SBS Dean Leads With Passion and Verve
Could it have been fate in 1974 that connected UMass Amherst and Janet Rifkin, then public defender in the NYC criminal courts and now dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences? Back then, undergraduate legal education essentially didn’t exist, with the exception perhaps of a few business law classes at some institutions. But at UMass Amherst a new concept, making the study of law part of a liberal arts education, was taking shape. In fact, the Legal Studies Department was the first of its kind in the nation.
“This tiny ad looking for an assistant professor of legal studies literally leapt off the page,” Rifkin says. “I grew up in New York, was educated at nearby Sarah Lawrence and then NYU Law School. I was ready for a new experience, a new place to live and a different focus for my work. I applied—and 33 years later, I’m still here.”
For those who don’t recall, Sarah Lawrence in 1969 was still a women’s college, and law schools were notoriously bastions of the old boys’ network. For a woman to enter the field then, she had to be twice as smart, twice as tough, and twice as determined. Rifkin was among the first Sarah Lawrence graduates to attend law school. She was the only one in her class accepted to any law school. NYU was her choice because its 20% female enrollment then was by far the highest in the country. “NYU also was a pioneer in establishing clinical programs in criminal, civil rights, and labor law, so you actually got to do practical internships,” Rifkin explains. “I chose the criminal program, and after I got my degree I defended poor people charged with crimes.”
But Rifkin didn’t want to be a defender forever. “I felt the constraints of adversarial conflicts in the courtroom,” she recalls. “It was frustrating and was mostly about arguing, plea-bargaining and winning. While it was really exciting and challenging to be in the center of the busiest urban criminal justice system, justice was irrelevant.”
The academic life was a good match. “Studying and thinking about the law in a broad context was uplifting, and it was exciting to be field building,” Rifkin says. “I developed courses like Women in the Law and started a women’s law center in Northampton. It turns out that being a good arguer is a good skill to have as dean, but in the academic environment, arguing can lead to innovative outcomes.”
In 1980 Rifkin embraced the nascent concept of mediation as an alternate dispute resolution technique. She and several colleagues started the University Mediation Project, the first campus-based program in the United States and the foundation for many local, regional, national and international activities that stimulated the growth of this field. She continues as director of the project to this day.
Rifkin and her colleagues organized the first mediation conference in New England, and she was a cofounder of the National Association of Mediation in Education (NAME), which has since been integrated into the Association for Conflict Resolution. She became an advisor to the first American Bar Association Committee to address dispute resolution programs, has trained scores of mediators, and over the years has served on many boards of directors, including the National Institute of Dispute Resolution and the National Conference of Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution.
Meanwhile, Rifkin had been appointed in 1981 as the campus ombudsperson. “That seemed like a natural fit,” Rifkin, a self-described relationship builder, recalls. “I figured it would teach me all the levels of institutional conflict in its many forms.” Two years later, after the birth of her second child, Rifkin stepped back to focus primarily on her teaching responsibilities. A second five-year stint as ombudsperson ensued, beginning in 1991. “It really was interesting work,” Rifkin says. “I helped develop policies that were responsive to structural conflicts—things like sexual harassment. What we were trying to do was to blend legal dimensions with more informal methods: protecting due process without always having to use a courtroom.”
In 1995, Rifkin became Associate Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences for two years. ”SBS was a new entity then, having been formed from half of the former College of Arts and Sciences. It was a great opportunity to learn about academic administration and connect with all of the faculty. I continued to teach too (which I had been doing all along), so I stayed in tune with students.”
Next on Rifkin’s agenda was becoming chair of the Legal Studies Department for a three-year term. “I have deep loyalty to my department and felt that I could contribute to its next phase of growth,” Rifkin says, noting that some interesting opportunities were on the horizon. She was drawn to the idea of Online Dispute Resolution, along with colleague Ethan Katsh, who had written analyses of how information technologies transform law. “We had already worked together on using mediation for copyright disputes involving electronic media. Now we were intrigued by the concept of how emerging information technologies might offer new resources and require new models for dispute resolution.” Together, in 1997 along with a major grant from the Hewlett Foundation, Rifkin and Katsh founded what is now the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution that focuses on the process and practice of online dispute resolution as technologies continue to develop.
When the dean of SBS retired in 2000, Rifkin was appointed interim dean. Following a national search, she emerged as the top candidate. “It was an opportunity for me to offer some continuity of leadership and refocus on the goals of the College. I continue to be particularly interested in building resources for research, for new facilities and new technologies, for named professorships, and for improving the student experience through smaller classes and improved instructional facilities. I am also intent on developing a college identity among alumni.”
In Rifkin’s first year she faced a $40 million budget cut. "I can’t emphasize enough how important fundraising is," she notes. "It’s the key to everything we want to accomplish. Much of my time is spent with alumni, raising money for scholarships—I want to double the endowment for SBS Dean's Opportunity Fund for Scholarships. We also need more funding for initiatives like the Center for Research on Families and the Science, Technology and Society Initiative. And we still face huge challenges in rebuilding our infrastructure. (Those who would like to contribute to these or other SBS funds, please click here, or call Saige Reisler, director of development, at 413.545.7187.)
“I’m so grateful to many alumni who have stepped up to the plate with their donations, but working with alumni has plenty of frustrations too—not unjustified, I might add. Many have bad feelings because of past administrative failures to build a sense of community among graduates. Others don’t want to understand that we need to build our endowments in order to stay competitive with other institutions like us. State funding is unreliable, and it’s never enough to do everything we want to accomplish. So one of my huge challenges is to change this mindset.”
“Janet is an effective leader and a caring human being,” says Elizabeth Chilton, chair of the anthropology department. “Her ability to listen—and hear—and then find paths of convergence among sometimes divergent constituents is a rare quality.” Henry Barr ’68 (political science), chair of the Dean’s Advisory Board founded by Rifkin, adds, “Jack Welch ’57 (engineering), former CEO of General Electric, said, ‘The world will not belong to managers…who can make numbers dance. [It] will belong to passionate, driven leaders [who] not only have enormous amounts of energy but who can energize those they lead.’ This quote captures the essence of Janet, who has given so much of herself to lead with honor.”
Being dean is an all-consuming job involving travel, meetings, committee work, conferences, lectures, in addition to the ever present administrative responsibilities of aligning the needs of the departments and their faculty with the realities of the budget. “Now that our kids are grown, my husband has learned to be a dean’s spouse,” Rifkin says. “David has always been supportive, but life continues to be a delicate balancing act. We have a ‘decompression’ condo in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the boys lives in California, so we try to spend a bit of time out there, biking and golfing. I got an electric guitar for my 50th birthday, but haven’t learned how to play it yet. Anyone out there who’d like to give me lessons?”
January 31, 2008
Update: In September 2008, Rifkin announced her plans to step down at the end of August, 2009. She has been described by the Provost as an “an outstanding leader, administrator, and colleague who has advocated for her faculty, staff and students effectively. She has promoted the activities of the College to internal and external audiences alike and has successfully raised the profile of the College.”