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Saluting Registrar Deb Paul

In the neighborhood of 7,000 students have attended the University of Iowa College of Law since 1984. It’s safe to say that Deb Paul has helped more of them than anyone else.

Paul, the college’s registrar, confessor, fixer, shoulder to cry on, shadow dean, and occasional intramural sports athlete, retired in July after 35 years in the position. Add in the 11 years she worked in the university registrar’s office before that and she’ll be leaving with 46 years of UI life under her belt.

“It’s been a wonderful experience and I feel so fortunate to have found a job I loved,” says Paul. “I tell people that after all these years, I’m finally graduating from the law school.”

Paul says she pretty much slid right into the job when she arrived for the start of the Fall semester in 1984. She was helped out by her experience working in the main registrar’s office, so she understood the basic functions and mechanisms of what she needed to do and that kept the new-job jitters at bay.

Except for her second day on the job, when a less than diplomatic sales rep from a textbook company asked to see the college’s book list. When she wasn’t sure where to find it, the sales rep started barking at her.

“How could I not know where that is, he said,” she says. “I wondered, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ I almost cried.”

As registrar, Paul’s official job was to connect what classes were being offered with which faculty were available to teach them, what time to offer them, which students need to take them, and what classroom they should meet in. With so many moving parts, it wasn’t too far from being an engineer.

“I learned not to schedule certainly faculty members for early morning classes because they’re a night owl, or that some faculty need more time between classes to prepare, or some can’t teach at certain times because of dietary restrictions,” she says. “You learn these things and you do what you need to do to make it work.”

She also maintained student records and monitored each student’s progress for graduation requirements, oversaw faculty teaching evaluations, worked closely with the Iowa State Bar Association to make sure the college’s curriculum matched up with bar requirements, and filled out all those infernal ranking forms from US News & World Report every year.

But Paul gave herself unofficial job duties, too. She wanted to be more than just a classroom and curriculum engineer. Talk to most of those 7,000-ish students she worked with and so many of them have stories where Paul bailed them out of a tough academic spot, arranged for someone to get into a class they needed, or was just emotionally available for someone going through a rough spot in life, a bright moment during a stressful period (“I was a third child,” she says, explaining her willingness to provide a shoulder).

Gail Agrawal, professor of law and dean emeritus, says generations of students instinctively seemed to know about Paul’s emotional availability. Agrawal noticed that alumni from many generations asked about Paul and shared their admiration during her visits around the country.

“She was often the first person in the building to hear about a student’s crisis or to learn of a student’s success,” says Agrawal. “I depended on her to let me know if there was trouble brewing in the student body and also to share good news that she would often hear first. She was truly beloved, and I was very lucky to have her by my side during my time as dean. She was a one of the people that made Iowa Law the special place it is.”

Talk to students about their experience with Paul and they use words like “kindness and sunshine,” “a calm voice with words of encouragement,” and someone who always had a way of building positive connections with everyone around her.

N. William Hines, dean emeritus of the College of Law who was dean at the time Paul was hired, said it didn’t take long to see she provided value above and beyond the usual registrar duties after she started in 1984. The college was still in the aging Law Commons and preparing to move into the still-under construction Boyd Law Building that was slated to open in 1986. Students were looking forward to being the first to attend class in a literally shiny new building, but a series of construction delays pushed the date further and further back until it was clear the building would not be completed in time to open for Spring 1986. In fact, because of moving logistics, the semester would have to actually start a week earlier in January back in the Law Commons, a significant inconvenience for many students who had already made plans for that week.

“They were in an uproar,” says Hines, who faced plenty of wrath, and even heard talk of a protest at the December 1985 commencement. “Many of them had made plans, or they had already bought plane tickets that couldn’t be refunded. And the 3Ls were looking forward to being among the first students to use the building and now they wouldn’t get the chance.”

But Paul stepped in to calm the situation. When meeting with angry students, she told them that the first week of class is really no big deal and if they can’t make it back in time for the first day, that was fine. Make-up arrangements could be made later. We’ll make it work.

“I’m the dean so I couldn’t say that,” Hines says. “But she could and she was able to resolve the situation. No one was completely happy, but she saved the day for us.”

Hines says the students referred to her as the shadow dean, because she knew how everything worked, and he couldn’t argue with it.

And it wasn’t just new students she helped adjust to life in the College of Law. Kevin Washburn became the college’s dean in 2018, so he had only one year to work with Paul. But even in that short a time, she made an impact.

“Deb made my adjustment to becoming the Iowa Law dean so much easier,” he says. “For me, as for everyone else who crossed her path, she was a helpful pathfinder and problem-solver. She is also the institutional memory of the College of Law, making her one of my top go-to resources whenever I needed context and guidance.”

Paul says she started connecting with students because they all had to visit her at one time or another to register for classes. She wanted to know more about the student than just the classes they needed or their career goals.

“It made me realize I could make a difference and help them solve problems,” she says. “I’ve had students sit down with me and tell me they have a problem that can’t be solved, and we’ve solved it.

“I have a knack for hearing what they’re saying, even if they’re not saying it,” she says. “I don’t where that comes from.”

Paul’s plans for retirement center mostly on her two grandchildren, ages 3 and 8 months, whom she plans to spend much more time with. She hopes her College of Law legacy is that she was more than a keeper of records and scheduler of classes, that she professionalized the position and elevated it to something more than a clerk.

“The law school has been like a family to me and I’ll miss that every day,” she says. “I feel like I’ll always be a part of the law school.”

Deb Paul