Following up on my previous posts (links below) on the turmoil at the University of Florida College of Law: Chronicle of Higher Education, As U. of Florida Law Dean Calls Out Sexism, Her Rankings-Driven Regime Comes Under Fire:
An alumnus in Orlando told her he didn’t remember a dean with "legs like that."
The star editor of the law review described her as "young and vivacious," parroting a phrase he’d picked up from his mentor.
Faculty members and graduates have called her a careerist, whose singular focus on national rankings has come at the expense of collegial consultation and respect for beloved professors.
This is the turbulent and lately tortured world of Laura A. Rosenbury, the first woman to lead the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law. Ms. Rosenbury has sought to shake up a 107-year-old school with a reputation that is more often described as good than great. She has staked her deanship on a promise to move the school up 13 spots in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which would bring Florida to No. 35. It could all happen, Ms. Rosenbury says, as soon as 2019. That is, if the dean and the Gator faithful don’t devour each other first.
It is a challenge to untangle how Ms. Rosenbury, a former law professor and administrator at Washington University in St. Louis, managed to get crosswise with so many people in the space of just 15 months. Interviews with more than a dozen professors, and with alumni, administrators, and staff members, suggest that the dean’s change agenda has created the impression that she sees the law school and many of its inhabitants as problems to be solved rather than as assets to be mobilized. Tales of her retaliatory style, while often vaguely described, are so persistent and widely accepted that they have eroded trust and incited fear in full professors and maintenance workers alike.
The climate at the law school is "the most distressing that I’ve seen or experienced," says Joseph W. Little, an emeritus professor in his 49th year at Florida. "It’s the personality of the dean. She’s a controller, and is not willing to accept the fact that other people are important and are respected. I would like to see the dean leave as soon as possible."
Four months into her tenure, Ms. Rosenbury, who is 46, attended a banquet that promised to honor her. The new dean brought an impressive résumé: J.D. from Harvard University, where she was primary editor of the law review; bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Harvard’s Radcliffe College; instructor and researcher in feminist legal theory, family law, employment discrimination and property law. Lucky are we at Levin, the student editor in chief of the law review gushed, to be graced with such a "young and vivacious" leader.
It was not long after the event that Dennis A. Calfee, the faculty adviser to the review, learned that Ms. Rosenbury was not flattered; she was fuming. Mr. Calfee was mortified. The student had not come up with the words Ms. Rosenbury found so sexist and demeaning; the professor had.
"I went immediately downstairs to the dean’s office, and I looked her right in the eye and I said, ‘Laura, I’m the source of that comment — "young and vivacious" — and I want you to know it was meant as a compliment," Mr. Calfee recalls. "She said, ‘You could have used the word "energetic."’"
When the professor left, he thought it was over. But tensions persisted with the dean, who six months later informed Mr. Calfee that she would begin holding faculty advisers to fixed terms on the law review. Mr. Calfee, who had held the post for more than two decades, declined an offer to co-advise the journal for a year.
Ms. Rosenbury says that most legal journals rotate advisers regularly, and that she would like to see a change at Florida every three to five years. But her decision has been interpreted among Mr. Calfee’s allies, who are legion, as a slight to the professor and part of a broader offensive against the review and the graduate tax program where Mr. Calfee teaches.
"What do you do when you’re the new sheriff in town? She got rid of a powerful male, who she perceived would stand in her way," says John C. (Jack) Bovay, an alumnus of the tax program and a member of the board of the UF Law Center Association, which provides financial support to the school. ...
When concerned alumni asked to meet last month with Ms. Rosenbury, she agreed. But they were surprised that she hung in the back corner of the room. They were appalled that she left abruptly. And they were mystified that she was accompanied by an armed guard.
The dean says she had been receiving troubling emails before the meeting, and earlier in the day there had been an incident. A tax-law student, sharing widespread concerns that the dean is determined to dismantle the graduate program in that field, stormed into a meeting of the UF Law Center Association and aggressively confronted the dean, according to Ms. Rosenbury and an alumnus who was in attendance.
Within Florida’s law school, the graduate program in tax law is something of a fraternity unto itself. Its alumni, who express great pride in the program’s No. 3 ranking in U.S. News, form a fierce and loyal network across the Sunshine State and beyond. Before Dean Rosenbury arrived, the program’s students and faculty had their own lecture hall, scheduled classes that ran longer than the rest of the school’s, and largely managed their own affairs. But the dean ended all that. Her efforts to centralize control, which to an outsider might track as mostly minor administrative tweaks, have chipped away at the little things that many alumni say made the program special. To hear it from tax-law advocates, Ms. Rosenbury is trying to turn Top Gun into an amateur flight school.
She doesn’t see it that way. The dean says she wants to bring the program more into the fold of the school. She has also accepted the resignation of Michael K. Friel, the program’s longtime director, who retired. Ms. Rosenbury says she did not encourage him to resign, but adds: "I did ask him for more information than I think he was used to giving to a dean."
"Of course I’m not dismantling the tax program," she continues. "It’s the second- or third-best program in the country. I would be insane to dismantle it."
Much of the turbulence in the tax program can be attributed to a now-infamous memorandum written to trustees of the UF Law Center Association by Robert J. Rhee, a business-law professor hired by Florida two years ago. Mr. Rhee’s 24-page manifesto, which was leaked to the TaxProf Blog, is an unsparing indictment of the program, which he describes as an anchor around the neck of a law school struggling to swim to the surface.
He paints the program as a self-congratulatory cabal of costly professors who don’t publish much.
Ms. Rosenbury has not condemned the memo, which has been criticized for its methodology and conclusions, leading tax law professors and alumni to question whether she would just as soon let people believe it. In the broader scheme of the dean’s aggressive U.S. News goals, the popularity of the master’s program with Florida graduates poses a quandary. The rankings, which put considerable weight on postgraduate job-placement rates, penalize schools when students go directly into master’s programs rather than into the work force.
A former Florida administrator, who asked for anonymity to describe a private meeting, says the dean was "furious" when she saw data on Florida law-school students entering the program.
"She banged her fist on the desk and said, ‘That will not happen. You will talk those students out of it,’" the administrator recalls. "She said, ‘You go tell those students they should work for a year and come back.’"
The dean disputes this characterization. "I was not furious," she said in an email. "In fact, I welcome all data, even when it doesn’t paint the best picture." Ms. Rosenbury says she has not directed anyone to dissuade students from entering the master’s program, but has sought to make students "fully aware of their options upon graduation," including the option to work for a year before pursuing another degree. ...
It is not uncommon for law school deans to talk about U.S. News rankings. For better or worse, they appear to drive student decisions in an environment of tremendous competition. It is rare, however, for a dean to talk in explicit terms, as Ms. Rosenbury has done, about how many notches a school can expect to move up within the space of his or her five-year employment contract.
The dean’s strategy, at least in the near term, unapologetically acknowledges a known taboo: If you want better rankings, start by paying more for students with higher test scores. The law school this year pumped $3.1 million into merit-based financial aid, more than tripling the previous year’s awards, to cover up to three-quarters of tuition for incoming students.
Not only that, Florida managed to do it while increasing diversity, bringing in a class of 36 percent minority students, an increase of 5 percentage points from the previous year.
The strategy gets expensive quick. By graduation time, this class will have cost Florida about $9.3 million. The next class will cost an estimated $7.5 million. The dean hasn’t made projections for the third crop, but she ballparks it at $6 million by 2021.
Florida’s most recent ranking of 48 in U.S. News qualifies as a precarious position. Conventional wisdom suggests that moving outside of the top 50 is a game changer for competitive law schools, which find that large swaths of students will not consider an institution outside of that range. Indeed, George Mason University, which is ranked No. 45, cited concerns about slipping out of the top 50 when it recently accepted $30 million in gifts on the condition that the school be named for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a deal that enraged some students and professors because of his record on gay rights and other social issues.
Ms. Rosenbury frames Florida’s challenge in existential terms: "We have to change or die."
But how long will Florida keep this up, and where will Ms. Rosenbury be when the final bill comes due? The program has relied on both money from the central administration and donors, and Ms. Rosenbury says she intends to raise $50 million. ...
Even if Ms. Rosenbury weren’t a change agent, she would represent a big shift at Florida. The last permanent dean, Robert H. Jerry II, was there for 11 years. But professors and staff members wonder why the new dean seems to have found so few things to like in the place. "It’s as if somebody walked into your house — your house — and instead of saying, Have you thought about putting the sofa over here?, they moved everything, they changed every color, every surface, down to the most minute thing in your house," one professor says. ...
Over the course of a telephone interview that lasted nearly an hour and a half, Ms. Rosenbury described herself on more than one occasion as "perplexed" by what she had heard. But she expressed no apparent surprise when asked about a litany of personal complaints, which included criticisms of her use of profanity and allegations that she has yelled at staff members. ...
At a moment when law schools are under tremendous financial strain, and consumed by anxiety over rankings, Ms. Rosenbury’s tenure provides a troubling portrait of what a hard-charging quest for institutional prestige and personal career advancement might look like. But does the path to pre-eminence need to be so rocky?
Even among professors with divergent views of the dean, a shared theme is that of regret. Regret that faculty members, guarding precious turf, couldn’t give a little more. Regret that the dean, centralizing decisions, couldn’t take a little less. Regret that a national rankings race has put colleges in bidding wars over a few lousy LSAT points. Regret that it took a century to put a woman in the job, and that she may not make it.
Update: Jeff Harrison (Florida), The Chronicle Comes to Florida:
[T]here is even more bad news, according to one colleague, with a very short memory, this is the "most distressing" he has ever seen. Wow, I guess he fell asleep during the last administration during which everyone was respected, got their grade raised, and the ship was sinking with all hands aboard (and which led to the highest bar failure rate anyone can remember).
How about this one. Allegedly, someone said it was like the Dean came into "your house" and moved everything around. First, since when did a law school belong to the faculty? Second, what if the house is falling apart?
When I think of the Dean at Florida and her actions so far I think of the saying, "It's not a revolution if you ask permission." I wonder why the sample of people who talked to the reporter (many of whom remained anonymous just as they do when spreading gossip office to office as opposed to the Chronicle) think they were entitled to give or withhold permission.
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage: