Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
For a group of people trained to manage and mediate, if not master, other people’s conflict, lawyers turned professors at the University of New Mexico School of Law haven’t had much success mastering their own conflict recently.
So much so that selecting – and keeping – leaders for the school has been a task akin to directing battle, some in the legal community say.
Even UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah said, only half-joking, that he suggested the two men – professors Alfred Mathewson and Sergio Pareja – he appointed last month to share deanship at the school “deserve combat pay.”
The move to create a co-deanship, only the third law school in the nation to ever do so, set off a frenzy in the tight-knit New Mexican legal community.
“There is great concern about what is going on at the law school,” said David Martinez, 30-year member of the alumni board and practicing lawyer in Albuquerque.
Emotions are running so high that longtime faculty and student favorite professor Barbara Bergman, who had been a contender for the deanship, resigned within a week after Abdallah’s selection. Her supporters are angry. Bergman declined to comment.
Letters, emails and phone calls of both support and critique poured into school officials.
But not all of the feedback was negative.
Both Hispanic and black lawyer organizations have written public letters of support for the news deans, both of whom teach business law.
Denise Chanez, president of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association, praised the decision, saying the diversity of the new deans – Mathewson is black and Pareja is Hispanic – is a much-needed change for the law school.
Hannah Farrington, assistant dean in charge of community and alumni outreach, said all of the “chatter,” negative and positive, is normal in times of transition and that it is “dramatically dissipating” with each conversation she has explaining the change.
“It’s a lot of talk over uncertainty about a co-dean model,” Farrington said.
But she said she has had to work harder at this transition than she has in previous dean appointments.
“The difference, I think, is they are lawyers … by training they are skeptical, and they are trained to argue,” Abdallah said of the law school faculty compared with other UNM faculty and their relationship to deans.
The law school has had three deans in the last six years, a turnover rate that has contributed to instability following a history of longer-term deans, Abdallah said.
Historically in New Mexico, most of the deans for the state’s only law school have been local powerhouse lawyers. Those who have been selected from outside the local legal community, which retains deep and strong ties with the school, have departed relatively quickly, including recent dean Kevin Washburn, who left after three years to work for the Obama administration.
Washburn was replaced with an interim dean – Bergman – for a year, but she was passed over for the permanent position when Abdallah appointed David Herring as dean. Martinez, who from his role on the alumni board has been following the situation closely, said some of Bergman’s funding and personnel decisions upset some in the school, which is not uncommon among deans.
Herring came from Pennsylvania, where he served as dean of University of Pittsburgh School of Law seven years to take the lead in 2013. But he resigned this year, citing irreconcilable differences with faculty. Martinez said Herring had asked faculty to increase its publication rates and faced a revolt.
Abdallah said some in the school refused to compromise with Herring, and he decided to step down.
Abdallah then decided to pick a candidate from among the already upset faculty, which Martinez said had split into “factions” backing the leading candidates: Bergman, professor Alfred Matthewson and professor Christine Zuni Cruz.
But Abdallah said that with the polarization, one person alone likely wouldn’t be able to “get it out of the funk.”
“If the school had been in a good place … any one of them could have done a great job,” Abdallah said.
After what many have called an extensive soliciting of community opinion and after researching options, Abdallah appointed Mathewson and Pareja.
Abdallah said they both agreed to take the post even without knowing their salaries, which will be their teaching salary and an even half of the usual dean bonus of about $35,000.
“Some say I’m splitting up the baby, but what I did is I kept the baby whole and I gave him two daddies,” Abdallah said.
And that baby – the school and its students – is thriving.
It recently improved its ranking, student satisfaction surveys show high marks, and its job placement rate for graduates is higher than some Ivy League law schools, said school spokeswoman Tamara Williams.
“The law school, despite some of these internal things going on, is doing a great job educating,” Abdallah said.
And Mathewson said Wednesday that faculty has kept its infighting out of sight of students and it hasn’t affected education.
When Mathewson joined faculty in 1983, he said the faculty didn’t have these troubles.
The small, homogenous group of men then was very warm and collegial, he said, and that made it easy for them to navigate conflict.
But as the faculty grew and grew more diverse in racial, ethnic and then gender and age makeup, conflict became more difficult to navigate “for fear of being called racist,” and trust and relationships among faculty started to bruise “as motives were questioned,” said Mathewson, who is black.
In a letter sent to faculty, the deans said they “are acutely aware that the most immediate concerns are building healthy community at the law school, avoiding departures of wonderful faculty and staff members, and maintaining a strong relationship with our bench and bar.”
When they take office Aug. 1, they will be talking to each of the 64 faculty and staff at the school, Mathewson said.
And they plan to hire a consulting team from the Association of American Law Schools to give an assessment and suggestions about the “institutional climate.”
With that underway, he said they will try to calm the tension and “reclaim that which makes us not just another law school.”
Martinez said he and other alumni are watching closely, and while skeptical, like their training demands, they are hopeful. The fear, he said, is the school will have difficulty attracting young professors if the school’s reputation takes a hit.
“But I’m keeping an open mind because Chaouki saw something there that he thought could work. And I trust him,” he said. “I don’t think it’s so much that the choice of these two people, but what the heck is wrong with us that we need two deans to run the law school?”