Law faculty plotted to oust dean

by Cory Weinberg

Faculty say they launched a near coup to remove the former dean of the GW Law School, who unexpectedly announced last fall he would resign after holding the position for just 18 months.

Paul Schiff Berman stepped down in January and moved to a new vice provost position after professors drafted a petition to reject his leadership, citing staff tensions and poor decision-making about how to restore a reeling legal education system, The Hatchet has learned.

Professors said they could have held the first successful vote of no confidence in GW history. But University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman plucked him out of the No. 20-ranked law school before a formal vote could take place, according to interviews with more than a half dozen professors who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

April 2011
Paul Schiff Berman was hired to bolster fundraising and help raise rankings. He was the third-youngest dean at a top 20 law school.

June 2012
Berman threatened to pull funding from a $3 million stipend program that paid graduates who could not find jobs. He reversed course 24 hours later, after professor and faculty backlash.

Mid-October 2012
Professors drafted a 17-page document outlining grievances against Berman. Many were smaller issues, like suspicions that he had no regard for faculty governance rules. Others claimed he was verbally abusive to staff.

Late October 2012
University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman attended a law school faculty meeting and asked professors not to go forward with a vote of no confidence against Berman. Professors said they had enough votes for the first successful no-confidence vote in GW history.

November 2012
Berman announced that he would resign from the law school in January. Administrators praised Berman's move to the position of vice provost for online learning and academic innovation.

The accounts of the law school friction reveal a different story than the one initially told when Berman stepped down from one of GW’s top programs.

Professors described a fall semester of private email chains and contentious meetings about Berman’s intense leadership style.

“I kept thinking of that old proverb, ‘If you go after the king, you better make sure you take the king out,’ ” one full-time law professor said. “We didn’t take the king out, but the king took himself out.”

Faculty presented a 17-page document to the former dean which outlined, corroborated and footnoted complaints during Berman’s tenure. About a dozen professors contributed to the document created in mid-October and viewed by The Hatchet.

Some of the most senior professors campaigned against Berman, resenting him for allegedly subverting faculty governance rules and verbally mistreating staff. In October, 15 professors wrote a letter to Berman outlining their frustrations, including what they considered Berman’s disregard for faculty governance. About a dozen professors met with the provost in mid-September about their concerns with Berman.

Berman declined multiple requests to sit for an interview. He also declined to comment in an email on the faculty grievances, saying he was not forced out or asked to step down.

“I was honored to serve as dean of the law school during a time of change for both the law school and the legal profession generally,” he wrote. “I have now been entrusted by the president and the provost with a strategically important portfolio for the University’s future, I am 100 percent focused on this new opportunity and I am enjoying every minute.”

Knapp also declined to comment on the faculty grievances, adding that he did not ask Berman to step down. It's a challenge for academic leaders to get students, faculty and alumni to buy into new initiatives, he said.

He called deanship a “tough job,” especially during changing times.

“In recruiting university leaders, you look for individuals who have a deep understanding of what is happening in higher education and an ability to draw others into their visions of the future,” Knapp said in an email.

A campaign with sealed, secret ballots

Two professors said that before Berman left, half the full-time faculty signed petitions in sealed, secret envelopes – more than enough to pass the one-third threshold to send a petition to the chair of GW’s Faculty Senate executive committee. A successful petition would have forced a formal vote of no confidence, which to pass, would require half of the faculty to vote affirmatively.

The University's president determines the fate of deans who are hit with a vote of no confidence, according to the Faculty Code.

There was no smoking gun against Berman. Instead, professors pointed to an “accumulation” of concerns, like rumors that he pushed out an associate dean and sought enrollment increases in law clinics to go past capacity.

“When you add it up, it was a dysfunctional atmosphere. Many members of the faculty were avoiding going into the building,” one senior professor said.

Knapp made a rare visit to the fifth floor of the Burns Law Library in October to tame the dozens of law faculty seeking Berman’s removal.

He told them there were no legitimate grounds to eject Berman and urged them to accept his leadership. Knapp and the provost took no questions in those 10 minutes, according to accounts from four professors. The meeting lasted hours after he left, inciting faculty discussion on whether or not to take a formal vote.

About two weeks later, Berman announced he would move into the provost’s office to become vice provost for online education and academic innovation, stepping down before a formal vote could take place.

Professors said they were scheduled to vote in late November.

“There was some disquiet that made it easy for him to accept the vice provost position,” said law professor Richard Pierce, who declined to discuss specific grievances. “This was a stable environment and a person who was a very aggressive person, and that will serve him very well in this new position.”

On Nov. 12, Berman sent an email to law school faculty and students reflecting on his upcoming January departure with “a sense of gratification regarding all that the law school has achieved over the past year" and citing fundraising successes, the start of new programs and strides in career services.

Michael Castleberry, chair of the Faculty Senate executive committee, said he was aware that some faculty were disgruntled with Berman. But he was never approached about a formal vote of no confidence.

Castleberry said he thought Berman’s switch made sense because of the University’s growing focus on online learning.

“I don’t think he was pushed out. If there was anything like that, I thought I would have heard. A man like Berman doesn’t leave because people are unhappy with him,” Castleberry said.

The tension comes as law school enrollments and revenues slump nationwide. With a sluggish legal market, experts and administrators around the country are plotting changes to legal education.

Great expectations fade

Berman came to GW after four years at the rising Arizona State University law school. At the age of 46, he became the third-youngest dean of a top law school.

He arrived in the dean’s office in May, two months earlier than planned. Professors questioned his moves soon after.

The cyber-law expert had an impressive and quirky resume. He directed plays in New York City and clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the document to Berman, faculty pointed to his mistreatment of staff members, like when he reportedly told one staffer, “I’m going to make your life hell.”

The professors also wrote that he fumbled during presentations to donors and alumni and raised his expectations for the median LSAT score during a poor admissions season, creating an even smaller first-year class. They also took issue with Berman’s announcement of health and environment law programs before they had been approved.

One professor said faculty began bracing for a rough deanship after Berman formed a committee of professors upon arrival over the summer, but disbanded it that winter. Instead of creating broader strategies, one professor said, Berman was more interested in “splashy things that he could tell Rice Hall about and what they could tell the Board of Trustees about.”

Berman denied disbanding the committee. During his tenure, he promoted several student life and career services initiatives. In particular, he approved a program for first-year students called Inns of Court, which established peer groups and advisory boards to cultivate a sense of community. Faculty said they were not opposed to that initiative.

“There was then, and always is, a lot of discussion among faculty members about the school’s direction. These days in particular, it’s heavily overladen with anxiety about what in the world is going to happen to legal education generally and at this school,” Pierce said. “It causes people to engage in more conversations of that type than usually occur.”

Professors also grew suspicious that Berman was trying to sidestep faculty governance rules.

Last January, he said the school would launch a health law and policy program starting this fall, after procuring a $1 million gift. But professors protested the quick move, because the school had few faculty who specialized in the area. One professor said faculty went “back and forth” on the issue with Berman, because he wanted to hire a health law leader without first consulting faculty. He later appointed a faculty committee, which hired a consultant to map out the program.

Though frustrated with Berman's leadership, professors could not point to a specific faculty governance rule he broke.

“When he was confronted, he backed down in each instance. But he paid no attention to the rules of governance until he was confronted,” one professor said.

Berman, who controlled the law school’s $80 million operating budget, also hit a rough patch last summer when he threatened to pull funding from a stipend program that paid jobless graduates to work internships.

Berman backed off 24 hours later and kept funding for the $3 million-a-year program. But the incident earned him poor press and more faculty ire.

“We are a faculty who, as a group, care about our students. It reflected badly on us as well,” one professor said. “A lot of damage was done. We had to talk to students to reassure them.”

Those suspicions came to a head at the first faculty meeting of the year in September, several professors said. Berman addressed faculty and denied the rumors. Two professors at that meeting said they thought he was lying, creating a tense back-and-forth discussion.

Tension worsened. One staffer who has spent several years at the law school said Berman micromanaged more than any other administrator and often demeaned workers, creating a toxic atmosphere.

Some faculty stayed in Berman’s corner. One, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the faculty leading the charge against the dean were also initially against his appointment.

“There are people who like the status quo, and there are people who like to change things up. Paul is a change guy. Paul is a 'we can always do better’ guy,” the professor said, adding that “if there was a problem with the dean that’s serious enough to get rid of them, I’d be the first one in line to say, ‘Do it.’ But on flimsy, false charges? No. I’m not interested.”

A return to old faces

The law school will likely face a year and a half of temporary leadership under interim dean and professor Gregory Maggs, who took over in January after previously serving as interim dean before Berman arrived.

Maggs declined to comment on the events preceding Berman’s resignation, but said the switch was a “smooth and uneventful transition.”

Faculty who spoke out against Berman praised Maggs as a prolific fundraiser and a good manager.

“I believe the faculty has complete confidence and a universal feeling of strong support for Dean Maggs,” one full-time professor said. “I think he’s going to be careful and cautious, but I would think that he’s going to make decisions that are in consultation with the faculty.”

In an interview three weeks ago, Maggs stressed that he would emphasize group decision-making.

He also announced he would form a faculty planning committee to suggest changes to legal education over the next two years.

“The most important thing is to involve more people in decision-making at all levels. That includes making sure that all initiatives be sent to standing committees,” Maggs said. “It’s not like I have all the answers.”

The school will begin searching for its next dean by this summer or fall.

Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate who sits on Georgetown Law’s Board of Visitors, said the attempted ousting of Berman would not help the school find its new leader.

“Some potential deans will be really turned off by this,” she said. "They’ll ask why they need to deal with that. Why would I want to deal with an antagonist law faculty? It might be hard for them to get a new dean.”

View the policies on commenting here.

blog comments powered by Disqus