Within the past few years, there have been several well-publicized instances of individuals losing their law deanships because they stood up to university administrators regarding the interests (and assets) of the law school. I will focus for the time being on the developing situation at Saint Louis University School of Law.
As was widely reported last month, Annette Clark resigned her position as dean of SLU Law while issuing a stinging public rebuke of SLU President Lawrence Biondi. For Clark, this was not a mere matter of disagreement over policy. Commenting that "it is the ultimate irony that a Jesuit university would operate so far outside the bounds of common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity," Clark asserted that the SLU administration "can’t be trusted to act honestly and in the best interest of its faculty, staff and students."
It is important to consider that, once Clark had lost confidence in the university administration, she had options. Among those options was to lay low. That is, she could have exercised deliberate indifference to any misconduct that she observed and coasted through her term as dean, all the while enjoying the pay and prestige that come with that position. Her record would not be blemished with controversy, and she might even consider seeking the deanship of a law school at another university.
Or, if completing her term as dean was not feasible because her conscience couldn’t bear it any longer, she could have resigned quietly, justifying that resignation by citing personal, health, family, or whatever sorts of reasons that folks often offer when they'd prefer not to mention the actual reason. Again, her record would not be blemished with controversy, and she would remain well-positioned to pursue other opportunities.
Or, she could have called out the administration publicly, which is precisely what she did last month.
Clark’s actions will undoubtedly have negative ramifications for SLU Law. At least in the short term, the situation will have a significant adverse impact upon faculty and student morale, and will likely impede the recruitment of prospective faculty and students during the coming academic year and perhaps beyond. What is more, the school is now being led by someone whose qualifications to serve as a law dean are questionable, as he himself seems to acknowledge.
There will likely be consequences to Clark as well. Although her experience at SLU Law is behind her--she rejoined the faculty at Seattle University School of Law earlier this month--she will remain a highly controversial figure in American legal education for some time. Accordingly, she will lose out on opportunities that would otherwise have been available to her.
Does this mean that it was a mistake for Clark to resign and issue a public condemnation? Absolutely not. Although things may get much worse before they get better at SLU Law, a festering problem with the SLU administration has been exposed. The SLU Law faculty, the greater legal academy, and the ABA are now well aware of it. The question remains whether there will be a meaningful response.
In the interim, I hope that Annette Clark's actions at SLU will inspire present and future law deans who might otherwise lay low in the face of university misconduct to react strongly and publicly. The greatest threat to an abusive administration is a dean and faculty who are prepared to expose it. Even if it means that the dean and faculty will suffer professionally as a result.