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."

The dean's response is characteristic: "I made decisions that I am confident are the right decisions. Can some faculty members disagree with me? Absolutely they can disagree with me."

It was the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania that inspired Thompson in law school, and helped him transform himself from a lackadaisical student who preferred football to an avid scholar in one of the most arcane areas of law. "The teaching was at such a high level," Thompson recalls. "Those guys opened my eyes to something I had never seen before, to the intellectual spirit and a commitment to an intellectual enterprise that I had never been exposed to before. I remember my first day of class, I said I want to be a teacher -- just like that. It was just awesome, the level of professionalism."

The son of a clerk and a midlevel civilian manager in the Department of the Navy, Thompson was reared in a middle-class neighborhood in Steelton, a mill town about three miles from Harrisburg. His father was a graduate of Wilberforce University in Ohio, and his mother insisted that her son also attend college. He did, at Westchester State Teachers College, where he played varsity football.

A Philadelphia school hired him as a teacher in 1965. That same year, on a whim, Thompson made an appointment with an admissions officer at Penn's law school. The young teacher had an unspectacular academic record, and he hadn't even taken the Law School Aptitude Test. Nothing recommended him. But the admissions officer agreed to open the doors. Thompson considers his admission to be an early example of affirmative action.

"Had he turned me off and said there's no way someone from Westchester State could go to this school, I wouldn't have applied, and may not have thought about becoming a lawyer," Thompson muses. "I got a lucky break. I got a lucky break and I took advantage of it." His class of 180 included four black and four female students.

As an undergraduate Thompson had spent summers working for the U.S. Marine Corps as part of an accelerated officer-training program. He deferred his enlistment for a year during law school.

But the Vietnam War escalated, interrupting his studies. He worked mainly in logistics and supply -- far from napalm and machine guns. The loss of officers during the war accelerated his promotion to captain, which brought with it the military's unique lessons in leadership: "Marines are taught that you don't worry about the individual, you respect the rank. I think it gave me a real positive experience in my early adulthood that has carried forward."

By the time he returned, in 1968, ambition had seized him. He enrolled at Penn's respected Wharton School and earned a masters in business and applied economics in 1969. Two years later he also held a law degree from Penn, one of the best law schools in the nation. Thompson immediately got a job with the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

There he met a young lawyer, also an associate with the firm, who would become one of his closest friends and key professional contacts. At the office Christmas party in 1971, Thompson told Richard Hoskins he wanted to be a teacher. The next year, when Hoskins's alma mater, Northwestern University, searched for a tax instructor, Hoskins recommended Thompson. Northwestern hired him as an associate professor in 1973.

For the next 23 years the restless lawyer would alternate between academia and private practice. He helped the U.S Treasury Department's legal counsel prepare the 1976 tax reform bill. He also worked as a lobbyist on tax issues, counting the Chicago Board Options Exchange among his most important clients. "This energy of his also combines with an unquenchable curiosity," Hoskins observes today. "When he's being a lawyer, he's always wondering about the theoretical basis; when he's being a teacher, he's also wondering about the practical."

Working at the Treasury opened new opportunities for Thompson, and the University of Virginia offered him a tenured position in 1977. By that time his friend Hoskins had joined the prominent Chicago law firm Schiff Hardin & Waite. Eventually Hoskins's partners asked Thompson to head the firm's tax department in Chicago. Soon after he started that job, the dean of the UCLA law school began an eight-year recruitment campaign that finally paid off when Thompson joined the school's faculty in 1990.

During his four-year stint there, Thompson published three books and numerous academic articles. In 1993 UCLA students voted him professor of the year. But he was feeling restless again. Thompson's long-time associate Edwin Cohen, a widely respected tax lawyer, was teaching a course at the University of Miami when he learned that the school sought a dean.

After eight years, UM's law dean Mary Doyle had decided to step down. Cohen suggested Thompson. The hiring committee agreed to give him a try. Initially Thompson was reluctant; he had no love for academic politics, and even avoided faculty meetings.

But he was ready to take a job that had a greater impact on a broader range of people. "After having met with everyone, I went back to UCLA," he recounts. "That Monday morning I got a call from Andy Rier, who was president of the [UM] Student Bar Association. He said, 'Professor Thompson, I just want you to know that the students unanimously want you to come.' Then I said, What the heck? The students want me to do it."

Thompson is late for his next appointment -- a student reception at the Hispanic National Bar Association convention, being held at the Fontainebleau Hilton -- but he makes no break in the conversation as he returns to his second-floor administrative suite from the law school courtyard. He hands a research aide his car keys as he walks past her. "I want you to drive," he says as he enters his own office to change clothes.

By the time the aide unlocks the passenger door of the black Buick Riviera, Thompson looks the part of a dean -- crisp white shirt, silk tie, brown wool suit. He settles comfortably into the leather passenger seat and almost immediately picks up the cellular phone.

Thompson's assignment at Schiff Hardin in Chicago had been to turn a moribund tax practice into a vibrant one, says his colleague Wayne McCoy, who still works at the firm. Thompson accomplished it by working long hours and relentlessly driving young lawyers to their limits. The trip to the Fontainebleau recalls that frenetic time. He murmurs directions to the aide who chauffeurs him, and at the same time dials an administrator to discuss the hiring of a new career-placement director.

The law school ranks among those in the so-called third tier, far below Harvard and Yale and the other top institutions, according to a U.S. News magazine survey published this past March. UM is also outranked by the University of Florida and more than twenty other public law schools in other states with lower tuition (Miami charges a whopping $20,712 in tuition; Florida charges $5212 the first year and $3862 each subsequent year).

The higher-ranked schools attract students with top grades and test scores, whom the large law firms cherry-pick for a shrinking number of entry-level positions. UM graduates even find it difficult to compete for local jobs as South Florida law firms also recruit from the top schools. According to the U.S. News survey, only about 80 percent of UM's students find positions within six months after law school. Thompson has promised to change that.

As a condition of his accepting the deanship in 1994, Thompson demanded that career services, which had been squeezed into a tiny office, be housed in an expansive suite. He pushed out two co-directors and replaced them with a director from the top-tier Georgetown University Law School. That director has already boosted the percentage of students who find jobs, but he was recently recruited by another university and is taking his top assistant with him, so the dean must hire new staff.

He has also tried to improve student morale, which had been notoriously low at the time he arrived. Thompson accelerated plans to enlarge and remodel the law student lounge. Glass now encases what was once a dark, dingy room. He also insisted on construction of a snack bar. Though the projects had been previously planned and some of the money raised, Thompson was able to bring them to completion quickly. "He's very much the manager, the chief executive officer type," says constitutional law professor D. Marvin Jones. "He talks about the DEC principle -- dignity, efficiency, and courtesy."

The dean met resistance when he undertook another project designed to boost student morale. He asked professors to submit student grades on time. Besides being an inconvenience, late grades can be an obstacle to students' job searches, a subject of considerable complaint by students. In January 1995, Thompson warned the faculty he would consider their punctuality when making annual salary decisions. He warned them a second time. Then last spring he docked professors $250 for each late grade. The faculty raged. Some criticized the timing, others balked at the idea.

"It wasn't a question of the timing of the warning as much as the preciseness of it," explains a tenured faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "My problem with all this is that it wasn't sufficiently textured. Bad conduct received the same punishment as less-bad conduct. The underlying notion that we have to turn our grades in on time is reasonable. A pretty substantial majority didn't think it was handled very well."

Thompson counters that the professors gave him no choice. "The faculty talks about my listening to them," he complains. "Here I am, a brand-new dean. Before I even get on the premises I ask the faculty members to get their grades in on time. What am I supposed to do, say, 'The faculty is going to ignore me, so I'm not going to do anything about it?' I'm a trustee for the students." His best defense for the new procedure is its effectiveness: "I've finally gotten the faculty's attention, because virtually all grades were on time this past semester."

The head of the law school's alumni association, Jay Martus, a Hollywood attorney, meets Thompson at the Fontainebleau. He's acting as a liaison between the dean and the Hispanic National Bar Association. The dean considers him one of the school's greatest supporters.

As the two men stroll through the kitschy corridors of the Fontainebleau, Martus reports on his fundraising progress. Donations from UM law graduates are on the low side. At the top twenty law schools about 27 percent of alumni annually give an average of roughly $245 each; at UM only sixteen percent contribute, and their average donation is $100.

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."

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."

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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