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Friday, September 23, 2016

Omri Marian Responds To Robert Rhee's Critique Of Florida's Graduate Tax Program

Marian (2016)Following up on my previous posts (links below) on the controversy surrounding the Florida Graduate Tax Program: Omri Marian, who started his academic career at Florida before joining the UC-Irvine faculty in 2015, has written a withering 28-page letter responding to Robert Rhee's 24-page critique of Florida's graduate tax program. Here are the introduction and conclusion to the letter:

Dear community of tax students, tax professionals, and tax academics,

As I am sure you are aware, over the past few months, the Graduate Tax Program (the “Program”) at the University of Florida (“UF”) has been embroiled in a heated controversy. This controversy started after the arrival of a new Dean, Laura Rosenbury, and significantly escalated with the publication of a letter criticizing the Program, written by Robert Rhee, a non-tax law faculty member at UF.

Rhee’s letter was not written in a vacuum. It is a result of a toxic organizational environment full of anger and distrust. I do not know who is responsible for breeding such an environment, as I have little firsthand knowledge of the events leading to Rhee’s letter. My best guess is that many individuals, of all parties involved, share the blame.

The purpose of this response letter is to make three arguments:

First, I offer a point-by-point response to Rhee’s letter. I have now closely read Rhee’s letter, Professor McMahon’s response, and Rhee’s answer to Professor McMahon. I have also approached several administrators and other sources within UF and asked for the raw data used by Rhee in his analysis. These sources shared the data to the extent allowed by law. I have also sent a request for data to Rhee (Rhee himself collected some of the data he presents). Rhee responded by saying “I don’t think I should be commenting to outsiders.” 

Even though I agree with few of the assertions made by Rhee, having considered the documents and the data I was able to gather, I must unequivocally accept Professor McMahon’s assertion that Rhee “cherry-picked the data in a manner that is designed to present the Graduate Tax Program in the worst possible light, omitting positive data and making inapposite comparisons.” I also believe that in many instances Rhee misinterprets the data due to lack of knowledge of the subject matter in which he purports to be an expert.1 Rhee evidently does not understand the profession of tax law, the purposes of a tax LLM program, the market for tax careers, or why students apply to the Program in the first place. In fact, Rhee’s letter can be read as an attack on the tax profession as a whole. As I explain in this response letter, Rhee’s factual assertions about the Program should be dismissed in their entirety.

Second, I explain why I believe Rhee’s assertion that his letter “was written to be helpful” is disingenuous. The letter is humiliating to students, demeaning faculty, and overall damaging to the Program. Rhee knew, or should have known, that the letter would be publicized. Rhee knew, or should have known, that if publicized, the letter would harm the Program and the individuals involved with the Program. My belief is, therefore, that Rhee’s did not write the letter in good faith with the purpose of furthering positive change in the Program. As I explain, my inference is based solely on the contents of the letter. Prior to reading the letter I did not have (and never had) any personal quarrel with Rhee.

In conclusion, I explain my motivation in writing this response. I also explain why the Dean’s public response to Rhee’s letter is, in my opinion, inadequate.

I discuss each of these points in turn. Before doing so, however, I must comment on Rhee’s qualifications. I am compelled to address Rhee’s qualifications because Rhee presents himself as an expert in areas in which he is not.

IN CONCLUSION: A DEAN MUST CHAMPION HER STUDENTS

Rhee’s letter is not “helpful”. It is careless with facts. It inflicts direct damage on the Program, its faculty, and most importantly, its students. Under such circumstances, it does not matter what differences of opinion the Dean has with tax faculty. The Dean must stand by her students. Anything other than a forceful, unequivocal repudiation of Rhee’s letter (as much as it refers to students) is, in my opinion, a failure in leadership. A dean must champion her students, not let them fall victim to petty faculty politics.

Dean Rosenbury public response to the letter does not cut it. All she had to say was that she “did not commission the report”, and that she welcomes “input from all faculty members on matters affecting the law school. Data like this will be crucial in developing our strategy going forward.” There is no worthwhile data in Rhee’s report. Does Dean Rosenbury agree that the Program’s students have “mixed credentials”? Are “weak candidates”? How should prospective employers interpret the Dean’s lukewarm response to the letter?

I have no reason to doubt that Dean Rosenbury only wants what is best for the Program. I am also certain the Dean strongly believes that the Program’s student body is something to be proud of. In an internal email to faculty at UF following Rhee’s letter, the Dean stated (italics added): “I am confident that these [Rhee’s and others’] multiple perspectives will ultimately make our graduate tax program even more exceptional. We will continue to attract amazing students, we will work hard to attract the strongest faculty, and we will together determine new ways to deliver our courses across the globe.” Such sentiment towards the Program in its student body should be made public. Not kept for internal e-mails.

In my mind the way forward is threefold: (1) The program must collect data systematically to guide its future development; (2) Rhee should apologize to students; (3) the Dean must swiftly act to show unequivocal public support to the Program’s students. No constructive change in the Program will be possible unless all three happen.

I want to end my letter by making it perfectly clear that no one at the Program asked me to write this response (though I made some members of the Program aware I will be writing it). It is completely my own initiative. I taught at Florida for three years before moving to UCI. I am deeply indebted to the University of Florida Levin College of Law, to the Program, to the countless dedicated faculty members (both tax and non-tax), administrators, and most importantly – the unparalleled pool of graduate tax students, who have directed the beginning of my academic career. It pains me to see the people I hold dear unjustifiably smeared in public. This is the only reason for which I drafted this response.

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2016/09/omri-marian-responds-to-robert-rhees-critique-of-floridas-graduate-tax-program-.html

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Comments

After reading Omri’s report I appears to me that he misunderstands opportunity costs and completely misses that the test of the program is not popularity or how may alums will sign a letter but the returns to both public and private investment. More importantly this “battle of the experts,” the name calling, and flag waiving do nothing to solve the problems on the ground – an aging and retiring faculty, decreased demand, and a decade leading up to the present of failed leadership. The exchange so far in posts and blogs, including my own, do nothing to solve the on-the-ground problems that will determine the future of the program.

Posted by: Jeffrey harrison | Sep 23, 2016 7:11:47 AM

Prof. Harrison,
Even after some have already critiqued your position, you seem to have this unwithering belief that the tax program does no public good, and therefore, should not be publicly subsidized or even taught at a public institution of higher learning. Your position on this issue is as blind as someone attacking your field of study in antitrust, contracts, and copyright as doing no public good because all it does is feed the business entities of this world, more of the overall social wealth pie. To that end, you continue to be a fool.

Regarding the “battle of the experts,” it was your colleague that initiated this chain of reaction because of his unequivocal assault of the tax program and everyone associated with the program. As Prof. Marian has already addressed in his letter, the intent of Rhee’s letter was to demean and humiliate, while disguising it as an objective analysis with his number games. When a group that one is associated is assaulted in such a way, it is only human nature to come to its defense. If someone wrote a humiliating yet unwarranted letter about your family member, wouldn’t you come to the defense of your family as well? Rhee’s letter clearly crossed boundaries where it got personal for people associated with the tax program. This defense is called loyalty; clearly a concept that you do not seem to grasp.

If you and Rhee genuinely believe that change in the tax program is needed for the betterment of UF law, please do so in a more constructive nature. Talk to the people involved in the program, communicate with them and fix the place from the inside, rather than trying to trash it by throwing rocks from the outside through your incessant blog posts and comments. Because whether you like it or not, students with a passion in tax from all around the world, young and vivacious, older and less spirited, will want to continue their education at UF, like you once did with economics, contracts and antitrust.

Posted by: Young Geezy | Sep 23, 2016 8:36:03 AM

Prof. Harrison,
Even after some have already critiqued your position, you seem to have this unwithering belief that the tax program does no public good, and therefore, should not be publicly subsidized or even taught at a public institution of higher learning. Your position on this issue is as blind as someone attacking your field of study in antitrust, contracts, and copyright as doing no public good because all it does is feed the business entities of this world, more of the overall social wealth pie. To that end, you continue to be a fool.
Regarding the “battle of the experts,” it was your colleague that initiated this chain of reaction because of his unequivocal assault of the tax program and everyone associated with the program. As Prof. Marian has already addressed in his letter, the intent of Rhee’s letter was to demean and humiliate, while disguising it as an objective analysis with his number games. When a group that one is associated is assaulted in such a way, it is only human nature to come to its defense. If someone wrote a humiliating yet unwarranted letter about your family member, wouldn’t you come to the defense of your family as well? Rhee’s letter clearly crossed boundaries where it got personal for people associated with the tax program. This defense is called loyalty; clearly a concept that you do not seem to grasp.
If you and Rhee genuinely believe that change in the tax program is needed for the betterment of UF law, please do so in a more constructive nature. Talk to the people involved in the program, communicate with them and fix the place from the inside, rather than trying to trash it by throwing rocks from the outside through your incessant blog posts and comments. Because whether you like it or not, students with a passion in tax from all around the world, young and vivacious, older and less spirited, will want to continue their education at UF, like you once did with economics, contracts and antitrust.

Posted by: Young Geezy | Sep 23, 2016 8:40:44 AM

G, I realize responding to anonymous personal attacks or even signed ones that are non sequiturs is foolhardy (not you but some guy in New Orleans who responds to me without reading anything) but something you might think about is that with the loss of Lokken, Friel, and McMahon, the program is clawing just to get back where it once was. Plus right now there is a vacuum in the leadership department. That requires recruiting people of the highest caliber and no one here wants to settle for less. If we get those people, they will know better than most how to move the program along.
I think my treatment has been relatively even handed comparedd to what has been flowing over the transom from supporters. (Extreme enough at times that the central administration has suggested armed protectors). I’d like the shouting to stop and the process of restoration to begin. My personal view is that the program should pay for itself plus a contribution to overhead unless it demonstrates that there is a public good rationale for the education of tax lawyers. Maybe it can. As for loyalty, mine is focused on current students and taxpayers who pay the bills, thus my emphasis on private and public rates of return to investment in the programs. I think the way alums can demonstrate loyalty as opposed to preaching about it is to get out their checkbooks to make sure we can hire people who are as at least on par with those we are losing. If you want to have a civil and productive discussion, you know how to reach me.

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Sep 23, 2016 11:24:39 AM