Keefe reflects on first semester as SLU's interim law school dean

By Bethany Krajelis | Dec 12, 2012

After pulling double duty this fall as dean of St. Louis University’s law school and an attorney with a busy plaintiffs’ practice, Tom Keefe Jr. said he’s learned the importance of the old “no wasted motion” mantra.

“That really is what I go by now,” Keefe said Tuesday, referring to those he works closely with at both the law school and his Belleville law office. “We don’t waste a single motion. It’s a balancing act more than anything, but we make everything work.”

With his first semester as interim dean coming to a close as students finish their final exams this week, Keefe said he’s not only learned a lot about academia, but has managed to personally resolve about $25 million in cases since September.

Keefe, who was tapped in August to serve as interim dean this academic year at SLU School of Law’s, said joining the world of academia took some getting used to.

“In academia, they tend to make decisions by consensus and after a lot of committee work,” he said. “I am used to making my mind up and doing it so it was a cultural shock for me.”

“I’m sure I’ve been a cultural shock to them,” Keefe added with a chuckle. “Some people think I’m, dare I say, unconventional.”

The one thing Keefe said didn’t surprise him about serving as dean this past semester was how much he enjoyed interacting with students.

“I think they alone make the whole job worthwhile,” he said.

 Keefe said he appreciates the time he gets to spend with students who visit his office and jumps at the chance to teach classes when invited.

In addition to getting to speak with students and “see that curiosity in their eyes,” Keefe said being interim dean has also given him the opportunity to share his thoughts on issues important to him.

One of those issues, he said, is “this terrible problem with student debt.” He talked about this issue last month at an Illinois State Bar Association forum on law school debt in Fairview Heights, where he suggested downsizing curriculum to two years.

“When you have the title as dean you get an opportunity to speak your mind,” he said. “You have a platform.”

While Keefe appears to be making good use of his interim position, he said it hasn’t been without some challenges.

Keefe’s appointment to the law school came after Annette Clark resigned from the post in a letter to SLU President Rev. Lawrence Biondi and Vice President of Academic Affairs Manoj Patankar that criticized leaders for leaving her out of major decisions.

The letter from Clark, who joined the school as its dean only last year, as well as Biondi’s response letter,  made national headlines and created concerns among faculty, staff and students before the fall semester even began.

“One of the challenges I had was to build trust with the faculty as the person who came in and replaced her on an interim basis,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy position to be in.”

And while “things at the law school have calmed down,” Keefe said “there continues to be a lot of turmoil at the university now” between Biondi and the faculty.

That aside, Keefe said he’s been busy helping the law school raise money for its multi-million dollar move downtown next summer.

“It’s a terrific opportunity for the school and the students, but that’s a big job to raise that money,” he said. “I’m definitely juggling a lot of balls at once.”

Although practicing law and serving as interim dean has required him to “work a little bit later every night and a little bit longer on the weekends,” Keefe said he’s enjoyed every minute of it.

Saying that “the only thing in academia is that nothing is certain,” Keefe said he hopes the law school “keeps me around long enough” that he’ll be able to hand his daughter, a 3L, her diploma in the spring.

In the meantime, Keefe said he looks forward to “catching his breath” before school starts again in January and spending the holiday break with his wife and four children.

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