Wolff named new dean of SLU law school | St. Louis Public Radio

Wolff named new dean of SLU law school

Mar 5, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Michael Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and now a professor at the Saint Louis University law school, will be the school's new dean, succeeding Tom Keefe, the school announced today.

The word came in a letter to university students and faculty from Ellen Harshman, acting vice president for academic affairs. It was issued a day after Keefe's resignation as interim dean became public following reports he had been criticized for comments that had angered some at the school.

Harshman's letter said:

"I am pleased to announce that Michael Wolff, currently a professor at SLU’s law school, has been named the new dean for the school. Wolff was selected after an extensive search that involved law faculty, students, staff and alumni. Wolff is a highly respected lawyer and educator, and among his many accomplishments, served on the Supreme Court of Missouri from 1998-2011. Wolff has a long and distinguished career, including being named Lawyer of the Year by Missouri Lawyers’ Weekly in 2007.

"On Monday, March 4, Thomas Q. Keefe announced his intention to step down as the interim dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law, a post he has held since August 2012. The university thanks Keefe for his service to his alma mater, for his commitment to the law school and its students, and for his fundraising efforts for the renovation of the Scott Law Center in downtown St. Louis.

"The transition in leadership at the School of Law will now begin, with everyone committed to the smoothest transition possible inthe weeks ahead. I ask you to congratulate Mike on his new position and to assist him as he assumes the dean position."

Later Tuesday afternoon, the school released this statement from President Lawrence Biondi:

“As a longtime member of the Saint Louis University community, Dean Wolff is dedicated to the mission of our School of Law and to ensuring that its mission remains at the heart of the outstanding legal education we provide to our students. With his distinguished career and his outstanding reputation in the legal community and beyond, he will be an excellent ambassador for the law school as it moves forward into a new era of excellence.”

And it quoted Wolff as saying:

“The landscape of legal education is changing, and SLU LAW is at the forefront.  We have such a vibrant student body, talented faculty, dedicated staff and supportive alumni communit. I look forward to moving the school downtown and integrating the educational experience of the students with the legal community, which will serve a vital role in our education and justice mission.”

Wolff was appointed to the state Supreme Court August 1998 and served as chief justice for the term of July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2007. In addition to his judicial duties, he served as chair of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission.

He returned to SLU in the fall of 2011 and has served as the inaugural director for the newly established Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Law and Advocacy.

For 23 years prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, Wolff served as an assistant, associate and full professor at the law school and has held faculty appointments at SLU's medical campus. He has also been a visiting professor at Sichuan University, People's Republic of China.

Our earlier story:

Tom Keefe, the interim dean of the Saint Louis University law school, resigned Monday in the wake of complaints about inappropriate remarks he made, reportedly about students and faculty members.

Keefe, who became dean last August after the sudden resignation of his predecessor, said he was leaving after weekend meetings among top officials at the university, sources said.

He told KSDK Monday that he often says things that he realizes may offend someone, but they are not meant in a mean way.

"I know that I say politically incorrect things, all the time," Keefe told the station. "I don't say them to hurt anybody. I say them because my mouth is too big.

He added:

"For that I'm sorry, and for that I'm resigning."

Later Monday evening, law students received an email from Michael Wolff, a former judge on the Missouri Supreme Court that referenced a story on STLtoday about Keefe's decision to leave his position; in it, Wolff said:

"Very classy.  Shows an excellent lawyer making the truth his truth.


Keefe responded:

"that is very kind Mike       it just made more sense to get this behind us   the story needs to be about the law school, the new demands of legal education and most importantly the justice gap----as long as the story was about me it detracts from that message---i made some real mistakes, but hopefully my stumbles will be yesterday's news tomorrow (or at least by the week-end)---i know you will do a great job---you have all the tools---and you have such a wonderful group of students to inspire you----I will try to continue to raise money for the building---and help in any other way I can---(probably by keeping my mouth shut?)---for what it is worth--I did the best I could---       Tom"

As of Tuesday morning, the university still had sent out no official confirmation of Keefe's departure or Wolff's appointment as the new interim dean.  Wolff and attorney Anthony "A.J." Chivetta are the two finalists for the permanent dean's position, and no interim is expected to be named before a decision on that post is made.

In an email Tuesday morning, Wolff told the Beacon there is no urgency for a new dean to be in place.

"As for the interim," Wolff wrote, "there are associate deans in place, and faculty are continuing to teach and students are continuing to learn.  All is well."

He said SLU is expected to name the new dean within the next few weeks.

Keefe, a high-profile Metro East defense attorney who maintained his private practice while serving as interim dean, also is a member of the SLU board of trustees and has been recognized as a significant donor and fund-raiser for the university.

One faculty member who did not want to be identified echoed what others related as well, that Keefe had spoken to students and faculty using patronizing and profane language. The comments were described as “horrific and outrageous”;  in one instance, he reportedly asked a law student whether she was wearing panties.

The end of Keefe’s tenure as interim dean of the law school came in a similar manner to how it began – with controversy.

He was tapped by Father Lawrence Biondi, president of the university, to take over just before the school year began, when former dean Annette Clark left in a very public dispute with the administration.

Just one year after her job as dean began, she wrote to Biondi and to faculty and staff at the law school that she had been betrayed and misled by the administration, which she said had failed to live up to the ideals of “common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity.”

Specifically, she complained that the university bought a building downtown to be the new home of the law school without consulting its leaders; that law school funds were transferred for other uses; and that Biondi failed “to make good on your assurances to me when I accepted the deanship that you would fully support the law school and our efforts to enhance its program of legal education, national reputation and rankings.”

In her letter to Biondi and Manoj Patankar – the now-resigned vice president for academic affairs who had been the target of faculty displeasure and distrust – Clark wrote that they have “evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect, issuing orders and edicts that allowed me virtually no opportunity to exercise the very discretion, judgment and experience for which you and the faculty enthusiastically hired me. You have not consulted me on important matters involving the law school’s interests, you have failed to honor commitments that I had assured the faculty you would keep, and you have accused me of being uncooperative and not being a team player when I have objected to these actions.”

For his part, Biondi responded that he had planned to fire Clark from her job, but she failed to show up for a meeting with him and Patankar and emailed her letter of resignation instead.

In announcing Keefe as her successor, Biondi noted that he would serve in that position for the coming school year only, while a search would be conducted for a new dean, and that three generations of Keefe’s family had attended the law school. The search committee has reportedly completed its work and submitted its conclusions to Biondi.

Almost immediately, Keefe’s appointment 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. Keefe said his comments showed his independence from Biondi.

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

Keefe added:

“[Biondi] can’t afford me. … I get to make way too much money lawyering to be his trained monkey. He doesn’t have enough money to do that, and he doesn’t want to.”

And, he said: “I don’t like coats, ties and authority. I don’t do well taking orders.”

In a Q&A on the SLU website posted after his appointment as interim dean, Keefe was quoted as saying:

“I understand that I am not a logical choice, but I have skills, including 35 years of successfully advocating for my clients. This law school is now my client, and my goal is to bring every tool I have to fight for this client. No individual is bigger than the institution they serve, whether it is a dean, a vice-president, a provost or even the president. I fully expect that out of this seeming chaos we face today this school will emerge stronger, better and perfectly situated in the heart of the action where lawyers lawyer and judges judge.”

When he was named, the head of the SLU student bar association, Candace Ruocco, told the Madison County record that based on what she has read about Keefe, “there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good addition to the team.”

She echoed that sentiment in an email to the Beacon Monday, saying:

"As SBA president, I work closely and regularly with Dean Keefe and have never found any of his behavior inappropriate or offensive. Quite the contrary. Although he has an admittedly unorthodox administrative style, he's incredibly supportive and professional with students. He's been an asset to SLU LAW during this transition period, and, overall, he's earned the respect and support of the student body."

Recently, Keefe was named as one of three trustees who responded to complaints by a now-departing SLU law and political science professor in what he considered to be an unprofessional way.

Matthew Hall wrote to members of the board of trustees after he had accepted an offer of employment from Notre Dame, at a higher salary – an offer he said SLU showed little if any interest in matching or even trying to match.

Hall told the Beacon last month that responses from Keefe and fellow trustees Patrick Sly and Bob Clark called him “a liar, greedy, hypocritical, unprofessional, and immature. I sent responses back to the trustees hoping to engage in a dialogue, but they ignored these follow up emails.”

Keefe and the other who responded to Hall declined to give permission to have their emails quoted in a Beacon story.

The Q&A posted on the SLU website after Keefe’s appointment as dean ended this way:

“What is the most important thing the SLU community should know about you?

“The Lord's Prayer says, ‘Thy Will be done.’ I believe His Will is to tell the truth and make the day a little bit better for the next guy. I try to do that every day, and on the days I don't succeed I try harder the next day. I don't know how this is going to turn out, but I promise I will do the very best job I can.”