Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

St. Mary's Law Dean Not Renewed

Story here; an excerpt:

After an eight-year tenure marked by aggressive and sometimes unpopular change, St. Mary's University law school dean Bill Piatt will return to teaching, as the university declined to renew his contract Monday.

Charles Cotrell, the university's president, said Piatt's departure as dean is in the law school's best interests, but he did not say specifically why....

Piatt said he didn't understand Cotrell's decision.

"There is no justifiable reason for this, in my view," Piatt said.

Cotrell praised Piatt's leadership, defined by the struggle to raise passage rates on the state bar exam and polish the school's diminished reputation in the law community. Cotrell noted a $1.6 million renovation of the school's courtroom, a new evening law degree program and stronger ties with alumni.

But some faculty and alumni said they were not impressed with Piatt's record and were glad to see him go.

"We have gone through many years of a demoralizing atmosphere," said law professor Amy Kastely. "The issue of loyalty to Piatt has been the most significant factor in his decisions regarding staff and faculty."

Kastely said 12 faculty and 32 staff members, many of them minorities, have left since 1998, when Piatt came to St. Mary's from Texas Tech University.

At the time, Cotrell billed Piatt as a bridge builder who would heal resentment caused by the ouster of his outspoken predecessor, Barbara Aldave. Bar passage rates fell under Aldave, but social justice programs and minority enrollment flourished, causing a rift among faculty over which issue should get the spotlight.

Unfortunately, Kastely said, Piatt stirred up more trouble by pushing out faculty who disagreed with him.

Piatt denied that, saying professors left for other opportunities.

He said any ill will was likely caused by his efforts to improve teaching and dismal bar passage rates....

"I have never been shy about asking people to do more for the students," Piatt said.

Nick Sisoian, president of the student bar association, agreed.

"He always had the best interests of the students in mind," he said. "We see him on a daily basis, and he seems to knows just about everybody's name and what class they are in."

Claude Ducloux, a 1977 graduate of the law school, also defended Piatt's efforts.

"I think Piatt has worked tirelessly to raise bar passage rates, often at odds with faculty members," he said.

Progress has been uneven, but after 2003, passage rates climbed from the 50 percent and 60 percent range to the 70 percent and 80 percent range. Many feel the school is on an upswing.

"I think Piatt will leave with the law school much stronger and more competitive than when he began," said Vincent Johnson, a law professor.

Nena Gutierrez Byrd, president of St. Mary's Hispanic Law Alumni Association, said she wishes Piatt well, but worried about sliding minority enrollment during his tenure.

"We need to make sure the law school upholds its reputation as a first-class institution for Latinos, because it has sold itself as such," Byrd said.

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