Two weeks before graduation, Saint Louis University law school Dean Annette Clark learned that University President Father Lawrence Biondi was refusing to fund faculty summer research stipends out of the school’s operating budget.
The frantic action that followed — ending in a reversal of Biondi’s decision — is chronicled in three emails Clark sent to the faculty. Copies of the emails were obtained by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.
“I know that this outcome represents a very real financial hardship for many of you, particularly the junior faculty, and I am just heartsick about it,” Clark wrote in a May 10 email.
Pulling the operating budget money would have meant Clark would have to make some tough decisions if she chose to use money from another fund instead.
Biondi’s decision also came at a particularly bad time. Not only was the school on the verge of the summer break — a period when law school professors use stipends to support research they may not have time to tackle during the school year — but also the university only four months earlier had announced a planned move of the School of Law to a downtown office building.
The attack on summer stipends upset faculty members when the university wanted their support for that move and the fundraising required for an ambitious renovation of the 260,000-square-foot building at 100 N. Tucker Blvd.
Clark, who had been in her job for 10 months, apologized that the summer stipend issue “happened on my watch and under my leadership.”
She called an emergency meeting May 14 in the law school’s courtroom of tenure-track and tenured faculty. The faculty meeting was to be followed by a discussion with Manoj Patankar, vice president for academic affairs.
Those meetings, in turn, prompted a meeting the afternoon of May 19 — the day of commencement ceremonies. Clark and five professors met with Biondi, university trustee and retired businessman Al Litteken and a contingent of vice presidents: Patankar, Jeff Fowler and General Counsel William Kauffman.
The faculty members emphasized the importance of scholarship to the school’s “national reputation and rankings,” Clark wrote in a May 19 email. The administrators emphasized the importance of the building project and faculty support for it.
Phone calls to Clark’s office and cellphone were not returned by press time. Clayton Berry, a spokesman for the university, said when he was called about the building project that Biondi was out of the country and wouldn’t be available to comment. Berry did not respond to a later phone call and email on the stipend issue by press time. Phone calls to Litteken, Patankar, Fowler and Kauffman were not returned by press time.
Summer research stipends are a “pretty standard mode of compensation” for law school faculty, although the amount varies quite a bit, from flat rates of $5,000 or more to a percentage of an academic year-rate salary, Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago Law School professor, said in a voice mail. Leiter writes for Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports, a website about law school news.
Summer stipends allow law professors more time for scholarly research, when otherwise they might try to stretch nine months’ worth of salary by taking on summer classes, said Michael A. Olivas, a University of Houston Law Center professor who focuses on higher education law.
“Existence of a stipend program is evidence of seriousness of research purpose on any law school faculty,” Olivas said.
Scholarship, tracked by both the amount of writing and its depth, is crucial to a law school’s prestige and placement on national rankings, said Olivas, who emphasized he was speaking generally, not about any law school in particular.
A law school’s reputation and ranking can determine how many students it attracts.
The issue of funding for Saint Louis University’s summer research stipends brewed for some time; Clark said in the May 10 email that she had been waiting for months for a final resolution. Despite her “vigorous protests” to Patankar, Kauffman and Biondi, she learned the decision on pulling the operating budget funding had not been reversed, she wrote in that email.
“I confess to being at a loss to understand this outcome given that the faculty relied in good faith and to its detriment on the centralized and competitive summer research stipend process that I had been told was approved by Fr. Biondi and which I presented to the faculty,” Clark wrote.
Patankar offered two other options, neither of which was satisfactory, Clark wrote. She did not provide details in that email, but in a later email she mentioned the school’s annual fund as an option for paying for 20 summer stipends. According to the school’s website, the fund is composed of unrestricted gifts from school supporters and is used for financial aid, resources for the law library, student activities and other programs.
But the May 14 discussion with the law school faculty apparently won Patankar over to the faculty’s side. In an email two days later, Clark said she had thanked him for his efforts on the faculty’s behalf and said Biondi asked to meet with Clark and five professors “to hear our concerns and to reiterate his support for the Law School.”
Because the issue was critical and time-sensitive, and Biondi had other commitments, he suggested meeting in the afternoon after commencement.
Clark wasted no time in reporting back to faculty on the meeting. Five professors including Thomas Greaney, co-director of the school’s highly ranked Center for Health Law Studies, “did an outstanding job of articulating the scholarly mission of the law school,” Clark wrote in an email the evening of May 19.
Greaney did not respond to a phone call and an email before press time.
As a result of a “very candid conversation,” Clark wrote, “I will approve the processing on Monday of 20 summer research stipends out of our operating budget rather than the annual fund.”
Clark noted that the issue is resolved “for this summer” and that “the conversation over summer research support will be a continuing one.”
There appeared to be a quo for the summer stipend quid, however.
“As to the building renovation project, Fr. Biondi, Al Littiken and Jeff Fowler were very clear that the law school building is a top priority of the University, that the project is moving forward, and that they’re looking for our faculty to be enthusiastic participants in the project and in the fundraising efforts,” Clark wrote.
The building, a 1960s era blocklike structure, looks well-maintained and is attractive on the inside, but it needs an overhaul to convert its offices to classrooms. Among other features, the university’s plans call for building an additional floor to house a mock courtroom and an outdoor area for events.
Berry said in an emailed response to a reporter’s questions that the university is not disclosing how much the project will cost or how much needs to be raised.
The move, lauded by downtown boosters, would bring the school of law in close proximity to state and federal courts and to the headquarters of large law firms like Bryan Cave, Lewis, Rice & Fingersh and Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale.
The university in January announced the planned move from the Grand Center District to the building donated by Joe Scott Sr., founder of a company that owns and manages office space in St. Louis, and his wife, Loretta. The goal was to start the school year at the downtown building this August, but in March, the target date was pushed off to summer 2013.
Whether the university can stick to the new date depends on the success of the fundraising, which the university will assess in the fall, Clark wrote in the email.
“I don’t read that to mean that we need to have raised the full amount (which would of course be impossible), but we do need to show real progress toward the goal,” Clark wrote. “I can assure you that Terri and I will spend the summer doing our best to obtain those commitments from our alumni and friends. In fact, it will be a relief to return to focusing on fundraising!”
The mention of Terri is an apparent reference to Terri Andrews, the law school’s director of development.
Berry, the university spokesman, said in an email he couldn’t discuss details of fundraising efforts while they were under way, but many law alumni have contacted the university to offer support.
At least one donation is in the bag: Lewis Rice plans to make a “substantial” contribution, said Chairman Tom Erb. Erb’s predecessor, longtime Lewis Rice leader John K. “Jack” Pruellage, also was chairman of the university board of trustees at the time of his death last month.
At least some law school faculty members have offered their public support as well. At an alumni open house at the building June 5, Christine Rollins, director of legal research and writing, was one of the people leading tours. MO