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. “Because students with disabilities need to find themselves in leadership positions, and because higher ed needs leaders who are willing and able to confront injustice and inequity in all its manifestations.”
‘I Made It Work’
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.
While Caron said he had limited interactions with clients while practicing tax law, transitioning to teaching law presented a new level of stress. “Was I kind of nervous? I’d say I was very nervous,” he said. “I obsessed over it. And somehow I made it work.”
He more than made it work, it seems. In addition to numerous publication prizes, Caron was awarded the Faculty Achievement Award in 1997 and the Goldman Prize for Teaching Excellence in 2003 at his previous institution, the University of Cincinnati. “I was always shocked, because I would think I did horribly and then the evaluations came in, and—I think this is true of all my years teaching—I can’t remember a student evaluation that even talked about it.”
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.”
Caron was appointed dean then and recently reappointed to a second five-year term. Even when the university was thinking about renewing him, he said, the first thing he did when he received a community feedback report about his first term was to scour it for mentions of his speech disorder or stutter. Yet there were none, he said.
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. In attendance this year was Frank Biden, President Joe Biden’s brother. Both Bidens have talked openly about their own struggles with stuttering, and Caron said that he and Frank Biden—a one-time Pepperdine law student—bonded over this and faith when Frank Biden asked him as dean to collaborate on a philanthropic project.
“They had to do an FBI background check on me,” Caron said of his first meeting with Biden. “And he had gotten a call, he said, the night before from his brother Joe saying that ‘It’s OK, you can eat with Paul. The report came back and it said he’s one of us’”—meaning someone with a stutter.
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.”
A Feature, Not a Bug
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.”
Caron also encouraged these new deans to “be open with folks” about their own vulnerabilities, in the right setting.
When he was through, he said, “other people jumped in and talked about their own impostor syndrome and stuff. So it was affirming.” Even in this “secular context,” Caron added, “folks respond to honesty and openness if done with humility.”
Andrew K. Benton, a president emeritus of Pepperdine who served when Caron was appointed dean in 2017, said that “we are each differently abled” and that “our strengths rise to the top. Of course I was aware that Paul had a speech impediment, but it just didn’t matter, especially when compared with the other talents he brought to the position.”
Caron’s interest in supporting students is “without peer,” and he brings “compassion, great technical knowledge in the area of tax law, and he has an entrepreneurial spirit that is refreshing,” Benton added.
Regarding Caron’s new openness about his stutter, Benton said, “Authenticity is a gift to be celebrated, I think, even and perhaps especially in university leadership.”