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

Trouble lingered into the new school year. Just before classes started this past August, the honor council made its determination about David Scott. The council found that he had "unreasonably interfered with the rights of minority students to pursue their education free of any real or perceived need to justify their existence in the law school; and engaged in conduct that cast serious doubt on his integrity and conduct as lawyer." His punishment: banishment from all student organizations. He could not write for the newspaper or speak on behalf of the college. "All for holding in my hand about 40 pieces of paper," Scott says bitterly today.

Normally the dean would make the disciplinary determination. But Thompson recused himself from the case on Scott's insistence and appointed former dean Mary Doyle, who made the final determination on punishment. Scott is convinced that Thompson wanted him expelled, that he criticized Doyle for failing to do so, and even tried to get the university president to order expulsion. (Neither Thompson, Doyle, nor Foote would comment.)

The punishment will follow Scott throughout his career because the school is required to submit it to the Florida Bar and any other bar association Scott attempts to join.

Thompson's last telephone message of the day is from Alan Swan. The long-time professor left the dean a confidential letter -- it is in fact addressed to the attorney Thompson had hired to handle the firing of the associate librarian.

Shortly before Thompson was hired, the head librarian decided to return to teaching, leaving associate librarian Virginia Thomas in charge. When the hiring committee selected her as the permanent replacement, Thompson didn't even try to hide his disappointment. His goal had been to bring in a librarian from a top-twenty school who could boost UM's reputation. Unwisely, however, he had never challenged the composition of the library's hiring committee, which included staff members Virginia Thomas supervised.

Shortly after Thomas's promotion the dean vowed to support her, but then he proceeded to reduce her responsibilities. According to his letter, Swan and others believe Thompson purposely undermined her. (Swan would not comment for this article.) The dean explains that he simply wanted to consolidate certain functions for the sake of efficiency. "People may see it as a way of undermining her authority," he says defensively. "It was done for very, very good reasons after consultation with the provost of the university."

The dean also opposed hiring Joseph Hodnicki as associate librarian because Hodnicki's career had been mainly in private law firms. Again he was hoping for someone from a prestigious law school. Six months after Hodnicki was hired, Thompson, responding to a complaint that the librarian allegedly "abused" his staff, had the university's human resource department conduct an investigation. Based on those findings, the dean in early September demanded that Hodnicki resign. The librarian refused, so Thompson suspended him with pay. When the dean called an emergency faculty meeting, the professors were prepared for him. Faculty members reproached him for failing to give Hodnicki warning, failing to notify his supervisor, and suspending him in alleged violation of the faculty manual. "I thought it was dumb," Prof. Terrence Anderson asserts with typical bluntness. "I thought he was heavy-handed in trying to deal with the faculty. Sam would be much more comfortable if this were IBM."

More than a month later Hodnicki is negotiating to get his job back or to receive some kind of severance. (He has denied the allegations of misconduct.) Professor Swan has not retracted his letter. Thompson has not changed his mind.

Thompson's visionary ambitions -- a grand school with national prestige -- appears to have left him beleaguered and short of allies. "He's almost like a person who has not cut himself off -- but has been shunned by the faculty," notes his friend Wayne McCoy of Schiff Hardin in Chicago. "It's as if the people he'd turned to as natural colleagues turned their back on him. His support comes from the administration but not from his own faculty."

Thompson is not a loner by nature, McCoy says. In Chicago he would outlast all at raucous parties -- dancing till dawn. In more sedate times, he helped McCoy raise his son and daughter. Even in Miami, some faculty members compliment him as a charming and gracious peer. But he has little support for the arduous job he's set for himself and for the school.

Amid the administrative turmoil, Thompson acknowledges that teaching and scholarship are the things that sustain him. "I'm doing my best job for the law school and for the university," he says, "when I'm teaching my classes and writing my articles and getting my name out there in the public.

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