Law dean candidates down to three


Published: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

The search for the next dean of the University of Florida Levin College of Law has been narrowed to three people, provided that some other college or university doesn't snatch them first.

The search committee appointed to vet the best candidates for the job decided Wednesday morning after a four-hour discussion to send these names to Provost Joe Glover:

David Brennen, the current dean of the University Kentucky College of Law, a Florida native and UF alumnus.

Sam Donaldson, a law professor at Georgia State University and a former associate dean at the University of Washington College of Law, who got his master of laws degree from UF Law.

David Huebner, a former ambassador to New Zealand and a managing partner in two large international law firms, who has an Ivy League pedigree.

Eliminated from the running, despite strong support from two alumni members of the search committee, was Alexander Acosta, the current dean of the Florida International University College of Law and a former U.S. prosecutor in Miami.

Although Acosta was recognized for his management and fundraising skills, and for helping to elevate the status of FIU's relatively new law college, most of the committee members could not support him because of overwhelmingly negative reaction by the law faculty. In a survey, 74 percent of the 34 faculty members participating in the survey said he was unacceptable as a candidate. The 34 participants represent less than half of the 77 full-time faculty

Several faculty mentioned ethical issues related to his involvement in a 2004 voting rights case in Ohio, and a 2009 drug case while he was U.S. attorney in Miami where his subordinates were chewed out by a federal judge for a secret investigation related to a drug case.

In a feedback handbook given to search committee members, the negative faculty comments on Acosta ran eight pages long -- nearly twice as long as the other candidates.

The committee spent the bulk of its discussion debating whether to send Acosta forward despite the overwhelming reaction from faculty so that Glover and President Bernie Machen could evaluate him for themselves.

Brock Hankins, the law student representative on the committee, said the feedback from students was equally polarizing, except for those students who said they responded well to Acosta's comments about finding jobs for graduates.

Scott Hawkins, a UF alum practicing law in West Palm Beach and past president of the Florida Bar on the search committee, said faculty opinion should be weighed along with the candidates' records, resumes, letters and the answers given during interviews.

“We are not asked to make a public relations poll, but assess who is the best candidate,” Hawkins said, recommending that the committee send all four candidates forward.

History professor and committee member Paul Ortiz said he'd been approached by several faculty, all of whom opposed Acosta. “I like Alex personally… but to me the faculty voice is pivotal,” he said.

Law faculty members on the committee pointed out that both the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools have rules about hiring deans over the objections of a majority of the faculty.

Anne C. Conway, U.S. chief judge for the Middle District of Florida and a UF alum on the committee, characterized the faculty opposition as “just a weakness.”

“It's not just a weakness,” said Rachel Inman, the associate dean for students at UF Law and a committee member. “This is an area of concern that on some level would affect the dean's performance at the college.”

The vote to eliminate Acosta was 9-2, with Hawkins and Conway voting in Acosta's favor. Both argued that Glover and Machen should be given a chance to evaluate all four candidates themselves.

Support for Donaldson was marginally better than for Acosta, with 52 percent of the faculty finding him acceptable. Faculty found him likeable, intelligent and qualified, and a good public speaker, but a little too easy-going. He also lacked specifics on how he'd meet the challenges of running a law school during trying economic times, faculty members said, and there was a sense that he could not stand up to faculty.

Several noted that Donaldson has never been dean and was associate dean at a much smaller school. Many saw him as a safe choice to maintain the status quo but quite “dean ready.”

The word that committee members and law professors Lyrissa Lidsky and George Dawson used was “gravitas.”

By contrast, faculty support for Brennen and Huebner was unequivocal. Brennen scored the highest total acceptability rating, at 86 percent, with Huebner at 80 percent. Faculty gave Huebner the edge with an 83 percent favorability rating while giving Brennen a 79 percent positive rating.

Brennen was seen as soft-spoken and down to earth, a safe choice and a good fit for the Levin College of Law who met all the qualifications -- solid academic track record, strong administrator who cares about students, good consensus builder and fundraiser, or as one comment said, “the whole package.”

Many felt Brennen would be able to handle fundraising duties and handle diversity issues, even though a few faculty were concerned he wasn't sensitive enough to the LGBT community's needs.

“He had a few detractors but the overall impression is that the evaluations and faculty discussions put him at top of their lists,” Lidsky said.

Huebner also received solid enthusiasm. Despite his lack of academic experience, and the impression that he was initially not seen as a serious candidate, faculty said they were won over by his campus visit, his ability to articulate a vision, his charm and communication skills. His seven-plus pages of positive feedback ran longer than any other candidate.

“Students and faculty said beforehand, what are you thinking,” Hankins said. “But to a person, after (the interviews) everyone said this is someone we need moving forward. In meeting and talking to everyone, he blew them out of the water with his responses, his eloquence and the ideas he'd have coming into the position.”

Huebner's lack of academic experience was noted, and could be a hurdle and lengthen the learning curve he'll have if he is chosen, committee members agreed. It also could affect his ability to receive a tenured faculty appointment, something the ABA favors. On the other hand, that lack of academic experience could provide UF with the fresh perspective it needs, Dawson said, an ability to think “outside the box.”

Dawson compared Huebner to a stock portfolio that had high risk but also a higher potential yield, but the consensus among faculty is that he may be worth the risk.

Law professor Mark Fenster, who was not initially impressed with the finalists, came to the conclusion after hearing them out that Brennen and Huebner would be perfectly good deans. He said he was intrigued by Huebner's candidacy.

Ten years ago, Fenster said, a nonacademic candidate wouldn't have been considered. But given the challenges facing the college, the rising cost of a law education, and the influence of forces outside the academy because of the changing legal profession, the time might be right for someone who doesn't fit the academic mold.

“Having someone from the academy might not be the best person to have as a change agent,” Fenster said. “For some of us, there is a sense that maybe this guy could do it.”

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