SLU's Keefe says he left to avoid being lightning rod | St. Louis Public Radio

SLU's Keefe says he left to avoid being lightning rod

Mar 6, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Rather than remain at Saint Louis University law school and accept an offer to share his post as dean with Michael Wolff, Tom Keefe says he decided to resign so that the dust-up over his remarks to students and faculty would fade away.

But Keefe insisted in an wide-ranging interview with the Beacon that though his comments may have been ill-considered and politically incorrect, they did not cross the line into sexual harassment.

"I find sexual harassment repulsive," he said. "I cannot under any circumstances change the way I am at this stage of the game. I’m fully formed. I certainly made some comments which are not appropriate or at least not deemed appropriate to be made by a dean.

"But I was very hurt by suggestions that I had done anything that would be creepy. I have been married to the same woman for 35 years. I have four kids. I have two daughters…. I’ll take the hit for everything else. But don’t accuse me of sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate stuff. That’s not true, and that’s not fair."

Keefe’s comments came late Tuesday, after a few days of whirlwind events that began late last week and ended Monday with his resignation as interim dean of the SLU law school, then continued Tuesday with the naming of Wolff as the school’s new dean.

Keefe said he first learned of the process when the Beacon contacted him during the weekend and asked if he was aware of meetings among high-level SLU officials discussing remarks he had reportedly made to faculty members and students at the law school — remarks that sources described as sexual harassment.

The Beacon tried without success through the weekend and during the day Monday to pin down the precise remarks, but the process ended up like a game of telephone. It was difficult to determine if specific examples were being reported by different sources, or if the same information was making the rounds and being modified by each person who repeated it.

At one point, a professor gave the Beacon the names of people who reportedly had made allegations against Keefe, but when those people were contacted, they said they had never made such complaints. Keefe said he had not returned calls to the Beacon on Monday because he thought it was helping to spread bad information.

Even when Keefe told several media outlets Monday afternoon that he was leaving his post as interim dean, SLU officials still would not confirm the information. Not until Tuesday afternoon did a brief statement go out from Ellen Harshman, acting vice president for academic affairs, saying that Wolff was the new dean, replacing Keefe. A more detailed letter from the law school’s public information office followed a couple of hours later.

The sequence of events was an odd echo of the situation last August, when Annette Clark sent a letter to the law school community saying she was resigning as dean after just one year because of what she called a failure of university president Lawrence Biondi to live up to what she termed the ideals of "common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity."

For his part, Biondi said he had planned to fire Clark but she did not show up for a meeting, sending out her resignation letter instead. Biondi said that Keefe, a personal injury lawyer from Metro East and a member of the university’s board of trustees, would serve as interim dean while a search for a permanent dean began – a search that ended Tuesday with the appointment of Wolff, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.

Loose cannon

In his interview Tuesday, Keefe told the Beacon that he was not fired from his post but left voluntarily to end the controversy and let the law school move on.

"The message was that they wanted to have a situation where I would continue to serve as the dean and Mike Wolff would continue as a co-dean," Keefe said. "That was what was offered to me.

"But the problem was that if I get out and try to fight this, if I get and say I’m not putting up with this because it just isn’t true, then what have I done? I keep the story alive, and I make it about me. If the story continues to be about me, who gets screwed? The kids get screwed, and the value of their degree becomes less. I had to go out and admit I had said a lot of stupid things and move on, and it would become a one-day story."

Among the "stupid things" that Keefe acknowledges saying are comments about smoking pot, asking a newly married student about the consummation of the marriage, references to his genitals and saying he can "get drunker than 10 big Indians."

When those comments surfaced, Keefe said, "if I had been with the university, I would have fired me."

The comments were reminiscent of ones he made shortly after he became interim dean. Keefe created controversy when he was quoted in an article in Missouri Lawyers Weekly making attention-getting comments about former Rep. Todd Akin’s statement about abortion.

At that time, Keefe said his comments showed his independence from Biondi, saying:

"Does that sound like somebody who is Father Biondi’s butt boy?"

Now, calling himself a "plain-speaking, ambulance-chasing lawyer" and a "loose cannon," he tried to downplay the whole sequence of events, saying:

"They were trying to avoid throwing me under the bus. But in my world, this ain’t a bus. This is a kiddie car."

He said he doesn’t look at Facebook or Twitter, so he was not aware of the comments swirling around the SLU law dean situation. But he did say he was gratified by emails, text messages and other communication from students supporting him.

"I can’t control what I think," he said. "I did the best I could, and I just was not the right guy for academia. The learning curve was just too steep."

Was he treated fairly by the university?

"When someone asks have you been treated fairly," Keefe replied, "so much of that depends on your point of view. People who believe deans should not say the things that I have admitted saying, they would think I was treated completely fairly. I opened my mouth and as a result of that I brought shame on my family and I lost my job. People who think there is too much emphasis on political correctness will think I really got the shaft."

Law school is too long, costs too much

Keefe is particularly concerned that the controversy over his comments and his exit will obscure a message he has tried to convey since taking over as dean: Law school lasts too long and costs too much, leaving graduates with too much debt and jobs that don’t pay enough to pay the money back.

And, he thinks that faculty members who don’t like that point of view helped do him in.

"I think legal education is broken," Keefe said. "Kids are paying too much money and signing up for loans that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. They have to come out of school and find jobs that pay two-thirds of the amount of their debt, and those jobs aren’t out there.

"If we were to cut law school down to two years in the classroom, then two years of critical experience, they would not only get to learn legal skills, they would also learn something I think is much more important, how to feel like a lawyer. It would save them a whole year of tuition and wasted money, which I think the third year is."

He said that when seven professors at the law school said they were leaving, "I wondered aloud how I could find 10 more." That did not sit well with his new colleagues, he said; nor did the point of view that "we have faculty getting paid an enormous amount of money to teach kids skills in three years that could easily be done in two years. I’m attacking the way they make their living."

In the end, he said, "it was an important message, and I just turned out to be a lousy messenger."

Keefe, who has been a donor to the university, said he hopes to keep his seat on the SLU board of trustees, but that decision will be up to the board.

"I’d love to serve," he said. "But the board could be mortified and may not want me on the board. All I ever tried to do is try to be part of the solution, but obviously I became part of the problem, and when happens it may become time to step down."

As for the future of Biondi, who has been under pressure from faculty and students to step down, Keefe said he would like to see the president stick around.

"I’m a Father Biondi fan," he said. "I don’t know whether that will help him, with me being radioactive, but I think he is a good and decent human being. I think he has agonized over attacks in the past several months, and I believe he going to try very, very hard to address the concerns that have been expressed by the Faculty Senate and other members of the university community.

"I really believe in his leadership. I believe he still is on his game. I’ve seen him work. I’ve seen how well his mind works. I think he has gotten the message and I believe he will respond to the message. Nobody gets to be president forever. But right now, until someone shows me something different, I just don’t know who is better qualified to fulfill his vision."

As for himself, Keefe said the worst part of what he has gone through was how it affected his family, including a daughter who is currently a SLU student.

"I regret the fact that all of this has brought any shame or embarrassment on my family," he said. "They didn’t sign up for any of this."

But the whole controversy has confirmed the way he summed up things in general:

"Life’s a bitch. If it was easy, they would call it a slut."