Inside Higher Ed, Pepperdine Law School Dean Is Now Speaking Openly About His Lifelong Stutter:
Some of Paul Caron’s most vivid childhood memories are about his stutter: disappearing to the restroom whenever the server came to his family’s table at a restaurant so his parents would order for him; children laughing at him in fourth grade when the teacher asked him his name and he couldn’t say it.
Today, Caron is dean of law at Pepperdine University. He still stutters: he participated in speech therapy as a child and again at the behest of his law firm early in his career, but the speech disorder remained. What he calls the “daily terror” associated with speaking lingers, as well. But recently Caron has begun to talk openly about his stutter, in an effort to live more authentically, for his own sake and for that of students.
“I’m not doing this for attention, right?” Caron smiled during a recent interview prompted by a post he wrote, called “Deaning While Stuttering,” on his blog, TaxProf. “I’m just hoping that it’ll help folks to kind of see what struggles I have as dean and sort of how I’ve been able to overcome them.”
Academe hasn’t historically been hospitable to vulnerability. Many would say this is still the case and argue that higher education remains ableist, in particular. Perhaps that’s why there is so little available data on—and so little representation of—leaders with disabilities in higher education, as religious and disabilities studies scholar Darla Schumm pointed out in a recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed. “Why does higher ed need leaders with disabilities?” Schumm wrote. ...
Caron didn’t always intend to be a dean, or a professor, or even a lawyer. He studied political science in college because he’d always been interested in politics, and when he graduated without “employable skills,” he joked, he went to law school. This presented new challenges, such as being called on cold in class by faculty adherents of the Socratic method. Caron said he gravitated toward and eventually ended up working professionally in tax law, given its research-intensive nature. ...
In 2013, Caron officially left his chaired position at Cincinnati for Pepperdine, in part because he and his family were attracted to Pepperdine’s Christian mission. In 2017, he sought the deanship in law at Pepperdine. Ever concerned about his stutter, as he wrote on his blog, Caron closed his candidacy speech to the Pepperdine law faculty at the time like this: “There are many reasons why you may decide that I shouldn’t be dean. But one of them shouldn’t be how I talk. Because how I talk has made me the man that I am.” ...
The first time Caron shared his personal struggles with his stutter beyond friends, family and small groups of colleagues was at 2021 service for graduating Christian baccalaureate students and their families. As Caron wrote on his blog, “We give a Pepperdine Caruso Law-branded Bible to each of the graduates, inscribed with their name and the five Bible verses from my message on purpose, perseverance, and Psalm 139 post-Pepperdine. I explain how these verses have equipped me to not only survive but thrive in my dean role despite the difficulties I face. I encourage the graduates to lean on these verses when they face the inevitable challenges that will come their way.”
Caron told Inside Higher Ed that the theme of this speech for graduates was that God throughout the Bible asks followers to lead through their own weaknesses. Biblical scholars have even asserted that Moses might have had a stutter, for instance, Caron said.
Caron addressed graduating Christian seniors and their families at the same kind of service this May. ... Following these services, Caron said, “many students came up to me. I think it helps them to see the dean of the law school dealing with something that is perhaps even more obvious and problematic than what even they’re dealing with. That’s my big hope with all of this, because all of us have our own flaws.” ...
This July, Caron was invited to be one of six experienced deans to lead an annual American Bar Association workshop for new law deans. His assigned topic was leadership and management, and he talked about the 10 things he wished he’d known when he became dean five years ago. Caron’s last point was “leading through weakness,” and he shared his reflections on deaning while stuttering.
He told the new law deans what he’d told the Pepperdine law faculty when he ran for dean—not to hold his stutter against him. And now, he said, he wishes he’d told the faculty something else.
As Caron wrote on his blog, “I said that if I could go back in time, I would change my message to the faculty to: There are many reasons why you may decide that I should be dean. One of them should be how I talk. Because how I talk is a feature of how God made me to serve in this role, not a bug.”
Prior TaxProf Blog posts: