Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lex Anteinternet: Dean Easton Resigns

When the letter noted here; Lex Anteinternet: Dean Easton Resigns: came in yesterday, most of the lawyers I know were pretty surprised. We all had the "what's up" reaction.  A story in today's Casper Star Tribune makes that a little more clear.  The new UW President has created a task force, without the Dean's input, to look into the whether the school is responsive to Wyoming's needs.  According to the paper:
He cited a new law school task force being assembled by UW President Bob Sternberg and the university's Board of Trustees as a reason why he resigned.
The decision to assemble the task force, intended to evaluate the university's College of Law, was made without asking the college's opinion on whether the task force was necessary or who should lead it, he said.
"Recent events cause me concern in this regard," Easton wrote in an Thursday email to colleagues in which he announced his resignation. "I cannot continue to serve as your dean while critical decisions are made about the College of Law without the input of the administration and faculty of the College."
Sternberg said Thursday the task force will evaluate how UW serves the state in areas including energy, natural resources, water and environmental law. It will be strictly advisory, he said, and he is accepting nominations for private- and public-sector stakeholders to fill it.
The task force will include people from Wyoming and regional legal communities, the UW Faculty Senate, representatives from the College of Law and other stakeholders, Sternberg said in a news release. Its chairman will be Cheyenne attorney Larry Wolfe, Sternberg said.
The College of Law was not involved in the decision to call a task force, or in the negotiations regarding who would be task force chairman, Sternberg said.
Easton told the Star-Tribune that "difficulties in communication with President Sternberg and the absences of communication from President Sternberg to the College of Law" prompted his resignation. He cited the task force as a specific concern.
Well, I'm probably in the minority, but while I understand Easton being miffed (and similar reactions have broken out in other departments, only two of the Deans remain from the seven or so that were in place when Sternberg took his position, due to similar concerns in their departments), I think an review of this type is overdue and, frankly, perhaps necessary.

Moreover, I don't really blame Sternberg for not including the Dean.

Here's why.

While I've met the Dean and like him, and even served on a committee he was associated with but I think a review will serve the law school well.  Frankly, this event was somewhat predicted right here on this blog months ago when I blogged about the Uniform Bar Exam.  The two events aren't directly related, but this has a certain "chickens coming home to roost" feel to it, probably just coincidentally.

But a review is needed, in my view, and I frankly don't know that the College of Law can be too involved itself.  The reasons are these.

The University of Wyoming is a land grant college, which President Sternberg has rightly been emphasizing since he came on board.  It's almost as if he's the first person at UW to remember that in quite some time. And, as a land grant college, it's mission is to serve the state, which he's also rightly been emphasizing.  This has made him, seemingly, a bit unpopular in some quarters, but it should be welcomed by the residents of the state.

The law school, part of that land grant institution, has in recent years steadily moved away from teaching Wyoming's law.  According to the more recent graduates that I've spoken to, right now it almost doesn't teach any at all, and indeed one recent graduate I know told me that students were actually told that the school didn't and wouldn't teach it.  Pretty shocking, really, for a school th at is supported by a state with such a small population.

It's all the more shocking if you consider that at one time one of the primary reasons to go to the University of Wyoming's College of Law was to position yourself to practice in Wyoming.  But now, with the Uniform Bar Exam, and a College of Law that doesn't teach Wyoming's law, that's not really true any more.  Indeed, as I warned earlier, there's almost no reason for the state to have a College of Law now.  Costs provide the only real reason. That is, it's cheaper for a person to attend the College of Law here, rather than elsewhere.

A state doesn't need to have a College of Law at all.  Alaska, whose legal problems are similar to Wyoming's, does not.  Having a College of Law is a great thing for the state, if the school does something that's focused on the state. That is, if the Wyoming school is grooming Wyoming students to be Wyoming lawyers and judges, that's fantastic.  If its just one more law school, however, in an era when there's an overabundance of new graduates, that's simply redundant and the state is entitled to examine the school and see what purpose it actually serves for the state.

The College of Law isn't going to do that, however.  I'm sure the College thinks its doing just fine. And the College supported the UBE, as we earlier noted, which does help its students a bit while hurting lawyers in the state in general and leading to an erosion of early knowledge on the topic of the law.

Given all of that, it's time for the State to take a look at the College of Law.  My hope is that the College will be reminded that it's a Wyoming school, in existence since 1920, with the goal of serving the State's population.


The Casper Star Tribune reports today that forty law school students have signed a letter in support of Dean Easton.  Essentially, they defended him and the statements in his letter (if I understand it correctly, the paper didn't print their letter) and agree with his complaints against the new UW President.

Well, good for them.  But I don't agree with them. Frankly, students are fairly poorly situated  to assess the quality or even the applicability of the education they receive. That knowledge comes after they graduate, when they find out if they learned what they needed to learn, or not.  Some of that knowledge will come very quickly, and some will be years in the making.  But it will come. They don't have it right now.

But that doesn't mean that they don't have good points and they should raise them.  Of the issues cited by the Tribune as a concern of theirs one certainly has merit in my mind, that being that this process should have been started after the ABA issues its current review of the school. Retaining ABA accreditation is absolutely critical for the school, and it won't be around long without it.

Of interest, apparently the letter cited the value to the State of the school, which is the same concern the President is citing. Dean Easton has created, as his letter below cites,  a number of programs which should be of great interest to the state's businesses, and he is to be applauded for that.  The President, on the other hand, has now stated that he's hearing concerns from the State's industry's that students are not well prepared.  The fact that there's no strong required focus on Wyoming's law would raise that concern with me as well.

Perhaps in some ways what this is really about is what the nature of this State's law school is to be.  For generations, it was a State school with a focus on the State.  The overwhelming majority of the State's lawyers were graduates of the School, as were the overwhelming majority of the Judges.  Many legislators were school graduates.  In recent years the school has tried to broaden itself into being a regional school, but that comes at the same time that there's an oversupply of lawyers in the country.  And the Dean supported the UBE, which pulls a leg out from underneath the UW Law School stool.  At that point, the school becomes just one more choice with its arguments being only the quality of the education, which is unlikely to be that much better than other regional schools, if as good (it's certainly on par) and the costs. Costs are advantageous, it cannot be doubted.

Perhaps the President should have involved the College in the process more, but I tend to think not.  The State's lawyers were not really in support of the UBE, in so far as the concerns I heard can tell, but the Dean backed that without consulting us.  Now if the Law School is getting reviewed, for advisory purposes, without its consent, in some ways perhaps that's a lesson in what effects such actions can have.  I simply wonder if its too late.  The school may be a strong regional school, but in order to do so it's really going to have to make that its main focus.  The fact that persons who wanted to take the Wyoming Bar Exam got an advantage by going there is now dead.

Postscript II

Jacquelyn Bridgeman has been named the Interim Dean of the law school, indicating that this process is moving along and Easton will not be returning to his position.  That may seem to be an odd comment, but I've heard speculation on that point.

I don't know the Interim Dean, but then I hardly know who any of the current professors are either.  Her UW bio indicates she has a BA from Standford (1996), with Honors, and a JD from the University of Chicago (1999). According to the Casper Star Tribune she is a Laramie native.

The law school actually had an Interim Dean when I entered the school as well, although I believe he'd been the full Dean at some prior point in time.  They were searching for a Dean at that time, and ultimately hired Dead Gaudio from the University of New Mexico for that position.  Interesting, a cousin of mine had him as a professor while attending the University of New Mexico's law school.

Postscript III

I haven't seen a lot of commentary in the Tribune on the part of letter writers on this story, although there have been a few.  Showing that my view is not universal by any means, the two letters have been supportive of the Dean and not the President.  I don't think I'm unsupportive of the Dean but I'm also supportive of the President, rather obviously.  Anyhow, a letter today was co-authored by a retired Judge who is supportive, in the letter, of Dean Easton.

One of the points advanced in that letter is that the writers interpret the President's efforts as one to create a focus on certain Wyoming industries, mineral development being one. That might be right.  They raise the point there that they feel that the number of UW graduates who obtain law practices in these industries is slight, and those who do only do with big firms.  That may or may not be correct, but risks becoming correct due to the UBE.  It's not a bad point, however.  It'd be a better point, in my view, if the law school was otherwise working hard to give the students an education in Wyoming topics, which no longer appears to be the case.

Even at that, however, I can't help but recall that I can think off hand of at least five lawyers who had prior experience in the oil and gas industry.  I've known lawyers who had been petroleum engineers, geophysicists, or geologist. All of those lawyers, saved one, have in fact worked in practices than involved oil and gas topics, with some of them having very extensive practices in that area.  And, as is almost  a practicing lawyer's standard joke, it's common for law students to focus on one anticipated practice area and end up in something else anyhow, with no ill effect on their later careers.

Postscript IV

On a related noted, somebody whose department has received an unfavorable review at UW who isn't taking the Easton approach is the head of the athletics department.  He's neither resigned, nor accepted the negative review. Rather, he's fighting back in the press, defending his actions and those of his department.

It's interesting how this works.  Here the new President hired an outside consultant to conduct the review, who did it in record time, and who reported back that the department has a culture that accepts defeat, basically. A "good enough" type of culture.  Not so says the department head, citing examples.

Which approach, I wonder, is better. To resign when you disagree, or to fight back citing examples?

Postscript V

Well, based upon the Casper Star Tribune's headline article of today, Dean Easton is no longer taking his own appraoch.

Apparently yesterday the President decided to hold an open forum with students. Former Dean Easton was in attendance and it turned into a real scrap. In an article headlined "Chaos in the College" the Tribune reports that the following exchange was had:
University of Wyoming President Bob Sternberg explained recent resignations of university administrators to about 100 law students, faculty and alumni. Sternberg took the helm of UW on July 1. Since then, the provost, three associate provosts and four deans have resigned. Sternberg explained to students that some were asked to resign.
But then one of those administrators stood up and protested.
“I’m prepared to lay out my case as to why you have not treated this law school ethically," said Stephen Easton to Sternberg.
Sternberg's treatment "unethical"?  Pretty strong words.  But they apparently grew stronger.  Sternberg accused Easton of hijacking the meeting, and the interim vice president of academic affairs had to intervene.  Apparently a major point of contention was how the meeting would be conducted.  Sternberg wanted a town hall type meeting, but Easton claimed he wanted a trial type setting, with the students in the audience to act as the jury.  The issue apparently boils down, according to the Tribune, to this:
Shortly after moving to Wyoming, Sternberg began traveling around the state and meeting with people. He began to hear critiques of the law school.
“I know you want me to be straight and I’ll be straight,” he said, explaining that people told him that UW’s law school used to be top in the country in energy, natural resources, water and environmental law.
“Some people said we are not at the top,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s true.”
The task force will look at that, he said.
The students in the audience apparently supported Easton, with those quoted indicating that they didn't want the school to become energy law centric, as that would ignore the needs of those who intended to enter general practice.

Well, what of all of this?

First of all, this development is not a surprise here at all, and folks who read this blog (darned few though they are) shouldn't be surprised.  I predicted this development months ago.  The opinions of students aside (which will be addressed below) the reduction in the focus on Wyoming law at the law school, combined with the adoption of the UBE, made questioning the relevance of the law school inevitable.

At one time, those who attended the law school were largely destined for Wyoming practice and they knew what topics were going to be on the Wyoming section of the bar exam.  For that reason, students took classes like Oil and Gas, as the law of the state was covered in those classes, and you were prepared for the exam. But when Wyoming's law becomes less emphasized, and the UBE doesn't even test on it, there really isn't much of a reason for Wyoming to even have a law school, save for cost and convenience.  I noted this earlier, and wondered when State industry and more importantly the Legislature would begin to wonder about this. That day arrived a lot quicker than I supposed it would.  Sternberg is doing the right thing by commissioning a study on this, before the law school is completely irrelevant.

Well, why not include Easton?  I don't know that I would.  The law school has developed in this direction under his leadership.  If that's going in the wrong direction, can we expect him to realize that?  I doubt it.

This isn't to say that the conclusion is foreordained.  Nor is it to say he's done a bad job. This might all amount to nothing at all. But to look at it objectively, it's going to have to be an outside review.

And, frankly, if the Tribune's account of this is correct I have to say that I've lost a lot of respect for Easton for suggesting a trial setting.  A trial setting is a setting in which something is tried to an outside jury, irrespective of the "jury of peers" language we use for that, and under a controlled set of rules (the Rules of Evidence combined with the Rules of Civil Procedure or the Rules of Criminal Procedure).  We trial lawyers use a process called voir dire to specifically choose an unbaised jury.  Easton knows that.  A jury of law school students isn't that jury.  Easton knows that too.  I suppose he conceived of this as a trial in front of the immediate stakeholders whose education will be impacted, but his actions in arguing for a trial, which Sternberg agreed to conduct later, are in my view rather childish. For that matter, as the law school professors aren't in the practicing lawyer class, and as at least Easton supported the UBE which hurts Wyoming lawyers, and which wasn't popular with all of them to be sure, I'd somewhat question if the school is necessarily completely tuned into the views of what practicing lawyers may presently think, although I'm not that attuned to what goes on at the law school, so I may be off base.

Some of the comments of law students, I'd note, were well placed. But I'd also note that law students aren't the best judges of the practices they will ultimately have.  Some lawyers enter into the exact practice they imagine immediately after law school, but many do not. And, moreover, in Wyoming every lawyer needs to know something of the topics that are important to the state.  One student noted that some wish only to do divorce litigation, rather than oil and gas.  But what about that divorce client with oil and gas interest?  Once you take that on, you are doing oil and gas.  And some wish to only be prosecutors. But what if the prosecution arises in an oil and gas context?  Better to know that law.  Or what if you just find you like mineral law more than something else?

Students may need to learn these things, and the State bar should test on them.  The State bar isn't, and that's letting future lawyers and the citizens of the State down.  It's worth at least looking at the law school and seeing if its meeting the needs also.  It may be, but resisting looking won't help get us where we should be going, or let us know if we are there.

Postscript VI.

This story has managed to hit the front page of the Casper Star Tribune for two days in a row now, as Dean Easton is shown with Sternberg in the background at the recent forum that was held. The story itself is about all the turnover at UW, which is apparently not that unusual in context (new President) although it may be unusually rapid.

Somewhat to my surprise, the Tribune's editorial today supports President Sternberg, noting that he has a right to make changes consistent with his vision.

Postscript VII

The Casper Star Tribune has a new editor, and so far I have to say that it's been an improvement in the paper.  The editorials have improved, and the wishy washy personal column from the editor the last editor ran are now gone.  This has showed itself in two recent editorials regarding President Sternberg, one of which ran in the paper today.

This one, headlined; "Sternberg's view: doing what he was hired to do" nicely sets out the paper's view and Sternbergs. This frankly isn't what I would have expected out of the Tribune, as I would have expected it to be wishy washy but leaning towards Easton.  Not at all here.  In fact the paper commented:
Sternberg felt ambushed when he arrived at a meeting with students and the freshly resigned dean of the College of Law. He said he has been meeting with different colleges and groups of the university, and the law school appearance was arranged as a town hall meeting well before Stephen Easton resigned after announcement of a task force to review the college.
“I didn’t agree to a quasi-judicial meeting,” Sternberg said. And when the dean insisted on what he called a “trial-like format” to decide if the new president had treated the law school ethically, Sternberg considered it inappropriate.
So do we.
We think it was Easton who lost credibility. The dean led an attack that wasn’t seeking answers. It amounted to exactly what he accused Sternberg of doing to the law school — talking instead of listening.
I also agree that Easton has lost a credibility, and stated that in one of my earlier entries above.  Indeed, I think the fact that he even attempted to take on this topic in this fashion, with a law school audience, shows how insular things might have become at the law school. This debate is being played out state wide, even nation wide, so pitching an appeal to a student audience was rather naive on Easton's part. It's particularly naive as the continued existence of the law school doesn't depend on the tuition payments of the current students, but the good graces of future legislatures and, quite frankly, the tolerance the parents of future potential students may have for what's going on and agreement with where the school is headed academically.

The paper went on to note:.
We heartily support the belief that accountability is important and we want to see an improved university.
The next time Sternberg comes to a student meeting, it’s our hope that they hear what he is saying and that he is able to bring them into his vision. Looking for areas that can be better is a positive move and Sternberg says it is why he was hired.
He was blunt about what the Board of Trustees expects from him, insisting “I am doing exactly what they hired me to do.”
This followed comments by the paper to the effect that part of the upheaval is because the school had grown use to the prior long term leadership and was now having a reaction to change.  I think that's likely the case too.   It's ironic that some of the reaction has been expressed as outright opposition to Sterberg's comments that he wants UW to be the nation's "best" land grant university.  There's been one editorial by a UW faculty member and a letter to the editor attacking that recently, which I think is telling.  Normally, that kind of language would have been expected from UW. That faculty members are reacting to it is pretty amazing.  It suggests the motto of UW should be "Okay is good enough."  That's pretty sad.  Even if they don't become the "best" land grant college, whatever that is, they ought to be striving for it.

1 comment:

dubyad311 said...

Some of your points are spot on. I am a Wyoming College of Law graduate and hold a special place in my heart for the school but I can see where there are places to improve -- and improve drastically. The thing that bothers me about Sternberg's approach, however, is that the situation looks like it merely being blown out of proportion but he, for some reason, cannot state this. If he really wants a review with some suggestions, as normal new presidents should want, then just say so. Stop fielding questions about it and state that he just wants a snapshot. He can't. To that end I have to think that there is something more to the story. In the end, though, I approve of a review (ABA review aside).