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You Can't Fire Me. I Quit.

August 9, 2012

Plenty of letters of resignation in higher education, and announcements of departures, are more polite than factual.

At Saint Louis University, a resignation Wednesday by the law dean made no attempt to cover up disagreements. And the dean's resignation letter quickly turned up in its entirety on a blog. The university refused to respond to the specific criticisms in the letter, but announced that the dean was able to resign only because she had avoided a meeting Wednesday at which she was to have been fired.

Annette E. Clark, the resigning dean, had been in the job only about a year. In her letter, which appeared first on the blog Above the Law, she accused the president and one of the university's vice presidents of taking law school money and using it for general university purposes, contrary to agreements made with the law school. In one case, she says the university took $800,000 from a fund for preparing a new building to house the law school. In another case, she says that the university "unilaterally" took $260,000 that was to have been used for faculty research stipends during the summer.

Clark also said that senior officials refused to to meet with law school accreditors, and banned her from funding the summer research stipends with other sources of funds.

"It is the ultimate irony that a Jesuit university would operate so far outside the bounds of common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity," she wrote. "I simply cannot be part of, and I assure you I will not be complicit with, an administration that can't be trusted to act honestly."

The dispute over funds for the summer research stipends has been covered in detail in recent weeks by Missouri Lawyers Weekly, which has noted that faculty members at Saint Louis (and elsewhere) expect these stipends. That publication (available only to subscribers) quoted e-mail messages from Dean Clark to faculty members, expressing her frustration that the money was disappearing. She described herself as "heartsick" about the money being moved away from the faculty members' stipends. In a letter to her faculty about her resignation, Clark said that she believed one reason funds kept being taken from the law school was that senior officials were "embarrassed" by the article in Missouri Lawyers Weekly detailing what had happened.

The university declined to make anyone available to discuss the resignation. But the university did release a letter to the law faculty from the president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, in which he said that Dean Clark did not show up at an 11 a.m. meeting Wednesday at which Father Biondi was planning to "terminate" her as dean. While Father Biondi cited the need to be confidential about personnel matters and did not address the specific charges in the dean's letter, he questioned her professionalism.

"Prof. Clark did not have the courtesy to honor this regularly scheduled meeting," he said of the meeting at which she was to have been fired. "Her e-mails to Dr. Patankar [the vice president she referenced] and me, and to the faculty and staff of our School of Law, demonstrate a lack of a clear and comprehensive understanding of the duties and obligations, autonomy and authority, of a modern-day dean at a large and complex university."

Disputes between law deans and central administrations may be picking up. Phillip Closius resigned last year as law dean at the University of Baltimore. This followed a letter he sent to the law school protesting the way funds were, in his view, moved from the law school to the central administration. "I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable justifying tuition and fee increases to law students when the money was actually being used to fund non-law university initiatives," he wrote. (The university denied his charges.)

In the late 1990s, Georgetown University and its law school had a series of fights over how much the law school (which raised a lot of money independently) should contribute to the general budget.

Scrutiny of law school tuition is increasing, given the large debt many students take on and the extremely difficult law job market. The Above the Law blog, widely read by law students and lawyers, wrote in introducing Clark's resignation letter that big issues are at stake.

"At some point, the deans of law schools will have to stand up and stand against the way universities use law schools as cash cows. At some point, law deans are going to have to tell their bosses that university programs cannot be funded on the backs of law students who are already paying too much for tuition in a still terrible job market," the blog post said. "And you know what? Standing up for what’s right, and standing up against the blatant price gouging happening at so many law schools, will cost some people their jobs."

 

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