John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, writes about his experience with research in policymaking and the importance of scholarly impact and policy impact.
John Trasvina

John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law


I came to the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law committed to training the next generation of leaders and lawyers following many years of public service and advocacy, especially in the areas of immigrant rights and civil rights. My previous work allowed me to see first hand how public policy and advocacy were greatly informed by research, which then influenced many of the policies, laws, and public actions I helped to implement as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices at the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the Academy, our work in the classroom is incomplete without preparing our graduates to achieve their professional goals and serve our communities in myriad ways.  In recent years, we have added clinical and experiential educational opportunities to the core of what we offer at the USF School of Law. Today, our global externships in China, Mexico, Vietnam, and across Europe are larger than ever and foster an understanding that globalization can help promote justice and the protection of human rights, while building legal skills for contemporary issues.

But our responsibilities to communities and to the profession do not end there. Faculty research and engagement are fundamentally intertwined and have the potential to deeply influence social change through both their scholarly impact and their policy impact.

Recently, the USF School of Law faculty was recognized as being in the top third in the nation in terms of scholarly impact.  In “Scholarly Impact of Law School Faculties in 2015: Updating the Leiter Score Ranking for the Top Third,” a group from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota ranked all accredited law schools based upon the number of times other law faculty and scholars cited articles written by each law school’s faculty.   Not surprisingly to me, our faculty ranked in the top third nationwide, 64th out of over 200 accredited law schools.  The study reviewed the scholarship of ten outstanding professors at each law school and documented the number of times their law reviews or other scholarly articles were cited in other law reviews and publications.

This scholarly impact is certainly an important indicator of how our professors’ expertise and stature are recognized by other scholars in their fields.  However, another measure is policy impact, how our faculty research is actually used by people outside of the academy—judges, appellate attorneys, policymakers, advocates, and media opinion makers—to advance particular aims.  In my previous work in the U.S. Senate, law professors and other scholars would send me their research papers and articles describing various missteps by Congress or the Administration on a bill, law, or regulation. My typical reaction would be that it was important research to understand but I was receiving it after any possible action could have been taken. It made me wonder why I could not get access to this work in the midst of the battle or controversy when that research could have been deployed for maximum effect. This frustrating realization about the limits of scholarship in the academy leads to my main point. Beyond scholarly impact, our faculty members engage in meaningful policy impact.

When the Connecticut Supreme Court narrowly struck down that state’s death penalty in the summer of 2015, at least one justice cited an amicus brief prepared by USF School of Law Professor Connie de la Vega.  And when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Electronic Privacy Act (Cal-ECPA) in October 2015, a bi-partisan victory for civil libertarians and service providers with support from the law enforcement community, our own Professor Susan Freiwald provided much of the academic backing as an issue expert for the bill’s authors.  She also testified before committee hearings in Sacramento, organized several academics across the country to get engaged, and together they prepared and submitted a scholarly analysis and support letter to Governor Brown.

Our faculty members in all fields can assist local, state, and federal policy makers as well as advocates by conducting research, offering expertise, conducting surveys and promoting public dialogue.  Our outstanding Center for Research, Artistic and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE), led by Professors Christine Yeh and Saera Khan, can guide professors in all fields who seek to widen the impact of their important research and scholarship.  At the School of Law, we benefit from and support the CRASE and its initiatives and encourage all interested USF colleagues to participate.