fbpx President and Dean Michael F. Barry’s Five Years of Dedicated Leadership of STCL Houston Advanced the School on Many Fronts - STCL Houston

President and Dean Michael F. Barry’s Five Years of Dedicated Leadership of STCL Houston Advanced the School on Many Fronts

Home Law School News President and Dean Michael F. Barry’s Five Years of Dedicated Leadership of STCL Houston Advanced the School on Many Fronts

When Michael F. Barry took the helm of Houston’s oldest law school as its 11th president and dean in fall 2019, he could not have imagined the journey he and South Texas College of Law Houston would take together over the next five years.

“South Texas is a mission-driven law school with four hallmarks: diversity, opportunity, excellence, and service,” Barry said. “I admire so many things about our school, but three stand out: that we actually believe in and live out our mission; that we prepare students exceptionally well for the practice of law; and that we care for and support our students and each other.”

In the past five years, the law school manifested its mission in many ways, including the opening of the Benny Agosto, Jr. Diversity Center, which is intended to serve students from all backgrounds; the launch of the ABA-accredited, part-time online J.D. degree in fall 2023, which widens the opportunity for people from scattered geographic locations to attend law school; in the high Bar Exam passage rate achieved by students, supported by an enhanced Bar Readiness program; and in the national recognition of the law school, the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics, and several faculty and students for their pro bono legal service.

Alicia Cramer, STCL Houston’s assistant dean of admissions and student engagement, affirmed Dean Barry’s strong support of the school’s mission. “His unwavering commitment to diversity, opportunity, and excellence has profoundly impacted both the institution and the broader legal community,” she said. “And his visionary leadership continues to shape the future of legal education, fostering a culture of excellence and integrity at South Texas.”

Just a few short months into Dean Barry’s tenure, COVID-19 caused the entire country to shut down, and the South Texas Law community quickly came together to ensure a smooth transition to entirely remote operations. When the May 2020 Commencement was canceled, Dean Barry promised graduating students “ when the pandemic is over in October, we’ll reschedule this special day.” Of course, the pandemic remained in full stride in fall 2020, so instead, Dean Barry challenged South Texas to develop a creative, safe way to celebrate the 2020 graduates’ big achievement.

In October that year, the law school was one of the first in the nation to hold an in-person graduation ceremony, hosting 11 hooding ceremonies over a weekend for all May 2020 graduates. “What makes me proud is we made each of the 11 ceremonies feel like it was the only ceremony we were hosting — ensuring each group of students and their families experienced the same energy, care, and pride in their accomplishments,” Barry said. “October’s graduations were so successful, we repeated the process again for the December 2020 graduates, and everyone enjoyed their ceremonies — and most important, stayed safe.”

The launch of the ABA accredited, part-time online J.D. program built on experience gained during the pandemic and best practices in remote learning. Designed to allow working professionals to gain the full South Texas Law J.D. experience without moving to Houston, the online schedule attracted hundreds of qualified applicants for a limited number of open positions and launched smoothly — including a week-long residency to acclimate the students to law-school life and the South Texas community.

“Dean Barry not only helped steer us through the difficult waters of the pandemic, but he also had the foresight to make sure we not only survived, but thrived,” said Dr. Derek Fincham, associate dean for part-time and online education and professor of law. “Considering our newfound skills in delivering instruction online, Dean Barry gave our faculty the opportunity to consider an online program, then successfully provided us the tools to make it an early success.”

Dean Barry’s tendency to keep an eye on the far horizon was evident from his earliest days on campus. “During his investiture, he talked about the seventh-generation principle — the philosophy that decisions we make today ‘should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future,’” recalled Maxine Goodman, associate dean for students and professor of law. “I believe Dean Barry often relied on this principle as his north star in decision-making — thinking about what will ensure the school’s strength and success seven generations from now. I admired his forward-thinking approach.”

During his leadership tenure, Dean Barry also had the opportunity to look back as the law school celebrated its Centennial in 2023. The entire South Texas community, plus leaders from across the city, state, and nation, came together for a special Founder’s Day celebration in April that year, honoring the April day in 1923 on which the original founders — prominent Houston lawyers and business leaders — gathered to sign the papers that officially started the law school. Dean Barry’s presentation at Founder’s Day helped demonstrate to the Greater Houston community the key role the law school has played in the city’s development as the two have grown and developed together over the past century.

Dean Barry also focused on developing leaders across the college. “Despite having so much on his plate so often, Dean Barry took the time to listen, give feedback, and provide guidance to broaden my perspective – to provide the support I needed to grow as a leader and as a member of the South Texas community,” said Shantal Formia, JD, assistant dean of career services. “Clearly, he enjoys helping people reach their full potential. That is the trait of a great leader.”

Professor of Law and new Interim President and Dean Jeff Rensberger noted: “I have known Mike in three roles. In his first year as dean, I got to work with him in an administrative capacity while I served as vice president for strategic planning. When I returned to a full-time faculty role, I was able to see Mike from outside the Dean’s Suite as a faculty member working under his leadership. Finally, after I was chosen this spring to be the incoming interim president and dean, Mike was very gracious in sharing his thoughts, including me in almost every meeting and keeping me abreast of key decisions. This last phase was almost a partnership, although I was much more an observer than a partner. Through all these roles, I saw the same Mike Barry. He is hardworking. He thinks of others first. And he acts with integrity because he has integrity.”

Dean Barry’s experience in crisis management and organizational development served him well during the interesting times the law school faced from 2019-24. “He was so quick to think outside the box and take a chance in response to the tsunami of pandemic-related evictions in our community,” said Catherine Greene Burnett, South Texas Law associate dean for experiential education and professor of law. “We partnered with Alan Rosen, Constable Precinct One, to deliver assistance in a whole new format — drive-through clinics in which people could receive legal advice and help in completing critical documentation while sitting in their cars. They were a sight to behold — a virtual sea of cars — and Dean Barry and his wife were out there in the early hours of the morning in north Houston to support the effort.”

Burnett noted Dean Barry’s impulse to serve in non-traditional ways also was reflected in the law school’s commitment to the Camp Logan soldiers clemency project. South Texas Law — with the help of several professors, librarians, and numerous law-student researchers — petitioned the U.S. Army requesting a review of the 1917 courts-martial convicting the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. In November 2023, the Army set aside these century-old convictions and corrected the soldiers’ records to indicate each received an honorable discharge. In recognition of the important role played by South Texas, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers presented the law school its Champion of Justice Legal Award in May 2024.

“Dean Barry always demonstrated a willingness to confront problems, seek solutions, and confront injustice in ways a bit outside the traditional law school paradigm,” Burnett said. “That benefited South Texas in many ways.”

But Dean Barry is perhaps best known as a dean who focused on students. Eric B. Williams ’22, an associate at Foley & Lardner LLP, said, “Dean Barry will always hold a special place in my heart, as we both started our STCL Houston journeys together in 2019. Although he was a fierce advocate for the progression of our law school and students, he was always approachable, kind, and respectful. Throughout my law school career and beyond, I have come to admire the man and the leader he is. STCL Houston is better now than ever before, and it is in large part due to Dean Barry’s guidance. I am proud to call him a friend.”

In the past five years, in addition to the projects noted above, South Texas created a new Legal Writing Center and developed curricular and extracurricular programs to foster student success. The Law School also continued its advocacy success, bringing home multiple advocacy and dispute resolution championships. Several campus upgrades were completed, including a fully renovated student lounge. And, as an avid runner, Dean Barry hosted a regular Run/Walk with the Dean on Saturday mornings, and South Texas took home the law school team trophy in five straight Houston Bar Association 8Ks. 

“Dean Barry has achieved significant accomplishments for the law school since he arrived in 2019 and the South Texas Board of Directors greatly appreciates all he has done to ensure the future success of South Texas as we move into our next century,” said Board Chair Genora Boykins ’85. “We look forward to building on his achievements and to his continued engagement with the South Texas community as a faculty member.”

Recently, South Texas Law’s 2023-24 Student Bar Association President Caitlin McDuffee presented an inscribed pen to Dean Barry on behalf of the students to commemorate his five years of service to the law school. The message she read to him at the presentation noted, “This pen is engraved with ‘Ad Astra,’ which is Latin for ‘to the stars….’ Your unwavering dedication and wisdom have guided us and given us an exemplary template of a strong leader. And through your leadership, we have seen what it means to reach for the stars…. May your journey ahead be as brilliant as the path you have illuminated for us all.”

On Monday, June 17, 2024, South Texas College of Law Houston’s leadership transitioned to Interim President and Dean Jeff Rensberger. A national search process for a new president and dean is underway. Dean Barry looks forward to returning to the law school after his sabbatical and serving as a member of the South Texas Law faculty in fall 2025.

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