SMU ousts law school dean
By NATALIE POSGATE
Southern Methodist University leaders have taken steps to remove John Attanasio as dean of the Dedman School of Law.
SMU provost Paul Ludden informed Attanasio in mid-December that his contract with the university, which expires in May, would not be renewed, and that the university was taking immediate steps to find a successor, according to alumni and internal SMU documents.
In a Dec. 12 internal memo, Ludden told Attanasio that “it is now time for another individual to take on the leadership of the law school at SMU and to provide leadership for the challenge necessary in the current climate of legal education.”
Attanasio declined to comment. In response to inquiries sent to Ludden and SMU President R. Gerald Turner, SMU spokesman Kent Best said that “SMU does not comment on personnel matters.”
Ludden announced his decision to Dedman faculty and staff in a Jan. 3 memo. A public announcement of the decision is expected next week.
Early word of the decision produced a significant backlash from alumni, faculty, financial supporters and the law school’s executive committee, whose members say they were not informed of the decision in advance.
“I think everyone is stunned and upset,” says Darrell Jordan, a partner at the Dykema law firm in Dallas and a major SMU supporter. “No one — not the provost nor the president — has given us a reasonable explanation about why this has happened.”
Fifty-six prominent alumni, including two former Texas Supreme Court judges, a federal judge, a former federal bankruptcy judge, the current U.S. attorney and the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have signed a letter to Turner supporting Attanasio and asking him to reconsider.
Leslie Ware, a member of the Dedman Law School executive board, resigned over not being informed of the decision, which he says is wrong. Ware is a Dallas intellectual property lawyer who donated $1 million to the law school in December.
“I am saddened to see my alma mater treat Dean Attanasio this way and will not have my name associated with it,” Ware wrote in a resignation letter to Turner on Jan. 3.
In addition, law school faculty members signed a letter to SMU leadership supporting Attanasio.
“I think everyone has been surprised and disappointed,” says Alan Feld, a named partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and the chairman of the law school’s executive board. “There is a great deal of support for the dean among our alumni.”
U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, who sits on the executive board and has taught and lectured at the law school, says she was stunned by the news.
“I have a very high opinion of dean Attanasio and I am very disappointed that he will not continue to be the dean of our law school,” says Lynn.
A 1979 graduate of the New York University School of Law, Attanasio also holds an advanced master’s degree in law from Yale University.
He became SMU’s law dean in 1998 and is the Judge William Hawley Atwell Chair of Constitutional Law.
He has developed a global reputation for working with emerging democracies on developing their own constitutions.
According to SMU faculty members, alumni and memos obtained by The Texas Lawbook, Ludden asked Attanasio at a Dec. 12 lunch to agree publicly not seek a contract extension, to support a change in leadership and to craft the public announcement. The same day, Ludden put his decision in writing.
Attanasio, in a memo dated Jan. 2, rejected Ludden’s offer.
“I expressed shock and asked you for reasons for your decision three times,” Attanasio states in the memo. “I would have thought that especially in these changing times in legal education … the law school would need an experienced, proven dean.”
During the Christmas holiday, news about the decision circulated quickly among alumni. On Dec. 28, 56 law school supporters signed a two-page letter to Turner stating the decision “would be very detrimental” to the law school and the university.
The letter highlights the successes of the law school during Attanasio’s tenure, including significantly higher LSAT scores and GPAs of applicants, significantly increased fundraising, reopening of the night law school program and raising the profile of the law school globally.
In a letter dated Jan. 2, Turner agreed to meet with the members of the law school’s executive board, but he said the decision by the provost was final.
Mike Boone, a named partner at Haynes and Boone and a member of the SMU Board of Trustees, says he’s in “100 percent support of the decision of the university.”
“The provost, in my conversations with him, went through a vigorous review, and I’m confident that he followed a reasonable process,” says Boone, an early supporter of Attanasio. “I’m focused on the future, creating the search team and selecting the new dean.” Boone describes the provost’s actions as “very courageous.”
AT&T general counsel Wayne Watts, who is a close friend of Attanasio and a major supporter of the SMU Dedman Law School, says he was surprised by the news.
“No one called me and asked for my advice,” says Watts. “But the university has made its decision. We are going to find a new dean who can move the school forward.”
Mark Curriden is writer in residence at the SMU Dedman School of Law.