What to make of the St. Louis meltdown

When Annette Clark resigned as dean of St. Louis University School of Law in early August, followed within hours by a statement from the president of the university that he would have fired her first if she had shown up to a meeting, it appeared that it was another classic battle between a law school and its parent university over funds. 

After all, Clark claimed the president transferred more than $800,000 from the law school building fund to a fund controlled by the president; that he “forbade the law school to fund summer research stipends out of the operating budget;” and that he transferred $260,000 from a law school fund for summer research stipends to his own discretionary fund.

"You have failed to make good on your assurances to me when I accepted the deanship that you would fully support the law school and our efforts to enhance its program of legal education, national reputation and rankings," Clark wrote in her resignation letter. " … You have evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect."

 

But the hostility that Clark referenced appears to be more from a battle over the future vision of the law school, rather than a simple power struggle over money. 

The funds that Clark cited were related to summer stipends for faculty, and the school's move to a new building. Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the president of the Jesuit university, presumably disagrees with the importance of summer research stipends and scholarship in general. It appears he is moving the law school toward a more practical training model and away from scholarship. And it appears he is trying to do so without the full support of the law faculty, and definitely in opposition to Clark's vision. 

Biondi stated in his letter announcing the resignation that it is a critical time for the law school, with declining applicants, the school’s decline in U.S. News & World Report and challenges from alumni and the bar on how best to educate students.

“We all need to more effectively analyze our strengths and weaknesses and examine more carefully the law education we deliver with fresh eyes and with less concern about rankings and more attention to how we teach our students,” he wrote.

Biondi accepted a 260,000-square-foot building in the spring as a gift, with plans to move the law school to the downtown building, which is eight miles from the main campus. The purpose of the move is to place the school closer to St. Louis’ legal community and to help “differentiate a SLU law education from that offered by other schools.”

Clark said in March that the proximity to the legal community would “offer our students new opportunities to enhance their educational experience.” But she wrote in August that the president “acquired the building downtown and deemed it to be the new law school building without adequate investigation of its suitability and without any notice or consultation with the law school leadership.”

Another move by Biondi towards a more practical-focused education, was his hiring of Thomas Keefe, an alumnus and St. Louis trial attorney as interim dean, replacing Clark.  Keefe, who will not accept a salary, has said one of the biggest problems facing legal education is its “ridiculous concern” about the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Those statements have scared faculty. Anders Walker, the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at St. Louis, wrote: “what began as an ugly dispute between the Dean and the President is now morphing into something very different, a [Brian] Tamanaha-esque audit of legal education in its current state, including questions about tuition, faculty resources, and the merits of scholarship. ... The solution, argues Tamanaha, is for law schools to adopt a tiered approach, with elite institutions like Washington University continuing along the scholarly model and non-elite schools like SLU adopting a low tuition, practical skills approach.”

Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is author of Failing Law Schools, a recently released book that is critical of legal education.

Walker further wrote that “the question remains whether faculty scholarship per se is part of the problem. For example, many of our best scholars at SLU are also our best teachers. … One reason for this, I suspect, is that faculty scholarship actually enhances classroom teaching, making it interesting and fresh — very different from classes where faculty continue to use casebooks from 1982.”

Marcia McCormick, another law professor at Saint Louis University, also wrote about the recent struggles at her school as a debate over scholarship versus practical training.

“In the events at SLU it has at least partially been suggested that those who engage in scholarship or encourage students to do so are not teaching students what the students need to learn,” she wrote. “On the other side, there seems an unspoken assumption that research is not only a legitimate part of what a law school should do, but that it's imperative to engage in a lot of it. … Increasingly, I'm frustrated by what looks like the same old dualistic tropes — teaching v. research, skills v. doctrine, doctrine v. theory, academic v. professional school, liberal arts v. technical education, tenured v. contract, at-will v. job security — without digging into these labels or categories in the first place. And the rhetoric that puts what we do in business terms.”

Another faculty member wrote that Biondi appears to be an autocrat with little sense of academic values.

"The theme of yesterday's emergency faculty meeting was one of sadness and dispiritment, especially as we learned how Biondi's theft of funds from the Law School (including perhaps a noted alum's estate-gift to the Law School) will impact the funding of student activities in this year and years forward,” the anonymous faculty member wrote in an email published on Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports blog. “For example, it looks like there may not be funds available for student travel (e.g. moot court), student-coordinated and student-oriented legal conferences, and also the research activities of our very strong faculty."

Keefe now faces an uphill battle in bringing calm to the school and selling the university’s vision to a law school faculty that appears to be in open rebellion to the change.

“My first goal is to persuade everyone — students, faculty, alumni and the entire community — to just give me a chance to do this job,” Keefe states in a Q&A on the law school’s website. “I fully expect that out of this seeming chaos we face today this school will emerge stronger, better and perfectly situated in the heart of the action where lawyers lawyer and judges judge.”

So where does the law school stand now?

Faculty and administrators in the law school and at the university either refused to comment on the record or failed to return calls. Those who did speak said they are trying to focus on their jobs - teaching students — and to let the issues lie low. The last thing anyone wants is a public debate. 

As for Clark, she returned to the Seattle University School of Law, where she had served for more than twenty years as a faculty member and in different dean positions. The school could not comment on how or why her tenured position was offered back in such a short time frame. 

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