisional accreditation this summer after spending the year addressing the ABA’s concerns about finances and admissions.

We spoke to Furgeson about his retirement, accomplishments, challenges and what comes next for UNT Dallas. Here are his answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

 

Why are you retiring?

I think my bottom line is when I was on the bench, I didn’t want to stay too long. You kind of have these positions in trust. They’re not about you. They’re about trying to further the institution. I will be 76 in December, so I’m blessed with good energy. But I thought maybe it wouldn’t be best if I were doing this job at 80. I plan to do a lot of things when I’m 80—but not this job.

 

What accomplishment makes you proudest?

That we got this far this soon. There were lots of concerns about whether there should even be another law school in Texas. There were people who really expressed grave doubts about this enterprise. To get a law school up and running certainly turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be. The fact we put it all together and got it rolling and got through the first part of accreditation—I think that’s what I’m most proud of.

 

What was the biggest challenge?

The accreditation process. When we went to the accreditation committee in June 2016, they found us lacking in admissions and finance, and they announced they would not recommend our accreditation to the ABA council. We then went through 10 months of stress while we were trying to get that back in balance. That process is a confidential one, but because it had an impact on students and prospective students, we asked the ABA—and they agreed—if we could make that public. Making bad news like that public also was a very stressful time.

 

What future challenges will UNT Dallas face to become a permanent institution?

Affordability is not only very important to us, it’s very important to legal education and the profession. We are graduating way too many lawyers with crushing debt, and we’ve got to figure out how to do something about that. This last legislative session, the legislature faced a more daunting budget, so they made cuts to higher education. Those cuts trickled down to us. If state support continues to diminish, then you have to try to do something with tuition, or you have to cut expense. I tell you, we are bear bones here—we are rubbing two nickels together. It’s a challenge.

 

If your law school survives for the long term, what changes do you hope it will make to the legal profession?

One of the great challenges that faces the legal profession is to represent average people who have legal problems, but don’t have large budgets. We have to figure out how we can make sure those people get lawyers. Right now, the estimates are most middle class people in America are frozen out of the legal system. My view is this is the one place where our law school can make a big difference. Our students are older, with many looking for second careers. Everyone wants a livable wage, but they are not thinking law is a way to make big bucks. They are thinking law is a way to serve and have a meaningful career. I see our law students graduating and going into our communities and making a big dent in that problem of legal service for the middle class. Lawyer by lawyer, step by step, we’re going to make the law work for people who need legal help.

 

Follow Angela Morris on Twitter: @AMorrisReports