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University at Buffalo Law School Dean Steps Down Amidst Allegations of Perjury
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University at Buffalo Law School Dean Steps Down Amidst Allegations of Perjury

Summary: For several years, many faculty have expressed dissatisfaction at the leadership of Makau W. Mutua, the dean of Buffalo Law School. Mutua has now resigned and will step down in December.

The Buffalo News reports that on Monday, Makau W. Mutua, the dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, stepped down from the position amidst criticism of his performance as dean. His role as dean will end in December, and he will remain at the school as a faculty member.

  
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Mutua graduated from Harvard Law School and is recognized worldwide for his efforts as a human rights activist. Though he has an impressive resume, Mutua’s tenure at the law school appears to have caused tension among students and faculty.

One professor said, “It’s very toxic. It’s very sad. We have a community that feels alienated by the administration and distanced from the school,” when asked abut the law school’s environment.

What’s the issue with Mutua’s leadership? Some faculty state that Mutua’s method of running the school created turmoil during a time of existing economic stress. Law schools nationwide have faced a decline in applications and enrollment, and UB Law is no different. Many state that Mutua had a “divide and rule” philosophy which prioritized loyalty, punished critics and rewarded supporters.

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Mutua’s leadership has had some positive impacts on the school. He raised $23 million in private donations, and supporters state that the school’s endowment has come close to doubling since he started as dean.

Daniel C. Oliverio, an alumnus of UB Law, said, “I found it absolutely refreshing. I found his outreach and responsiveness to be extraordinary.” Many alumni had felt isolated from the school, and Mutua reached out to them, supporters said.



Mutua claims that his stepping down as dean is unrelated to the allegations against him. In a prepared statement, he said, “I decided to leave because it was the right time. A seven-year tenure is twice as long as the typical tenure for a law dean, and I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

UB President Satish K. Tripathi said Mutua’s departure left UB Law “well positioned to achieve even greater prominence in legal education and scholarship.”

A statement from the University at Buffalo said, “Within a university environment, it is expected that faculty, staff and administrators will have strong and sometimes different opinions about academic issues. Discussion, debate and collaboration are encouraged at a university and are an important part of academic life.”

Critics Have Been Frustrated for Years

Many faculty members had been unhappy with Mutua’s leadership for years, but their dissatisfaction became known when a law professor was fired six years ago. Eight faculty members filed signed statements in support of the professor, Jeffrey Malkan, when he sued Mutua in federal court after being fired.

Malkan’s suit alleges that Mutua lied under oath on two separate occasions about the events that led to Malkan’s firing. The statements the other professors provided corroborate Malkan’s version of the events.

Martha T. McCluskey, law professor at UB Law, said, “If there’s one thing we should be teaching our students, it’s that sense of honesty, trust and professionalism.”

Mutua has responded to the suit and denies the allegations of perjury. Neither he nor the university will comment on the litigation while it’s pending. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara and U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder are set to hear the case.

Many professors view the firing as proof that Mutua was mismanaging the school. They feel Mutua lacks an educational vision and is more concerned with power and control instead of the future of the law school. These professors assert that Mutua singled them out because they did not support him. His actions had almost caused a no confidence vote, but that effort was halted by then-President John B. Simpson.

Although the vote never happened, Mutua was subject to a hostile internal evaluation a few years later, which was led by chemistry professor Frank V. Bright. Provost Charles F. Zukowski sent a letter to faculty during that time, stating, “These issues have strained relationships within the school and created tension around leadership and unit cohesion.”

Recently, a private meeting was held between Zukowski and six female faculty members who wanted to address how Mutua treated them. Rebecca R. French, a UB Law professor, said, “He has a very authoritative style that is arbitrary and capricious, and usually works to his benefit.” Among the complainants was Isabel Marcus, who says she was fired by Mutua while she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. “He tried to force me to resign. I refused and he fired me.” Marcus was removed as head of the international programs, but remains on the faculty.

Lynn Mather also believes she was a target of Mutua. Mather was the former head of the school’s Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy. Mather was recruited from Dartmouth College to head the center. Since she was fired by Mutua, she has been named a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Of her firing, Mather said, “I was totally shocked. I was deeply invested in the center and had a lot of programs planned for the next year.”

The Beginning of the End

Many faculty members view the firing of Malkan the beginning of Mutua’s decline. Faculty members who had not yet earned tenure viewed the event as a red flag, and perceived it as a warning for any faculty who did not support the dean.

Malkan added, “There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that Mutua did not commit perjury. He’s actually succeeded in carrying out a miscarriage of justice.”

The basis of the suit includes a 2006 meeting during which faculty voted to promote Malkan from associate clinical professor to full clinical professor. Malkan also served as director of the law school’s Legal Research and Writing Program. Then-president Simpson confirmed the promotion in a letter to Malkan. However, Mutua, who was named interim dean a year afterward, removed Malkan from the research and writing post in 2008, and fired him a few months later.

Malkan’s federal lawsuit demands $1.3 million in damages. Many sympathize with Malkan and say he has not been able to find work since he was fired.

Mutua states that a vote to promote Malkan never occurred. During a deposition, he testified, “There was only one vote, which was to extend him for another year as director of the program.” However, many faculty say that this statement may be an outright lie.

Charles P. Ewing is the former vice dean of the law school and was named as a co-defendant in the suit. He filed a motion to be removed from the suit. His motion includes that Ewing was “openly and strongly critical” of Mutua and his management of the school, and added that he asked Mutua to step down to avoid the vote of no confidence.

In a signed statement to the court, Ewing said, “Mutua’s credibility is certain to be attacked at trial, and that attack will be built on the credible testimony and notes of many distinguished law professors.” Ewing was dismissed from the suit. Ewing did not comment on the motion, but said, “I did my best to serve as buffer and mediator between the faculty and the dean. As troubled as I and most of my colleagues are about some of the things that have happened at the law school in recent years, there’s not a single one of us who isn’t fully committed to our students and to retaining our well-deserved reputation among lawyers, judges and legal scholars.”

Despite controversy, Mutua has many supporters

Mutua was previously a well-respected faculty member. In the beginning, many supported him as dean of the law school. Thomas E. Black, alumnus and chairman of the Dean’s advisory council, said, “Makua has re-energized that faculty. I think he’s added a ton of energy to the school.” Black states that Makua’s efforts brought over twenty new faculty members to the law school, and implemented a difficult but much-needed downsizing. Many felt a smaller law school will result in better students and higher rankings. This year’s incoming class has 145 students, whereas past classes enrolled up to 250 students.

Oliverio is among faculty supporters that feel the divide in the school is a generational conflict. “Every organization has that,” he said. “Show me an organization, a business, that doesn’t have that.”

Oliverio added that Mutua is the first UB Law School dean who, in his memory, came to his firm, Hodgson Russ, and asked for input on changes at the law school. Since that time, Hodgson Russ has committed $500,000 to the school.

Francis Letro, another alumnus, stated, “I think we’ve been fortunate to have Dean Mutua’s leadership and vision.” Letro credits Mutua with preparing the next generation of lawyers by investing in technology to improve global teaching. Letro felt that Mutua anticipated low enrollment and acted efficiently to combat it: “I think Mutua saw that coming. I also think he’s done a lot of good at the law school to position it for the challenges of a 21st century legal education.”

The End of an Era

Although many faculty were clearly disapproving of Mutua’s leadership, many were still shocked at his resignation. President Tripathi had seemed dead-set on keeping Mutua at the school and had recently supported the dean.

A letter to Tripathi’s higher-up, Nancy Zimpher, may have changed things. The letter, from several female faculty members, listed complaints about Mutua and their need for help from the administration.

Mutua is proud of the mark he feels he left at UB Law, stating, “I am most proud of my work with my colleagues and with university leadership to lead our great law school through its renaissance. In spite of challenges in the legal profession, the UB Law School is on a path to overcome them and continue on its present path of academic excellence.”

Photo credit: buffalo.edu



 

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