Belleville attorney Tom Keefe Jr. has been named interim dean of St. Louis University School of Law, a one-year position he plans to take on in addition to his law practice.
The announcement of Keefe’s appointment came on Wednesday, shortly after Annette Clark resigned from the post in a letter sent to SLU President Rev. Lawrence Biondi and Vice President of Academic Affairs Manoj Patankar that criticized the leaders for leaving her out of major decisions.
Clark, who joined the law school as its dean just last year, said in her two-page letter that she will remain a tenured professor on the law school’s faculty because it is her contractual right. She also sent a separate three-page letter to faculty and staff on her resignation and concerns.
“I no longer have confidence in either of your abilities to lead this institution or in your commitment to the well-being of the School of Law,” Clark wrote in her letter to Biondi and Patankar. “I simply cannot be part of, and I assure you I will not be complicit with, an administration that can’t be trusted to act honestly and in the best interests of its faculty, staff and students.”
Clark’s letter lists five actions taken by Biondi that she referred to as “egregious” and led her to step down.
Those actions, Clark’s letter states, includes transferring money out of law school funds, forbidding the funding of summer research stipends and making plans to move the law school downtown without consulting other law school leaders.
In response to Clark’s letter, Biondi sent a letter of his own to faculty and staff on Wednesday announcing Clark’s departure and Keefe’s temporary appointment. It noted that Clark resigned via letter even though they had a meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Biondi also said in his letter that given the challenges faced by law schools today, “bringing in someone with a fresh perspective was imperative.”
He praised Keefe for his successful practice and said the new interim dean “is an energetic and engaging person; reflective and insightful; positive minded and a team builder.”
He said the change in leadership will in no way alter the university’s plans to move its law school downtown and is confident that faculty and staff will help make the transition seamless, despite the switch-up falling so closely to the beginning of the school year.
Keefe said today that Clark’s letter “demonstrated that the best defense is a good offense.”
He said the president approached him about taking the job three weeks ago, a time frame that Keefe said shows Biondi had been planning to remove Clark as dean long before she submitted her resignation.
Keefe said he accepted Biondi’s offer about two weeks ago, at which time he stressed that he would only take the job if he could continue to do what he’s done for the past three decades: practice law.
“I have fiduciary duties to my clients. Those were the duties I had already assumed before I agreed” to take the interim dean position, Keefe said. “He made it extraordinarily clear to me and I made it clear to him that the most important factor of our agreement was that I remain an actively practicing lawyer.”
After practicing law for so many years, Keefe said he’s learned how to do it efficiently and doesn’t anticipate that being both the law school’s dean and a personal injury attorney will adversely affect either of his duties.
“I may sleep a little less,” he joked, adding that he stayed up until 3 a.m. today researching law schools.
Keefe said he hasn’t worked out of all of the logistics yet, but expects to work in both Belleville and St. Louis to handle both jobs. After all, he said, there is no difference between taking a deposition by phone in Belleville than it would be from his desk at SLU.
He said he plans to go to the university on Friday to take care of some basic housekeeping measures, like getting his identification badge, a key to his new office and a parking space.
The timing of Keefe’s interim appointment comes just days before new student orientation, which is scheduled for Tuesday. As a self-proclaimed lover of talking, Keefe said he looks forward to “talking up a storm with the kids.”
Although he will only serve as dean for one year, Keefe said he hopes he can help SLU “navigate through the tough water and get them back to smooth sailing.”
He also said he has a few ideas he’d like to push before the academic year comes to a close.
“I hope to bring to the law school the perspective of a practicing lawyer. I’m not here to criticize academia, it’s just academia and the real world don’t always mean the same thing,” he said. “I get concerned sometimes when I see young lawyers with $150,000 in debt who don’t know how to lawyer.”
Keefe said law schools need to focus on teaching students how to be lawyers. He said he hopes to push for practicality during his year at SLU and wouldn’t mind taking a look at how student debt could be reduced.
While his appointment as interim dean puts him on new ground, Keefe is more than familiar with SLU’s law school.
He earned his J.D. degree from the St. Louis law school in 1978, following in the footsteps of his father, a 1951 alum, and preceding his son, who graduated from there a few years ago.
In addition to his four brothers who attended SLU’s law school, as well as some of their children, Keefe said his daughter is about to begin her third year at the school he will soon lead as dean.
While he has donated money to his alma mater over the years, Keefe said he looks at his new job as an opportunity to give time, not just money, back to the school that helped him get to where his is today.
Candace Ruocco, president of SLU’s Student Bar Association (SBA), said based on what she has read about Keefe, “there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good addition to the team.”
But, Ruocco said she and her fellow students have concerns about what Clark raised in her resignation letter. She said she has received dozens of emails and phone calls from students since Wednesday’s administration shake-up.
Students, she said, have expressed worries over the substance of Clark’s allegations regarding the allocation of law school funds and how the incident will affect the public’s perception of SLU, as well as employment opportunities for soon-to-be graduates.
The issues Clark raised in her letter over moving the law school downtown didn’t come as much of a surprise as it has been a hot topic of conservation over the past year, but Ruocco said the issues over the allocation of law school funds did come as a shock.
Ruocco said the SBA plans to create a student-led task force to investigate, address and educate the law school community about the allegations levied by Clark, who Ruocco said was well liked and respected by students.
If the university has been mismanaging law school money, Ruocco said students who pay deserve to know where their tuition is going.
While the timing of the incident is more than a little hectic, Ruocco said, “Obviously the law school is not going to shut down” and is pleased that students have bonded over their concerns instead of denouncing their school.