Uncommon Law

Sam Thompson, hard-charging dean of the University of Miami's law school, has high hopes, strong opinions, and a tendency to attract trouble

Though Sam Thompson is running late on this hectic afternoon in early October, the indefatigable dean of the University of Miami School of Law refuses to forgo his sprints around the track -- four laps, 440 yards each. When he finishes, he heads to the law school's courtyard. As a condition of accepting the deanship two years ago, Thompson accelerated the construction project that would transform the courtyard from unadorned concrete to a grand brick patio under gumbo-limbo trees, cooled by a coral rock fountain.

The dean parks himself on a bench near the fountain and does his best to sit still during a 45-minute conversation -- not an easy feat for a man whose appointment book is full to overflowing. When emphasizing a point, Thompson eagerly leans forward -- ready to rise to action -- like a quarterback breaking from the huddle. He wears a gray UCLA T-shirt and purple-and-black running shorts; perspiration streams down his face and saturates his shirt. As a student passes, he interrupts to update her on an errand he has promised to complete.

"You're so great!" gushes the 30-something coed gratefully. Such a casual relationship between a dean and his charges is unusual. Previous law school deans preferred the august silence of the administrative offices to the noisy, student-filled plaza. Not Thompson. To many students, he's Dean Sam.

But that informality makes him no less a driven professional. He has acquired a national reputation in his field of scholarship -- corporate taxation -- and for eight years headed the tax department at a major Chicago law firm. He spent a year at the U.S. Treasury Department, and also worked on President Clinton's transition team in 1992. In his academic career, he has taught at three prestigious law schools: Northwestern University, the University of Virginia, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

His recruitment in July 1994 represented a coup for UM's young law school, even though Thompson had never held an administrative position. In the two years he's been here, however, some of his most avid supporters have become his most consistent detractors. At the same time, law school students have split in unusually public disputes over black nationalism and affirmative action. The university's first-ever black dean has fielded criticism from all sides.

A former U.S. Marine Corps captain, the 53-year-old Thompson took his lessons in management from the military. He speaks bluntly where another academic administrator would be circumspect; he has little patience for consensus building among a faculty accustomed to self-governance. He teaches two courses, writes, and publishes frequently while missing few chances to hobnob with alumni, seeking support and funding for the school. Under this relentless schedule, Thompson makes quick judgments to which he holds even when both critics and supporters tell him he's wrong.

The dean justifies this stubbornness by the audacious goal he has set for himself: to raise the University of Miami School of Law into the rarefied atmosphere of the nation's top-twenty institutions -- and to do it within five short years.

Some students, alumni, and administrators forgive him his failings in the face of that daunting objective. But some of the professors he manages will have none of it. In fact, his relationship with the faculty has become so tense that some joke about being in the "doghouse club" -- which is capable of accommodating all 42 full-time professors. "The faculty seems to feel excluded from key decisions," says Bruce Winick, a tenured professor who specializes in mental-health law. "The decisions are announced, and of course we are going to feel slighted or left out, and criticize him. He tends to feel a bit defensive, and then the tensions are increased."

Toweling rivulets of sweat from around his eyes, the dean compares his UM travails to his Marine Corps tour in Vietnam. There, during the chaos of the Tet Offensive in 1968, he had to assume the role of commanding officer for a 200-man infantry regiment. "Here I was, 23 years old, and the C.O. of a regimental headquarters," he recalls. "That was the most challenging and most rewarding job I had. No, being a captain in the Marines was the most rewarding -- the most challenging is being dean."

Thompson's latest challenge erupted during a September faculty meeting, when he announced that he had suspended an associate librarian. At least four tenured professors admonished him during the meeting for failing to give the employee notice of his alleged wrongdoing or an opportunity to correct it. They also resented Thompson's decision to have the case handled by an outside attorney, unprecedented in the law school's history.

A month later some professors' fury still simmers. Even as the dean amiably converses in the courtyard about his life and career, Prof. Alan Swan, a 24-year UM veteran, is circulating a letter among the staff lambasting Thompson for failing to follow personnel rules. "The faculty confronted a dean bent upon ridding himself of an employee he disliked and fully prepared to do what was necessary to get his way, wholly without regard for the traditions of fairness that this institution has sought to foster and preserve," wrote Swan in an October 1 letter to the attorney Thompson hired. "If anything is abhorrent to the faculty of this law school -- a school dedicated to teaching the meaning of justice -- it is this kind of callous disregard for the very ideals that give our lives meaning."

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