Penn State has announced Stephen S. Dunham as its new general counsel, pending approval by its board of trustees in July.
Dunham, who has been vice president and general counsel of Johns Hopkins University since 2005, will replace Cynthia Baldwin, the former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice who was hired by Penn State in January 2010 in a transitional role and charged with creating a general counsel’s office at the university.
Penn State had announced in a statement in January that Baldwin was prepared to help Penn State start a national search for a permanent general counsel.
That announcement came roughly two months after the university became engulfed in the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal. According to press reports at the time, a university spokeswoman said the controversy had nothing to do with the change.
It’s undeniable, however, that part of Dunham’s responsibilities as GC will be to deal with the legal blowback from the Sandusky scandal. The university already faces civil lawsuits related to the scandal, including a whistleblower suit filed earlier this month in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas by former Penn State wide receivers coach Mike McQueary — who has alleged he witnessed Sandusky rape a boy in a Penn State locker room.
Speaking to The Legal on Wednesday, Baldwin said Dunham is well-equipped to manage any Sandusky-related legal issues.
“I think anybody that comes from a VP and general counsel position has the skill sets necessary to handle” those types of matters, she said. “Not only does Steve have those skill sets, but he has the experience. I think that was certainly part of him being chosen for this position.”
Dunham told The Legal on Wednesday that helping universities work through the types of challenges Penn State currently faces in the wake of the Sandusky scandal is part of a GC’s job description.
“I can’t speak for [Penn State], but for me it’s part of the importance of the job,” he said. “The institution faces significant challenges and issues that are, of course, in the news and a lawyer’s job is to do what he or she can to help the client — in this case, the university — address those challenges.”
Dunham is no stranger to the legal issues facing universities, having served as general counsel of the University of Minnesota from 1982 to 1988 before joining the Denver office of Morrison & Foerster, where he focused his practice on litigation and higher education law.
From 1996 to 2000, Dunham served as chairman of the firm.
In December 2005, he left to join Johns Hopkins.
Baldwin said that while she will be there to help Dunham transition into his new role at Penn State smoothly, she doesn’t anticipate there will be much of a learning curve.
“The fact is that he comes from being a VP and general counsel and he has a lot of background in that,” she said. “Of course we’ll be talking about everything that’s going on at Penn State and about how the university is set up and those types of things, but he already comes with experience.”
Dunham said Wednesday that he believes the position of in-house counsel at an institution of higher learning is “the best legal job in the world,” in part because of the broad range of legal work it entails, from employment law to intellectual property to athletic contracts.
But what truly sets the job apart, he said, is the role in-house counsel play in aiding a university’s mission to serve the public through education and research.
“I view it as a public-interest job, where I both believe in and can serve the mission of the institution,” he said.
As Dunham readies himself to take the reins at Penn State, Baldwin is preparing her exit from the university, which she said has been the plan ever since she was hired two-and-a-half years ago.
“If you read all the newspapers at the time, they all said I was coming to establish the office and that I planned to transition after the search” for a new GC was completed, she said.
Baldwin said she will now turn her focus to her other passions, such as teaching constitutional law in Third World countries and serving on various boards.
“Believe me, my days will be full,” she said.