Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Outrage Grows Over Firing Of Tony Verona After Less Than Two Years As Miami Dean. Did Minor Declines In U.S. News Ranking And Bar Passage Rate Play A Role?

Following up on yesterday's post, University Of Miami President Fires Tony Varona After Less Than Two Years As Dean; Tenured Faculty Protests Decision; Varona's Lawyer Says He Will Contest The Firing:  Miami Herald, UM Fires Its Law School Dean, Setting Off Outrage Among Faculty, Alums and Students:

VaronaIn an abrupt move, University of Miami President Julio Frenk fired School of Law Dean Anthony Varona on Tuesday, sparking outrage among professors, students and alumni, and prompting Varona to hire a lawyer, who denounced the termination as “an egregious violation” of the dean’s legal rights. ...

Varona, 53, stands to lose his deanship July 1, but Frenk offered to let him stay on as a tenured faculty member and to keep his title as the M. Minnette Massey Professor of Law.

In his message, Frenk didn’t provide clear reasons for pushing out Varona, except for alluding to a lack of fundraising. ...

A recent decline in the law school’s U.S. News & World Report rankings, as well as challenges improving UM’s passing rate for the Florida Bar exam, also could have contributed to Varona’s sacking.

At least one tenured faculty member found those reasons unacceptable, as did one prominent Miami lawyer who graduated from the law school.

“That’s ordinary turbulence, you don’t expect that to produce this cataclysmic response,” said veteran UM law professor Stephen Halpert. “Tony was the most internally popular dean in the nearly 40 years that I have been here.” ...

Another factor could have been UM’s recent decline in national law school rankings. U.S. News & World Report ranked UM’s law school as No. 72 in the country in its 2021 rankings, compared to No. 67 in 2020.

Halpert said the fall occurred at least partly because the magazine added a new factor to its formula, measuring the average amount of debt students incur upon graduating, which negatively impacted UM, where full-time tuition costs $55,936 a year. “There’s nothing Tony could have done about that,” Halpert said. “The truth is we’re an expensive private school.”

Regarding the twice-per-year administered Florida Bar exam, UM’s student performance has fluctuated in the past five occasions the state has offered it. ...

Joe Klock, a prominent Miami lawyer and UM law school alumnus, on Wednesday sent an emailed letter to Frenk condemning the move, which he shared with the Herald.

“While Dean Varona and I agree on very little, that does not extend to his performance at the UM law school,” Klock wrote. “He is an excellent dean, beloved by students, and highly respected by his colleagues on the faculty. Your letter, festooned with praise as it is, comes off as hiding some horrible moral failing, when that is not the case at all.

“We have a law faculty. Neither you nor the provost, as I understand it, consulted the faculty. So, I am led to believe that our concern for rankings and the silly Bar passage rate has driven us to discharge, in a highly non-academic fashion, one of the best deans we have ever had.”

Klock, in an interview with the Herald, blamed UM for failing to renovate the law buildings to attract alumni donors, calling Frenk’s decision “ridiculous.”

“I’m very offended that he could make our university look that stupid,” he said. “You can’t fire somebody for failing to bring in a five-star clientele if you have a two-star hotel.”

Inside Higher Ed, University of Miami Ousts Law Dean:

Varona did not agree to an interview. In a statement, he said he remains “stunned by my baseless termination, disturbed by how I have been mistreated, and concerned by how all of this will affect our great law school and university. I am hopeful that clarity and fairness will prevail as we move forward, and that the university’s decision will be rescinded.” ...

Deans, who straddle the faculty and administrative realms, have been under increasing pressure to be key fundraisers since the Great Recession. COVID-19 has only added to this burden in many places. Law school admissions and therefore their finances suffered following the 2008 financial crisis and had just started to rebound prior to the pandemic.

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