Research for Scholarly Impact and Policy Impact

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.

6 thoughts on “Research for Scholarly Impact and Policy Impact

  1. John’s thoughtful leadership on the role and necessity of research for policy and advocacy impact is very important. He accurately names and positions USF’s leading faculty research within the context of solving the most pressing and current issues of our time; the political and legislative responses that will impact the very quality of life. The truth of the matter is that scholarly and policy impacts respond directly to the conditions of the people in our society living on the margins. Impactful scholarship helps us better understand and then address inequities in our communities and promote humanity in that all persons should be afforded basic human rights, regardless of where they were born in the world or what zip code they live in. Responses to current environmental, economic, food security, energy, water, education, public safety, immigration and a host of other critical issues made by advocates, law makers and elected officials require community identified, community informed, and community engaged scholarship. Places like the University of San Francisco is where you will find the folks leading the way by leveraging new, interdisciplinary, and emergent intellectual capital for the common good.

  2. This is a great reminder of all the ways that our faculty scholarship can truly Change the World from Here. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column in the New York Times titled, “Professors, We Need You!,” lamenting the decline of academic influence in public debates (see For a thoughtful exchange heralding the current social relevance of scholarship, including comments by the Law School’s own Professor Tim Iglesias about our particular brand of engaged scholarship, check out this link:

  3. Thanks, John, for this very helpful reflection on the importance and possibilities of striving for impact in both scholarship and policy. A great model for not only law schools, but all of higher education!

  4. Michelle, Thank you for sharing Prof. Tim Iglesias’ piece in the NYT in response to Kristof’s column. I agree that ideally academics write for scholars, practitioners in the field and the public and that it helps if the employer (in this case, the University) shares that vision as well. I am interested in exploring how Universities can better support academics who write and research for policy impact.

  5. John, Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the importance of policy impact. This is a refreshing reminder of why I pursued my degree and got into academia in the first place–because I wanted to make an impact beyond writing for academic journals. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on how Universities and schools can support faculty who do this kind of work—and faculty who wish to translate and apply their work for policy impact. Hearing more about your particular journey and vision is inspiring.

  6. Thank you for beginning this important conversation, John. It is crucial that we all support and promote research that can be “deployed for maximum effect” in the policy making world. It would be very powerful in the fight for social justice. And, thank you for your support of CRASE.

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