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Without a permanent dean for two years, Catholic University Columbus School of Law finally found its man last August: Douglas Kmiec. It was a big hire. Kmiec, a conservative constitutional scholar, worked in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. He headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, considered one of the most prestigious government legal jobs in Washington. Just before his move to Catholic, his name was bandied about for a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “There are a lot of parallels between life as head of Legal Counsel,” says Kmiec, “and my life as a law dean.” Among them, he says, is trying to create “workable, harmonious relationships.” Despite his background, nothing could have prepared him for his rookie year at Catholic University. Just two weeks into his first semester, the school suffered a terrible loss with the news that Karen Kinkaid, a new adjunct professor and a partner at Wiley Rein & Fielding, was on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. This spring, the dean had to answer questions from students and applicants when his school fell from the second tier down to the third in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual ranking of law schools. Soon after, the Roman Catholic Church found itself embroiled in a child abuse scandal — and Kmiec found himself having to explain that the law school, despite its name, received no funding from the church. Kmiec has reduced the size of the incoming first-year class by 70 day students and 30 night students, improving the school’s selectivity and student-faculty ratios, both important factors in how law schools are rated. He has also drummed up additional funds for scholarships in order to attract top-level students. “It’s been an extraordinarily interesting and challenging year,” says Kmiec. “You try to make good things come out of the unexpected.” For Kmiec, that effort began soon after he started work. With the school — and the nation — in shock and mourning, Kmiec quickly convened a conference on Sept. 12 to debate responses to terrorism. Held in the school’s expansive atrium, the hours-long event was standing room only, and, says Kmiec, “nobody moved.” Held after an overflowing mass of remembrance, the symposium lasted from 11 a.m. until midafternoon. “Classes were just naturally suspended, so this was a wonderful way to put our minds to work,” explains Kmiec. “It allowed reason to conquer grief.” Kmiec is not a typical dean, cloistered from the headlines. He has conservative political views and is not shy about sharing them. “Conservative in orientation,” as he puts it, Kmiec makes the rounds on television, in print, and before Congress, expressing his strong viewpoints. (See “Idea Man: A Kmiec Sampler.”) Thus far, Kmiec has succeeded in raising the profile of the school, say many faculty members and students, adding that the school lacked direction during the years it functioned without a permanent dean. But some see a double edge to having such a public dean at Catholic University. “This is the most conservative kind of Catholicism I’ve seen,” says second-year law student Trevor Uffelman, who says he is Catholic. “I really fear that his perspective and his outspokenness are harming the school more than they’re helping it.” For many, conservative views and Catholic University go hand in hand. Founded in the late 19th century by Pope Leo XIII, the university opened its law school in 1897; the school has been accredited by the American Bar Association since 1925. The name — Columbus School of Law — came from an early alliance with the Catholic group the Knights of Columbus. Yet the law school, located in Northeast D.C., receives no funding from the Vatican or local parishes. “People think because we are the national university of the Catholic Church, we have some hidden treasury from the Vatican,” says Kmiec. “We are self-supporting.” The school has also always accepted students and faculty of any faith. Currently, Catholics are the majority at the school, but some say the numbers are not overwhelming. Typically, only 60 percent of students identify themselves as Catholic. Before Kmiec, students and faculty say, deans often fell into a middle ground in terms of politics and public religious faith. For example, whereas the publications of Dean Ralph Rohner, who served from 1987 to 1995, focus on lending law, Kmiec’s works, though often about constitutional matters, also touch on issues close to Catholics. Assisted suicide and religious freedom are two recent topics. “Everyone was a little nervous in the beginning to get to know a new person because we hadn’t had a dean for two years,” says outgoing Student Body Association President Jennifer Vergne, who graduated in May. “He’s a little bit more conservative than our past interim dean [Bernard Dobranski].” Dobranski is now the dean of newly formed Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I think Doug is sort of following in the same steps” as prior deans who tried to “make meaningful in the classroom the school’s religious tradition,” says Dobranski. It is hard to ignore the influence of religion in Kmiec’s life. A 50-year-old Catholic, he occasionally and casually quotes scripture. Kmiec has taught at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, and Pepperdine University, which characterizes itself as Christian. “I believe strongly that people of faith have a unique capacity to be lawyers,” says Kmiec. Last year, Kmiec began teaching an elective course on Catholic legal history. This fall, the class becomes mandatory for all first-year students. “The course allows me to meet everyone,” he says. “I think the best model of dean is a scholar-dean — someone who doesn’t forfeit his interest in the substance of the law.” While students and faculty extol the virtues of an involved dean, some faculty express concern that Kmiec’s strong Catholic viewpoint, and especially his mandatory class, will alienate non-Catholic students. “I don’t have any problem with the dean teaching,” says professor Louis Barracato. “I have some problems with the particular course being offered as a mandatory course. But the faculty gave its approval.” Adds another faculty member: “Overall, I think that he’s done a lot of good things, and things are better than they used to be. I think it’s really nice that the dean wants to have a relationship with the students. I just think the focus of the course is a little narrow.” Like the faculty, some students also express reservations with the Catholic legal history course. “I personally am not Catholic,” says Matthew Swartz, a second-year student. As an elective, the course “is not something that would have made or broken my choice to attend.” However, he says, “a mandatory course probably would have. That would have seriously weighed on my decision.” Kmiec’s class is not the only reservation some faculty and students have about their year-old dean. A few question if he would leave the school for a judgeship in the near future. But Kmiec says he has no plans for the bench. “I used it as a stepping stone away from the federal judiciary,” says Kmiec of his job as dean. He continues to stay in the public eye, and in fact looks for opportunities to speak. “I really think it’s good for the school for me to be out there engaging in public debate,” says Kmiec. Many agree. “For the large part, I think [his public speaking] is good,” says Swartz. While Swartz acknowledges that not everyone agrees with Kmiec’s viewpoint, he says that Kmiec’s “opinions and the decisions formed have a factual basis. It’s really easy to fault people when they throw out ideas that have no factual basis.” For third-year student Thomas Vecchio, what is important are the “exposure” and “publicity” that come with Kmiec’s appearances. Self-described as falling to the left on the political spectrum, Vecchio still says, “I certainly respect his view. “He made an obvious and recognizable effect on the reputation of our school,” adds Vecchio. “He represented us out there using his name and his publicity.” Professor Michael Noone concurs: “People may not agree with the conservative, very Catholic stance he takes, but the school has benefited.” However, not all are sure of the advantages. “It’s true that Doug is very conservative,” says a faculty member. “In some ways, that concerns me, especially because he does so much television. The public face of the school is very much his face.” Kmiec says his work both inside and outside the school is meant to stir up a meaningful public debate. He envisions “a school filled with teachers who feel passionately about their subjects,” and supports dialogue between students and faculty of different faiths. “We had Bible studies [classes] here from the Hebraic perspective,” says Kmiec. “People write letters to the editor and disagree with you. Alumni write letters,” he adds. “My role as dean is not to impose any particular orthodoxy, but to have them blossom where they are.” For all the concern about the Catholic legal history class and Kmiec’s conservative viewpoint, the numbers should assuage some fears. The school received more applications for fall 2002 than a year earlier — 11 applications for each of the 270 day and evening spots. That is up from six applications per seat last year, says admissions director Eric Eden. While some of that can be attributed to the school enrolling approximately 100 fewer students this fall, there was still a significant jump in applications. The admissions office has already sent out information about all of the first-year courses, including Kmiec’s course. Eden says he hasn’t seen any evidence that prospective students are deciding not to attend because of the course. “It was something I worried about a little bit,” says Eden. “I certainly fielded calls and conversation from people who wanted to know what it was about. At the end of the day, I haven’t seen people pull out.” Eden says that, so far, the school is expecting the same percentage of non-Catholic students as in years past: approximately 40 percent. Job placement numbers have also remained fairly consistent, despite the concerns of some that Kmiec might turn off potential employers. At graduation this year, 70 percent of the students had employment, a number similar to the 75 percent who had jobs at graduation in 2000. The school expects to have the same 94 percent employed nine months after graduation that it did last year. “His involvement has certainly interested our alumni base,” says Career Services Director Kristen McManus. “He’s really gone out on a limb for students who are interested in federal clerkships. Not so much his personal contacts, though that has come into play, but he has counseled students.” This year, says McManus, a few of the school’s students landed federal appellate clerkships, which “hasn’t been the norm in the past.” With all of the talk of Kmiec’s conservative leanings, what has turned out to be the bigger and more real problem is the school’s U.S. News ranking. While the school’s dip in the rankings to third tier didn’t affect the volume of applications, since most were already submitted when the magazine published its figures, Eden says the admissions office fielded some “hard questions” about it. The school’s student-faculty ratio boomed recently, rising to nearly 20-to-1 in 2000, and LSAT numbers began to decline, dropping to a range of 151 to 156 in 2001, according to U.S. News. Kmiec’s decision to reduce the incoming class size by 100 students, already in the works before the rankings came out, has helped address the student-faculty ratio problem. As well, the increased selectivity inherent in a smaller class size has boosted the LSAT scores of students by three to four points, says Eden. The students’ collective grade point average will also rise. “I was worried that U.S. News was going to dampen the enthusiasm for us,” says Kmiec. “By and large, we didn’t lose anybody who was seriously interested in us.” Although the statistical implications of a smaller class are becoming clear, some are questioning if the move will have unintended consequences. “I think most students think that’s a good idea. Reducing the class size will help boost us up in the next go round,” says Uffelman. But, he adds, he is “very concerned” that the move may decrease diversity. “We’re one of the least-diverse law schools in the District.” But Eden says that “all of the ratios are about where they were last year.” At this point, the school is expecting approximately 20 percent of its students to be minorities. And as Matthew Rak, a second-year student, points out regarding the smaller class size and diversity, “I think it’s possible to do both.” Indeed, Kmiec boasts that “with this expanded pool of students, we can be even more selective than we’ve been in the past.” In the same breath he points out, “We’ve also increased our geographic and student diversity.”

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