SLU law dean resigns, blasts administration's tactics and commitment
Blasting the president of Saint Louis University for misleading her and betraying the ideals of “common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity,” the dean of the university’s law school resigned Wednesday, effective immediately.
Annette E. Clark, who had joined the law school as dean just last year, said in a letter to the Rev. Lawrence Biondi and a separate letter to law school faculty and staff that she had fundamental disagreements with the university’s executives and “I no longer have confidence in their ability to lead this institution.”
Among the grievances she cited were actions taken in the purchase of a downtown building to house the law school, which she said was done without consulting the school’s leaders; the transfer of law school funds for other purposes; and a failure “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.”
Instead, she added in the letter to Biondi and Manoj Patankar, vice president for academic affairs, “from the beginning of my deanship, you have evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect, issuing orders and edicts that allowed me virtually no opportunity to exercise the very discretion, judgment and experience for which you and the faculty enthusiastically hired me. You have not consulted me on important matters involving the law school’s interests, you have failed to honor commitments that I had assured the faculty you would keep, and you have accused me of being uncooperative and not being a team player when I have objected to these actions.”
In the letters, which were made public by the website nextSTL.com, Clark said, “I will remain a tenured full professor on the law school faculty as is my contractual right.”
In response to Clark’s resignation and comments about the SLU administration, Biondi released his own letter to faculty and staff member at the law school, in which he said that Clark’s actions “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.”
He said, “I strongly disagree with many of her interpretations of the facts. Moreover, her assertion of a lack of support for the law school could not be further from the truth.”
Biondi said that he and Patankar had planned to fire Clark from her job as dean at a meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday, but she did not show up for the meeting and instead emailed her letter of resignation. He said the university would have no further comment on what he called a personnel matter.
He also said that for the coming school year, Thomas Q. Keefe Jr., whom he called a respected personal injury lawyer from Belleville, would serve as dean of the law school. He said three generations of Keefe’s family had attended the law school and Keefe has been a generous donor to the school.
In her letter to faculty staff members at the law school, Clark elaborated on her departure, saying that “this is not a sudden decision but one that I have thought long and hard about over the course of the past several weeks, including during my recent vacation.”
She said when she began her tenure as dean, she discovered that Biondi “had transferred over $800,000 from the law school building fund to the President’s Opportunity Fund on the final day of Sandy Johnson’s interim deanship without her knowledge and counter to her understanding of their agreement regarding how her compensation and that summer’s research stipends would be funded.”
She said she learned of the transfer only a month after it happened, when a staff member saw it on a financial report.
“Early on,” she added, “I was warned by the vice president that the president operates on emotion, not reason, and that the law school was going to have to ‘pay the price’ for the autonomy it had enjoyed in the past. Perhaps that’s why I was kept completely in the dark regarding the acquisition of the building downtown and its designation as the new law school building, learning the news only three days before the announcement was made public.”
That news, which was revealed in January of this year, originally said that the law school would relocate to its new home at 100 N. Tucker for the coming school year. Later, the university said that timetable was too ambitious and the move would be postponed until August 2013.
In his letter, Biondi said that Clark’s departure “in no way slows our determination to move our law school into its new home in downtown St. Louis.” A spokesman for the school said the timetable remains as previously announced, with major construction expected to begin in October and the move-in set for August 2013.
The last straw
In her letter, Clark said that she could say more about friction between her and Biondi and Patankar concerning the building, “but the last straw, the one that tipped the balance for me in deciding to resign, is the president’s flagrant violation of an agreement he made just six weeks previously, an act that took from the law school over a quarter of a million dollars raised from our alumni.”
She said that money, which could have paid for 20 summer research stipends that Biondi had agreed to fund, instead was transferred to the President’s Opportunity Fund. Clark said that Patankar said that the withdrawal was justified by a shortfall in the law school’s revenue, but “an ordinary budget cut would not come from the annual funds contributed by our donors.”
“So,” Clark added, “now we are left in a position where the president first authorized us to use our operating budget to pay for the summer stipends and, then, after we made legally binding commitments to the faculty, he unilaterally withdrew the amount of the sumer stipends from the law school’s annual fund, putting us in a far worse financial position than if he had simply disapproved the summer stipends. The vice president’s response to the concerns I raised was to shrug his shoulder and to tell me to start making cuts in discretionary expenditures. He also told me specifically, when I asked what to tell the faculty, that I was not to say that this ‘budget cut’ was related to the summer stipends.”
She said she was ignoring that directive “because I believe I have an ethical obligation to disclose this conduct, which I view to be immoral, in violation of an express commitment made by the president, and harmful to the law school. I do not wish to be complicit in, or provide cover for, these actions.”
Clark concluded her letter to faculty and staff this way:
“Words cannot describe how deeply saddened I am by this turn of events.... I have performed my duties as your dean with every ounce of integrity, dignity, and grace I possess and I leave this position with a clear conscience and the knowledge that I did everything within my power to move the law school and the university forward. In terms of my future, I will remain on the tenured faculty for the present, but I anticipate that I will be seeking another deanship in the near term.”
To Biondi and Patankar, she concluded:
“It is the ultimate irony that a Jesuit university would operate so far outside the bounds of common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity. I simply cannot be part of, and I assure I will not be complicit with, an administration that can’t be trusted to act honestly and in the best interests of its faculty, staff and students.”
Before coming to SLU, Clark was at the Seattle University School of Law for more than 10 years, including one year as interim dean. In addition to her legal degree, she is also a doctor, with an M.D. degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Her page on the SLU website speaks of her dedication to the ideals of the university.
“As a Jesuit law school,” she says, “our mission at Saint Louis University School of Law is to educate the whole person and to produce lawyers who are thoughtful leaders and members of society. And if we believe in that mission and vision, we then have an obligation to critically evaluate our program of legal education to determine whether it is designed, through the knowledge, skills and experiences we’re providing to our students, to produce outstanding lawyers and individuals who meet those lofty aspirations.”
And in an interview with the law school’s magazine shortly after her appointment, Clark expressed her desire for a lengthy career at SLU.
“As I do this work,” she said, “I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that, unlike my interim dean year, I’m here for the long term and will be able to enjoy the fruits of our joint labors as the school forges ahead, grows, and changes.”