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Faculty shuffle at law school causing a stir

Recent changes cause some to think rankings valued more than people

By Krystal De Los Santos
The Daily Texan
May 11, 2004

Two faculty changes have aggravated the feeling among some faculty and staff in the School of Law that rankings are more important than people.

The release of law school lecturer Kim Kovach last month shocked her students. She was listed on the course schedule to teach a mediation class in the fall, but her contract was terminated with little explanation. Christy Nisbett's release was also unexpected.

Nisbett was notified in January that she wouldn't return to teach legal writing in the fall. She said that since legal writing doesn't contribute to the law school's rankings, the dean has cut the three-hour curriculum requirement for first-year law students to two hours.

"I think [Law School Dean Bill Powers] is trying to pick off the faculty he doesn't like one-by-one," Nisbett said. "I think there's very little question that his pursuit of rankings drives what he does."

Nisbett is one of several sources close to the law school who say the law school is so concerned with its ranking that it will recruit spouses to ensure that the University lands a coveted professor.

"It's pretty well accepted that that's what's going on," she said.

Nisbett, a non-tenured lecturer at the law school for 18 years, said she thought her position was safe until the 2002-03 school year, when she said Powers tried to eliminate the legal writing requirement completely.

"I didn't do anything to protect myself," she said.

After some faculty and staff members heard of Nisbett's release, she said many came to her office to express sympathy and talk about changes in the law school.

"I had no clue how many people felt so isolated here," she said. "Morale is really crummy."

At least four faculty and staff members, including a former assistant dean, said interactions between Powers and a handful of influential faculty and staff have become strained over the years. They said morale in the law school has decreased over the past few years. Most declined to comment for the record, saying they fear being unable to find a job in the legal community, but a few spoke candidly about hiring and firing practices at the law school.

The law school has traditionally been shielded from scrutiny,said David Dominguez, the previous duplication department supervisor, who retired from the law school in 2001 after 37 years working there.

"They have their own rules, they have their own foundation, and they get their own money, so they do what they want to do," he said. "It doesn't go anywhere, I guess, because they have a lot of lawyers."

Kathryn Holt Richardson, a former assistant dean who recently left the University to work at a legal search firm, said she had a pleasant experience at the law school.

"It was a good ride," Richardson said. "I'm a woman of color, and I got promoted very quickly."

She said though she was surprised Nisbett's contract was not renewed, she believes the law school is under "excellent leadership."

"Any top law school is a competitive environment for students, which can lead to challenges for all of the people serving those students," Richardson said. "It's not unique to UT."

Hiring to improve the law school's ranking is not necessarily a bad idea, she added.

"People decide which law school to go to based on its ranking," Richardson said. "It is a fact that graduates of the top schools have an edge at every level of the job search after law school. It's a fact I don't think the University should close its eyes to."

Dean Powers said the decision to not rehire Kovach and Nisbett "had nothing to do with the rankings."

"As far as rankings, we are interested in building the most highly respected faculty that we can," Powers said. "Those rankings do affect the students that are applying here."

He said the decisions to release Kovach and Nisbett were not made to save money on the mediation clinic or the legal writing program.

"We're not going to cut back on the funding to either of the programs, and indeed, we've added funding to the programs," Powers said.

While he denied extending employment offers to faculty spouses to encourage them to work for the law school, Powers did say that husband and wife professors Lawrence Sager and Jane Cohen were recruited together.

"We were very interested in hiring both of them," he said.

Powers acknowledged that the face of the law school is changing.

"Among a large part of faculty, there's a sense that quite a bit is getting accomplished," he said. "There's a sense of moving ahead."