Law School Deans, Law Schools, Texas

Dean’s Ouster Inspires Outrage From Trustees, Joy From Students

There has been a lot of law school dean news these past few days. On Friday, a tipster asked us to help with the NYU Law dean search (we were happy to oblige). Earlier today, we talked about the ridiculous salaries some law deans earn. Now we get to talk about a dean who has been pushed out of his law school. The law school dean carousel is just as interesting as the NFL coaching carousel… only the NFL has the Rooney Rule to ensure that a diverse group of people get an opportunity to interview for the jobs.

Usually, law deans gracefully exit as respected (and wealthy) members of the legal academy. But apparently that’s not how they do things in Texas. A year ago Christmas, the University of Texas unceremoniously ousted its law school dean. This holiday season, it appears that Texas’s number-two law school (more on that below) was busy throwing its dean under the bus.

And some students couldn’t be happier….

This weekend, the Texas Lawbook (reg. req.) reported on a boiling controversy at the SMU Dedman School of Law. The law school’s dean, John Attanasio, is a dead man walking (been waiting four years to use that one). Dedman trustees are angered that they were not adequately consulted before the decision to oust Attanasio:

SMU provost Paul Ludden informed Attanasio in mid-December that his contract with the university, which expires in May, would not be renewed, and that the university was taking immediate steps to find a successor, according to alumni and internal SMU documents.

In a Dec. 12 internal memo, Ludden told Attanasio that “it is now time for another individual to take on the leadership of the law school at SMU and to provide leadership for the challenge necessary in the current climate of legal education.”

Attanasio declined to comment. In response to inquiries sent to Ludden and SMU President R. Gerald Turner, SMU spokesman Kent Best said that “SMU does not comment on personnel matters.”

Ludden announced his decision to Dedman faculty and staff in a Jan. 3 memo. A public announcement of the decision is expected next week.

Early word of the decision produced a significant backlash from alumni, faculty, financial supporters and the law school’s executive committee, whose members say they were not informed of the decision in advance.

“I think everyone is stunned and upset,” says Darrell Jordan, a partner at the Dykema law firm in Dallas and a major SMU supporter. “No one — not the provost nor the president — has given us a reasonable explanation about why this has happened.”

The article suggests that Attanasio was a powerhouse fundraiser who was well-liked by the SMU Dedman trustees, who don’t understand why the university pushed him out. U.S. News suggests that SMU has been backsliding in the rankings (down to #51 last year) and is more comparable with Baylor (up to #51 last year) than the University of Texas.

And so far the students don’t seem to be rallying around their dean. One student emailed in to say that the Texas Lawbook report was “one-sided” in its support of Attanasio. Another student had these opinions:

Sure, he’s raised money, and lots of it. But raising money at SMU is as much of a challenge as getting laid at a whore house. The bottom line is that Dean Attanasio is immensely arrogant (his image once appeared on half the pages in the annual alumni magazine), he is a relic of the past (he cannot use a computer, so his emails are printed and hand-delivered to him by his secretary), he is unpopular with the faculty (a few promising, young tenure-track professors have left for other similarly-ranked schools in search of healthier administration), and he is incredibly unpopular with students (should he be bothered to acknowledge their painful presence). These aren’t characteristics that can keep SMU in its preferred “second best in Texas” niche, or in the US News top 50. So, good riddance Dean A.

The elephant in the room of Texas legal education seems to be Texas A&M. Over the summer, Texas A&M announced it is buying Texas Wesleyan Law School, and they intend to be a player in the market. As the Aggies scale up, all of the other Texas law schools have to get ready for some intense competition, both for students and for jobs for their graduates. The Texas market does have jobs to offer, including some very high-paying ones, but we’re still talking about a zero-sum game here, there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

So SMU will need to step up its game to avoid getting run right out of the “number two in Texas” spot. Maybe the SMU brain trust just felt it needed to make a big change to prepare for the storm.

But I’m sure SMU will figure it out. They’ll throw a bunch of money at some law dean who promises to throw a bunch of money at the faculty and achieve some nominal bump in the U.S. News rankings. The only thing I’m worried about is whether SMU Law students will remain focused on pumping out great Law Revue videos.

SMU ousts law school dean [Texas Lawbook / Dallas Morning News]

Earlier: Who Would Run A Law School If Law Schools Were Run More Successfully?
University of Texas Dean Ousted As Rumors Fly

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