HOTSEAT- Dean's list: Jeffries looks forward to teaching

John Jeffries

John Jeffries understands what he'll be giving up when he steps down as dean of the UVA Law School in July. Not only does he lose his sweet third-floor office with its floor-to-ceiling windows, but even more painfully, "I lose the primo parking spot that's reserved 24 hours a day for the dean," he laughs.

Jeffries has served as dean– and major rainmaker– since 2001. He has raised so much money that the Law School is financially self sufficient, and the $150 million capital campaign he's leading that ends in 2011 is over halfway to its goal.

More than 50 percent of Law School grads become donors. "We have the highest alumni participation among law schools in the country," says Jeffries. One part of the job he likes is traveling around the country visiting those "very accomplished" alums all over the world. And the best way to have them reach for their checkbooks?

"The key to alumni support is the quality of the experience they had while here," he says. And that quality of experience keeps UVA one of the top-10 law schools in the country.

Jeffries, a civil rights and federal courts scholar, started his legal career at UVA as a law student, sort of by accident, he says, in 1970. Following graduation from Yale, he was all set to study British history at Cambridge when the draft lottery intervened. "I went to law school so I could do ROTC while in school," he says.

The abrupt end of the Vietnam war led him back to UVA in 1975. 

"I came into teaching because I was released from the Army early when Saigon fell," he says. "The last thing the Army needed was a bunch of know-nothing second lieutenants."

By then, Jeffries, who hails from Raleigh, had already clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whom he met through a mutual friend. He went on to write a biography of Powell, and a photo of the Supreme Court justices from his early '70s clerkship hangs on his wall. 

"He was a great lawyer," says Jeffries. "He taught me the value of preparation."

Like Powell, who resigned from the court rather than be carried out feet first, Jeffries seems at peace with leaving the top Law School post next year at age 60. "Partly it's to have generational turnover," he explains. "I'm the oldest dean of any law school. The junior faculty need to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

More importantly, "It's not so much leaving the deanship as returning to teaching," he says. "That was my first love."

Indeed, Jeffries calls himself a "round peg in a round hole" as a legal scholar, explaining that he thinks linearly, as lawyers like to say. "It's perfect for me," he says, relishing the idea of getting back to teaching civil rights litigation.

After he clears out his office for his successor next summer and takes down the Audubon prints of the pileated woodpecker and red-shouldered hawk ("I like birds that live around here," he says, rather than exotic fowl like flamingos), there will be one more task for the 11th dean of the UVA Law School: sitting for a portrait that will join those of other deans lining the entrance hall of the school. 

The problem is, there's no room left on the main hall. Jeffries has graciously volunteered to be hung in a less prominent location, but he draws a line. "I'm not going to be painted in robes," he says. "That's a little old-fashioned." 

Age: 59

Why here? The Law School.

What's worst about living here? The cost of flying in and out of Charlottesville

Favorite hangout? Duner's

Most overrated virtue? Thrift

People would be surprised to know: I really sort of like the French.

What would you change about yourself? My weight

Proudest accomplishment? I like to think I'm good at teaching.

People find most annoying about you: Irreverence

Whom do you admire? General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Favorite book? Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Subject that causes you to rant? Federal farm subsidies

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Google maps

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Mindless cellphone usage

What do you drive? 2005 Cadillac STS

In your car CD player right now: Layla by Derek and the Dominoes

Next journey? For fun? Ireland next summer

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Well, that was in high school, and I wasn't expelled.

Regret: I try not to.

Favorite comfort food: Spaghetti

Always in your refrigerator: Things that should have been thrown out weeks ago

Must-see TV: Band of Brothers on HBO

Describe a perfect day. A long hike in the Blue Ridge followed by a painfully cold martini and dinner with friends

Walter Mitty fantasy: If we're really talking fantasy– baseball. I would have loved to be good at sports.

Who'd play you in the movie? Someone not good-looking enough to be a movie actor

Most embarrassing moment? There's a lot of competition in that category. Perhaps it was when I became the last person in my generation to figure out what they meant by "dietetic" brownies.

Best advice you ever got? If the best advice is the advice most needed, mine was, "Shut your mouth."

Favorite bumper sticker? The fish symbol with "Darwin" written in it.