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The accident at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville happened because a metal baseball bat was old and poorly maintained, says Fernando Gomez, vice chancellor and general counsel for the Texas State University System (TSUS). When a student swung the decrepit bat, the metal part of the bat detached from the rubber grip, flew 50 feet and shattered the face of a student. When Gomez heard about the accident, which he says happened in the mid-1990s, he knew that TSUS could be liable for the injury. Under most circumstances, public universities in Texas are immune from tort suits, but Gomez knew that an exception applies when a public agency negligently supplies defective equipment. Remarkably, the injured student didn’t sue. Perhaps the reason why, Gomez says, is that he encouraged leaders at Sam Houston University � part of the TSUS � to ask the injured student’s family what they could do to help. The university later paid more than $45,000 for the student’s hospital bills, including charges for reconstructive surgery for her face. “You can’t be afraid to say maybe we didn’t do something right,” says Gomez, who believes that a compassionate approach by institutions can head off suits. “Maybe they’re going to sue you, maybe not, but you have to be decent to people.” A humane approach to handling myriad legal issues is a big reason Gomez, the longtime general counsel for TSUS � the third-largest public university system in Texas behind the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems � earns high marks from fellow attorneys and leaders of the university system, which serves 64,000 students and is comprised of eight major campuses and several branch campuses. “It’s rare to find someone with the ability to deal with people in a way that lessens their anxiety and allows us to work out a problem without a lawsuit and a lot of staff time,” TSUS Chancellor Charles R. Matthews says. R. Vic Morgan, president of Sul Ross University, a small public university in the West Texas city of Alpine that is part of TSUS, also praises Gomez’s approachability and warmth. “He’s easy to work with and easy to talk to,” Morgan says. “I’m never disappointed in the outcome of legal advice he’s given to me.” Gomez thinks his job as general counsel for TSUS suits him because of his unique academic background. He’s a rare attorney who also holds a doctorate in American history and has been a tenured college professor. “My academic background comes to bear every day of my work life,” he says. “Everything in my preparation led me to do this kind of work.” Gomez works with little assistance compared to lawyers for other Texas public university systems. For example, the University of Texas System’s general counsel office employs 30 attorneys, while the Texas A&M University System’s general counsel office employs 13 attorneys, according to their Web sites. Gomez, however, is one of only two attorneys dedicated solely to legal affairs in the TSUS. Matthews says when he began as chancellor, he was surprised that TSUS employed so few attorneys despite its size, but he believes that Gomez ably manages the legal affairs of the $1.1 billion system. The other attorney employed by TSUS is Bill Fly, university attorney for Texas State University-San Marcos. Gomez says he calls on Fly when he needs backup. Fly says that he and Gomez talk daily about different issues, ranging from the contracts to the investigation of discrimination complaints. Gomez “has a real sense of how to handle litigation and is very good in negotiations,” Fly says. “In another life, he could have been a really great trial lawyer.” Gomez has served TSUS as general counsel for 17 years. He left the job in 1990 but returned to it four years later. Gomez self-deprecatingly calls himself the “Grover Cleveland of Texas State.” Like the 19th-century president known for serving two nonconsecutive terms, Gomez has served as general counsel for TSUS from 1986 to 1990, and then from 1994 to the present. In between his two periods of service for TSUS, Gomez practiced commercial law at Soules & Wallace, a San Antonio firm, then became general counsel at the California State University System (CSUS), one of the nation’s largest public university systems, with 23 campuses and 417,000 students. Gomez says he left TSUS in 1990 to try something different. “I’d never been in private practice, and here was an opportunity to do private practice with a quality firm,” he says. But two years later, Gomez was back in an academic setting as general counsel for the California State system. “You don’t get offered the general counsel position for the largest university system in America every day,” he explains. After the Northridge earthquake in 1994 shook Long Beach, home of CSUS, Gomez and his wife Sylvia realized they wanted to return to Austin. Gomez’s successor at TSUS had just departed, and system leaders invited him to return to his former position. He jumped at the opportunity and was glad to return to what he says felt like a brand new and more demanding job, in that the Texas Legislature had added four schools to the system after his 1990 exit. “If I’m really lucky, I’ll never have to leave this place again,” Gomez says. As TSUS’s top attorney, Gomez says he has a “general corporate practice,” with the exception of a few areas peculiar to government lawyering, such as handling open records requests and ensuring that the system’s board of regents complies with open meetings laws. Overall, Gomez says his work spans many practice areas, from oil and gas law to First Amendment issues and litigation. For example, Gomez says he oversees purchasing and the negotiation of contracts with many different parties, including construction firms and architects. Gomez also has a role in arranging financing for the system. Like other public entities, the system sells bonds to meet its construction needs. Right now, TSUS has $500 million in bonds outstanding, says Carol Polumbo, a partner in the Austin office of McCall, Parkhurst & Horton who serves as the system’s bond counsel. Gomez “knows how to properly utilize outside counsel,” Polumbo says. “He understands the role, that what we do is a specialized area of the practice.” Gomez performs litigation management, working with the Texas Office of the Attorney General’s tort litigation division rather than outside counsel to handle suits facing TSUS, which typically faces litigation involving slips and falls and business and employment matters. Currently, TSUS faces seven suits, which Matthews says is a low number. “I attribute a lot of that to Fernando’s skill set,” he says, referring to Gomez’s ability to resolve conflicts without litigation. Gomez credits the attorney general’s office and judges who are willing to dismiss cases on summary judgment for the low amount of litigation facing TSUS. David Morales, deputy attorney general for civil litigation, returns the praise. “With the volume of litigation our office handles on a daily basis, Fernando’s experience and good judgment have been invaluable to our attorneys representing TSUS throughout the years,” he says in a statement. Gomez travels to university campuses to give preventative workshops on state ethics laws and employment law topics such as sexual harassment. First Amendment issues also occasionally pop up in Gomez’s work. For example, he recalls counseling an administrator at Beaumont’s Lamar University who asked him if he could take action against students who passed out an advertising flier for a local bar that featured Michelangelo’s “David” with the famous statue holding a beer stein in front of his genitals. Gomez recommended taking no action. “You can’t ban selectively,” Gomez says. “You’ve got to give these kids a forum to express themselves.” Another area Gomez monitors closely is faculty termination proceedings. He says he strives to ensure that tenured faculty members discharged by TSUS receive due process. Gomez’s experience as a former tenured college professor gives him credibility in such dealings and establishes a rapport with faculty, he says. Termination of staff members also presents legal issues, Gomez says. For example, Gomez recounts an episode in 1999 where one university terminated a 17-year veteran employee who received good reviews until her 15th year of service, when a new supervisor arrived. The new supervisor clashed with the employee and eventually fired her. Gomez thought the employee had been treated harshly but could not undo the firing decision. But Gomez says he was able to head off litigation by calling the ex-employee’s attorney and asking him what she wanted. The attorney stated that the fired employee wanted a month and a half of back pay, which Gomez arranged, thereby averting a suit for little expense. “You don’t only do what’s lawful, you do what’s right,” he says. In the nonlegal arena, Gomez recently picked up an assignment that taps his expertise in American history: Matthews picked him to coordinate the system’s Centennial Commission. TSUS traces its roots to 1911, when the state set up a governing authority for its hodge-podge of teacher colleges. Gomez says he is busy writing “the story of the system and what it has meant to the people of Texas,” noting that many students at TSUS campuses are the first in their families to attend college. Family Ties Gomez was born in 1947 and raised in Gallup, N.M., a small community where few people continued their education past high school, he says. He was raised by his grandparents, even though his mother and father lived nearby. The reason for this unusual arrangement, he says, is that his grandparents were devastated after their son, also named Fernando, died in World War II. His young parents, Gomez says, “could not say no” to his grandparents’ desire to raise him in his uncle’s place. “It was really a life-changing experience,” he says of being raised by grandparents. Gomez says his grandmother had high expectations of him and wanted him to be a priest. At age 14, he left Gallup to study for the priesthood at St. Francis Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, with the Franciscan religious order, where he received a classical education. He praises the priests’ kindness and decency. “I don’t think I would have gone as far educationally without what the Franciscan fathers did for me,” he says. Gomez, however, found that he could not take the three vows of priesthood to serve in a Catholic religious order: chastity, poverty and obedience. “It’s a rigorous life, and I decided it wasn’t for me,” he says. After leaving St. Francis, he completed his undergraduate degree in English and sociology at the University of New Mexico, where he met his wife. The couple has two children: a son who is an aerospace engineer and a daughter in college. After graduation in 1970, he returned to the Midwest to complete his law degree at the University of Michigan Law School. While in law school, he also took some graduate-level courses in English. Gomez says he later learned that he was the second Hispanic student to attend the prestigious public law school. Faced with his graduation from law school in 1973 and the prospect of practicing law, Gomez decided to continue his education. “I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life,” he explains. So he completed a Ph.D. in American studies at Michigan State University. He did his dissertation on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the accord signed in 1848 in which the Mexico ceded much of the Southwest, including Texas, to the United States. Gomez then taught history at Michigan State for several years, eventually becoming a tenured professor. Instead of staying in academia, Gomez made another unorthodox career move. A class he taught on great American trials piqued his interest in practicing law. So in 1979 he obtained a leave of absence from Michigan State and applied for a job with Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly. At first, Kelly was skeptical of him, Gomez says. Gomez recalls that Kelly told him, “I don’t think you’re going to last, because professors don’t change their stripes. You guys talk an issue to death.” Gomez says the biggest adjustment in going from being a professor to being a practicing lawyer is that “the pace is much faster.” Professors, he says, have time to reflect on issues for months in composing law review articles and preparing for classes, while a lawyer may have only hours to prepare for an injunction hearing. In Kelly’s office, Gomez handled insurance rate regulation and regulation of nursing and foster homes. After three-and-a-half years, Gomez moved to Austin to work for then-Texas Attorney General James Albon “Jim” Mattox. In deciding to move to Texas, Gomez says he and his wife originally wanted to return to New Mexico to be near relatives, but a friend convinced him to check out the Lone Star State. “I saw Austin, and I just fell in love with the place,” he says. At the Texas Office of the Attorney General, Gomez handled mostly work involving universities, including trying and winning a civil suit in which a former dean at Sul Ross University sued TSUS for wrongful termination on the ground that he lost his deanship for blowing the whistle on another dean who allegedly stole cattle from the university to sell at auction. Gomez says his job was to convince 12 people that the reason the plaintiff lost his position as dean was unrelated to the whistle-blowing, and he won the case. When the TSUS general counsel position opened in 1986, Gomez applied and got the job. Friends note that Gomez keeps busy with several hobbies, such as ballroom dancing, creative writing and writing legal reference books. Some of his short stories and poems have been published and he is the principal author of the “Texas School Administrator’s Law Guide” and the “Texas Teacher’s Law Guide.” He says he is working on a book on higher education law. “He’s a Renaissance man,” says Bill Nance, vice president of finance and support services for Texas State University-San Marcos. Gomez also does pro bono legal work by serving as the general counsel of the Texas Association of Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce. Gomez says he loves his job and is fortunate and honored to play a role in the education of students. “There’s not a day that I don’t get up and look forward to coming to work,” he says. “There’s always something new and exciting.”

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