Deans at USC and Illinois Step Down

USC's Robert K. Rasmussen

USC’s Robert K. Rasmussen

In “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot refers to April as “the cruelest month.” Law school deans would probably agree. As another school year closes – and budgets and incoming classes take shape – April is often the time for weary academics to look at the big picture. With April reflections come May defections.

That’s certainly the case at the University of Illinois College of Law and the USC Gould School of Law. On Thursday (May 1), Illinois Law’s Bruce Smith announced that he was stepping down as the school’s dean, effective June 1, to return to being a tenured faculty member. Today (May 5), Gould Dean Robert K. Rasmussen also announced his resignation, which will take effect after his successor is named in 2015.

Rasmussen had been named to his post in 2007, while Smith was appointed as dean of Illinois Law in 2009.

In his resignation email, Rasmussen struck an optimistic tone. “I look forward to being a constructive voice during that time for the law school’s priorities as we advance our role as a leader in legal education. You will continue to hear from me in my current capacity and I very much look forward to furthering our critical partnership between the school and its alumni as we make the USC Gould experience among the finest and most innovative in the realm of this country’s top law schools.”

Rasmussen’s departure comes amidst Gould’s 15 spot drop to #35 in the newly-released Above the Law ranking of law schools, which measures job quality, starting salaries, and alumni satisfaction. The school also slipped two spots to #20 in the latest U.S. News and World Report law school rankings, after spending the previous four years at #18. Most recently, the school was embarrassed by a Los Angeles Times expose of a 22-year ‘boy genius’ Gould grad battling to pay off his $215,000 student debt and its recent decision to charge a $100 rental fee to graduates for caps and gowns.

In February, Gould kicked off a $150 million dollar fundraising initiative, designed to boost scholarship support, recruit stellar faculty members, and re-model the school’s physical space. Gould is also launching an online LL.M. program, only the second law school in the United States to do so.

Dean Bruce Smith

Dean Bruce Smith

Smith’s departure was less surprising. During his tenure, the University of Illinois was censured and fined $250,000 by the American Bar Association for “disseminat[ing] materially inaccurate LSAT and GPA  statistics” from 2005-2011, with much of the blame placed on former admissions dean Paul Pless. Despite tumbling 24 spots over two years after these inflated stats were revealed, the school was begun to rebound, climbing seven spots to #40 in the latest U.S. News rankings.

Despite this black mark, Smith has earned the admiration of his faculty. “Bruce Smith was called upon to steer the College of Law through some pretty rough seas,” observed Professor Matthew Finkin, “He steadfastly navigated the college into calmer waters with brighter prospects ahead. He enjoys our deep appreciation for all that he has accomplished.” David Meyer, dean of the Tulane University Law School and a former professor at Illinois Law, also lauded Smith’s courage and character. “His vision, integrity, and creativity have served Illinois extremely well and set the bar for many of us who have been fortunate to count ourselves as colleagues.”

Smith himself is looking forward, throwing his support behind his interim successor. “It has been my great privilege, as dean of the College of Law since February 2009, to work with the college’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni to advance our proud and distinctive institutional mission… I have great confidence that the College of Law will continue its positive institutional momentum under the experienced leadership of John Colombo – my respected colleague and dear friend.”

In recent months, law school leadership has devolved into a game of musical chairs, with deans stepping down at University of Pennsylvania, the University of California-Berkeley and being appointed at Columbia Law, Cornell Law, Washington Universitythe University of Houston Law Center, and the University of Maryland

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  • Tommy Trojan

    Rasmussen was more kicked down than “stepped down.” Provost Elizabeth Garrett had taken as much as she could but had to face the fact that she had made a HUGE mistake by recruiting him.