Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law is looking for a new dean.
The university is not renewing its dean contract with John B. Attanasio, which expires May 31. Attanasio is serving his 15th year as dean of the Dallas law school and nearing the end of his third five-year contract.
SMU Provost Paul W. Ludden announced the school’s plan to search for a new dean in a memo sent to faculty and staff on Jan. 3, during the school’s holiday break. Ludden and R. Gerald Turner, president of the university, are not commenting on the decision because the issue is a personnel matter, says university spokesman Kent Best. Attanasio declines comment.
As a tenured faculty member, Attanasio has the option of remaining at the school. In the memo, Ludden wrote that Attanasio “will continue as the Atwell Chair of Constitutional Law, with the opportunity to begin a well-deserved one-year leave beginning June 1.”
“At this point, there are a great many things we don’t know,” says law professor Alan Bromberg, who joined the SMU Law faculty in 1956. “We never really had a reason why his contract was not renewed. . . .”
Bromberg says Attanasio has been good for the school.
“He has given us a higher visibility worldwide, where we are known as a fine law school in Asia and South America and a lot of places where American law schools are not known at all,” Bromberg says.
“So, we’ve had a very strong presence in other countries, which I think has been beneficial to us,” he says.
Attanasio is also a successful fundraiser, Bromberg says.
According to Bromberg, one practice to which some faculty members objected was that Attanasio, unlike previous administrations, did not share information with them about the school’s finances, such as what it cost to run a clinic, bring in a visiting foreign jurist or fund a lecture series, he says.
“Attanasio kept that information private and not available to the faculty,” Bromberg says. Attanasio did not return a telephone call seeking comment on that issue.
The SMU law school is one of nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools in Texas. Only Bradley J. Toben, named dean of Baylor University School of Law in Waco in 1991, has been a Texas law school dean for more years than Attanasio.
The school’s bar passage rates and position on the annual U.S.News & World Report law school rankings — issues that have caused controversy at some law schools — generally have held steady for the past five years. [See "Rankings Rift Hastens UH Law Dean's Resignation," Texas Lawyer, April 24, 2006, page 1 and "St. Mary's Decides Not to Renew Law Dean's Contract", Texas Lawyer, Nov. 6, 2006, page 1]
The passing rate of SMU’s law graduates taking the Texas Bar exam for the first time has been near or higher than the statewide average since 2008, according to data on the website of the Texas Board of Law Examiners.
Although the school’s position on U.S.News‘annual rankings has slipped slightly in the past five years, the school has maintained its position as the second highest ranking or tied as the second highest ranking of the Texas schools on the list. The school ranked No. 46 in 2008 and No. 51 in 2012. At No. 51, it tied with five law schools including Baylor. [See "Some Texas Law Schools Move in U.S.News & World Report Rankings," Texas Lawyer, March 19, 2012, p. 5].
In 2004, Attanasio re-opened the school’s part-time, evening program.
“I think that was very widely approved,” Bromberg says. “And I, at least, thought it was wonderful to put it back on the docket. I think there were some people that felt that it diminished the stature of the university, because, generally, evening programs are not considered as high class as day programs. But that never seemed to me a significant issue.”
SMU Law alumnus Darrell Jordan, managing member emeritus of the Dallas office of Detroit-based Dykema Gossett, says Attanasio has done a “tremendous job” as dean. He says Attanasio has raised the school’s national and international profile, recruited quality faculty and established cutting-edge programs such as forums on the rule of law.
Jordan is a member of the law school’s executive board, an informal group of about 60 people interested in supporting the law school who meet twice yearly with the dean for updates on activities at the law school, he says.
Jordan notes that Attanasio has also been a strong fundraiser. Donors have given more than $57 million to the law school as part of SMU’s current fundraising campaign, called the Second Century Campaign, according to the law school website.
“He is very popular with alumni,” Jordan says. “It was a great shock and surprise when we learned his contract was not going to be renewed.”
He notes that a group of lawyers and judges sent a letter to Turner listing Attanasio’s accomplishments and asking to meet with Turner to discuss renewing Attanasio’s contract.
“The president said the decision was final but he would be happy to meet with everybody; so, there wasn’t any reason for a meeting,” Jordan says.
“Dr. Turner has talked with members of the executive board individually and will continue to do so,” writes Best in an email.
SMU law alumnus and Houstonsolo Will Noel organized the petition that was sent to Turner. Noel is also a member of the law school’s executive board.
Regarding the contract non-renewal, Noel says, “I don’t have all the information, but at this point, it’s fair to say that I’m disappointed.”