"Tell 'em I miss 'em": A Sit-Down with John C. Jeffries, Jr.

Jansen VanderMeulen ‘19

As the year began at the Law School, upperclassmen and faculty noticed a striking absence. For the first time in the memory of any current student and many faculty members, the school year did not kick off with a Criminal Law lecture from professor and former dean John C. Jeffries, Jr. ’73. In stark contrast with previous years, no hushed stories about Dean Jeffries’s fabled first-day cold call made their way through the WB hallways; no savage-yet-courteous quotations dripping with Jeffries’s genteel North Carolina accent filled the Law Weekly’s Faculty Quotes section; and jokes about Justice Anthony Kennedy were widely noted to be at a historic low. Since he became the University’s Senior Vice President for Advancement earlier this year, Jeffries has had a new office in Madison Hall on Main Grounds, far from his traditional haunts. 


Since beginning his teaching career at UVA Law in 1975, after clerking for Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. and serving in the Army, Jeffries has been a student favorite. Selected as dean in 2001, Jeffries led the initiative to make the Law School financially independent of Main Grounds, giving greater flexibility to the Law School Dean to set financial priorities. That financial prowess is part of what led new President James E. Ryan ’92 to select Jeffries as the head of University “advancement.” 

 “I work in what used to be called fundraising, which has the virtue of candor,” Jeffries told your Law Weekly correspondents. “About fifteen years ago they started calling it ‘development,’ which sounds like a Third-World problem. Now, it’s ‘advancement.’”  

In his new role, Jeffries reports directly to President Ryan, whose stately office sits right around the corner from Jeffries’s new digs. Ryan has announced an ambitious campaign to raise $5 billion for the University of Virginia’s new campaign. Jeffries explained to us that as state support has failed to keep up with the University’s needs, UVA and other schools like it have come to rely increasingly on private fundraising to make up the difference. 

Jeffries’s new role has him coordinating between the various University fundraising units, like the Law School Foundation and its equivalent across the colleges, schools, and departments. Each of these fundraising apparatuses is responsible for meeting its unit's fundraising goals, which consist mostly in raising money for scholarships, endowed professorships, and facilities.  

Jeffries explained to us that there is a common misconception that universities sit on huge piles of cash they could otherwise spend down. “Most of the money goes into endowments,” he said, noting that the income off these endowments is usually no more than 5 percent of the total fund. The new, $5 billion campaign will have a special focus on funding need-based scholarships, Jeffries told us. In addition to coordinating among the fundraising units, Jeffries will also team with Ryan to secure major gifts, like the $50 million gift from Law School alumni Bruce (’90) and Martha (’91) Karsh announced this summer. 

When Ryan was announced as UVA’s ninth president last September, keen-eyed viewers of the livestream could see Jeffries, a member of the presidential search committee, standing behind the newly announced leader, “grinning like a Cheshire cat,” as one student put it. Ryan and Jeffries go way back; Jeffries taught Ryan during the latter’s time at the Law School from 1989 to 1992. “He was extremely able,” Jeffries remarked, noting that he “recommended [Ryan] to clerk for [Chief Justice] Bill Rehnquist.” They served alongside each other on the UVA Law faculty, authoring a well-regarded piece on the history of the Establishment Clause in the Michigan Law Review. Ryan later served as an academic associate dean of the Law School under Jeffries. Now, as Ryan has taken the helm of the University, he has taken Jeffries for a three-year stint as chief fundraiser.  

Asked if he misses teaching, Jeffries answered emphatically that he does. “I like dealing with students and young people,” he told us, contrasting his students with the donors he now deals with: “Most of the people who are rich are also old.” Elaborating on what he misses about teaching, Jeffries mentioned his special fondness for UVA Law students (“The number-one feature of UVA students is they’re kind to each other. Keep it up.”) and commented on the enormous progress students make during law school, especially 1Ls. Even after more than forty years of teaching, he marveled at the tremendous academic progress students make in their first semester as law students. 

As to whether he will return to teaching after his three-year stint in fundraising, Jeffries told us he would very much like to, but chuckled and noted that “God has something to say with that.” Your Law Weekly correspondents, having taken Jeffries’s Federal Courts class, could not resist asking for some insights into the current makeup of the Supreme Court and the issues facing it. One issue that stands out to Jeffries is affirmative action in universities. Mentioning that the Harvard litigation on behalf of Asian-American students has thrown the traditional debate “into a different light,” Jeffries commented that it has become clearer that “helping someone means limiting someone else.”  

Justice Kennedy, a favorite foil of Jeffries’s in the classroom, controlled the Court’s opinions on affirmative action in recent years, most recently upholding the University of Texas’s “plus factor” affirmative action plan in the newest iteration of the long-running Fisher saga. Jeffries called Kennedy “conflicted” on the issue and said it will be “a big, big deal” for universities if they lose the ability to be conscious of race in admissions. 

Seeming conflicted as he lamented some aspects of his new job (“I miss the kitchen access”) and celebrated others, Jeffries left your Law Weekly correspondents with a clear message for the students of the Law School: “Tell ’em I miss ’em.”