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

Thompson's goal is to boost donations enough to create five endowed chairs for tenured faculty. Such chairs provide financial incentives and recognition to professors, and Thompson hopes they will lure to the school some of the nation's top academic names.

Already, Thompson boasts, he's improved the school's prestige. Between November 1994 and January 1996, he and the assistant dean for development and alumni relations raised $1.6 million in gifts and pledges to create the first endowed chair, which was filled by prominent constitutional scholar John Hart Ely, who was recruited from Stanford. (Thompson and others at the school have also attracted another well-known scholar, George Lefco, a prominent property-law professor, from the University of Southern California.)

The development office itself has grown rapidly -- from a staff of one to four full-time professionals, and a budget to match. A faculty critic calls the increases "empire building." To that Thompson replies, "The University of Virginia has 24 people in its fundraising outfit. We've got four. Whoever sees this as empire-building is flat-out wrong. If anything, we need more, not fewer professionals. Whoever says that just doesn't know what they're talking about. The City of Miami cannot absorb all the lawyers we're graduating. We've got to enhance our reputation nationally so we can open up national positions to our students. It's incumbent on us to become a national law school because of our geography."

Thompson's research aide has pulled the car around to the front door of the Fontainebleau to wait for the dean after the conference. By now he's running nearly a half-hour behind schedule for a law school dinner to open another gathering, the "Hate in America Conference" sponsored by UM, the Urban League, and the Anti-Defamation League. "What am I going to say?" he frets. "We never got around to writing this speech. What am I going to say?" A simple welcome will be adequate, he finally decides.

Thompson arrives to find cold baked potatoes stacked in a linen-covered basket, and dessert plates bearing apple cobbler. Hungrily he grabs a plate and shovels down cobbler. The night's conference, probing the limits of free speech in a climate of religious and ethnic hatred, developed partially in reaction to two racially charged events on the UM campus.

At the beginning of the 1995 fall semester, David Scott, a stridently conservative law student and copy editor for the law school's newspaper, showed up at the office of vice dean Lonny Rose with copies of confidential student admission and achievement records. They had to have been stolen; Scott says he found them in an envelope in his mail box at the newspaper. He wanted to use the records for a newspaper article that would detail what he viewed as a relaxation of standards for admitting black law school students. Rose recalls giving the student two choices: He could either return the records or risk possible honor council sanctions for possessing and releasing confidential documents. Rose, however, promised Scott that he would make no complaint to the honor council, an anonymous committee that hears evidence of alleged misconduct and makes recommendations on penalties. (Law school students are held to the same ethical standards as practicing lawyers.)

The school's leadership was also faced with a legal problem. Federal law requires universities that receive federal funds to protect students' achievement and admission records. A failure to respond adequately to a breach of confidentiality could place the law school in jeopardy of losing federal money for students. But Scott says neither Rose nor Thompson informed him of that. When the student tried to interview Thompson for his story in late September, the dean simply told him to get a lawyer. Scott did, but nothing the two deans said at that point discouraged him from pursuing his article.

Shortly after Scott interviewed Thompson, Rose told members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) about the purloined records, and suggested they write a rebuttal article once Scott's essay appeared. But the apparent theft angered the students and they wanted to say so -- loudly. "He [Rose] wanted to keep it hush-hush by us writing an article," fumes Olanike Adebayo, a third-year law student and member of the BLSA.

"It was a completely inappropriate request," adds Valerie Jackson, a graduate student attending the law school.

Incensed BLSA students joined with other ethnic student groups to plan a demonstration. Thompson and Rose attended the planning session. "They did not like our idea of the rally," Adebayo recalls. Thompson doesn't remember expressing a view.

When students massed in the law school courtyard in October, Thompson, Rose (who is white), and black constitutional law professor D. Marvin Jones declared their solidarity. Jones recounted a bitter story about being called a "nigger," and promised black students that they'd never have to justify their presence at the school. Rose proclaimed that the university was like a home and bigots weren't welcome. Thompson adopted a cooler tone. He deplored the theft of the records, vowed to protect student privacy, and decried those who would seek to divide the student body along racial lines. "I was an affirmative action admittee to the University of Pennsylvania law school," the dean told the students, "but I was not an affirmative action graduate."

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