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

Eventually, on the advice of the university's attorney, Thompson insisted that David Scott return the records. He did, and he agreed not to write an article, but later he would be disciplined anyway.

The dean's low-key reaction to the theft of records angered both Scott and some of the black students whose histories, if not names, he had threatened to expose. "What he should have done -- and this is why I think this whole incident was handled extremely poorly -- what he should have done was to say to me that I can't publish this article, that I must immediately give him everything I have, and if I don't I'll be expelled," Scott complains today. "He's the dean, he's the administrator of the law school, and it's his responsibility to handle these things."

Adebayo also believes Thompson failed to understand and address some black students' anger and frustration at the threatened loss of privacy. "He was very unresponsive," she says. "He wasn't for us, he wasn't against us."

Both Scott and Paul White-Davis, a representative to the law school's student government, believe Thompson was motivated by a desire to protect his image and the image of the school. "Some serious C.Y.A. [cover your ass] was involved in that incident," White-Davis says.

One faculty member takes a more kindly view. "It was one of his better moments and one that illustrated his inexperience," observes Terrence Anderson. "He was about 24 hours slow in seeing how explosive it was. There were legal problems for the law school, there was concern about security of the records. It was highly explosive. The fact that it didn't explode is a credit to him."

If David Scott was prevented from publishing his article about affirmative action, he did succeed in exposing racial tensions that had existed under a veneer of civility. The following spring -- shortly after the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. -- that civility would crumble altogether.

A third-year black law student, Melissa Robinson, a follower of the Nation of Islam, persuaded some of her friends to invite Minister Rasul Hakim Muhammad to come to UM to speak about the march, which he had attended. Though the Black Law Students Association never voted on the matter, Lisa Joyner, the group's president, volunteered the organization as a sponsor. Just before spring break, the two women requested money from a committee set up to examine funding requests.

The Cardozo Legal Society, a group of mainly Jewish students, opposed using student funds to sponsor the speech because the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis Farrakhan, has repeatedly denounced Jews in angry invectives. Gay groups were offended by Farrakhan's homophobic rhetoric, and feminists objected to his comments about women's roles. Debate raged within the Student Bar Association, the law school's student governing organization, which nervously agreed to provide $1000 -- but in the form of a loan. Art Teitelbaum, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, implored both Thompson and university president Tad Foote to prohibit the use of student funds for the speech. Both refused.

Eventually five broad-based student groups voted to provide the BLSA with $5550, still $530 short of the needed amount for fees and theater rental. They sought help from Thompson. The dean found private sources who donated the remainder, but he would not reveal their identities. The speech would go on, even if harmony would not.

The school seethed with racial tension. BLSA students voiced their resentment of an earlier student-financed talk by Marcia Clark, whose prosecution of O.J. Simpson collapsed on racial grounds. Long-time friends quarreled and separated. "People I had been friendly with no longer talked to me," a former Cardozo member laments. "There was a definite rift that was never repaired in my time there."

In a futile attempt to appease both sides of the dispute, Thompson persuaded the Student Bar Association to endorse a proclamation stating that it hoped the Nation would adopt Martin Luther King's principle of judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The Cardozo students rejected the proclamation as an impotent criticism of Muhammad. Some black students resented Thompson for proposing it in the first place. The faculty discussed it but reached no consensus of opinion.

Just before Rasul Muhammad spoke, Thompson and Teitelbaum stood together at a rally outside the student union. A Cardozo student read a proclamation his group had prepared condemning the Nation of Islam's "anti-Semitic, misogynist, anti-Catholic, and anti-homosexual positions." Thompson took out his pen and signed it on the spot.

Later he sat on-stage during Muhammad's speech and privately presented the minister with the Student Bar Association's proclamation. Some black students later criticized Thompson for playing both sides -- on one hand signing the strongly worded Cardozo proclamation and on the other helping the BLSA. "I understand the precarious position he's in," says student Valerie Jackson. "There are certain things he has to do in his dean capacity to hold the university together. But I think as a human being you have to take a stand. If he felt that he didn't want Rasul Muhammad here, he should have said so. If he did, he should have said so. It's the constant straddling the fence that gets him in trouble."

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