UB interim dean Gardner looks to lead law school through challenging time
UB Interim Law School Dean James Gardner is interested in “action.”
He watched the civil rights movement on TV and dreamed of ending financial inequality while growing up in the Bronx. He didn’t like working as an entry-level economist for the United States Department of Commerce because there wasn’t enough excitement.
“It seemed very bureaucratic and it wasn’t enough about action,”Gardner said.
Gardner may need to take action if he is going to improve the state of the law school. That’s because Gardner takes over as interim dean in a difficult time for UB’s law school and law schools across the country.
The law school is shrinking the size of its classes and faculty. Even Gardner admits there is not the population interested in attending law school that there once was. His predecessor, former law school Dean Makau Mutua, stepped down in December amid allegations he lied in federal court.
The Spectrum requested the law school’s budget – among other documents regarding Mutua and expenditures – in October and will receive the documentation within the week, according to the records office.
Gardner said he’s focused on ensuring the fiscal integrity of the law school and making sure the school is an “active and contributing citizen of the university.”
“My priorities are to build on the law school’s achievements in training civic and business leaders,” Gardner said. “I want to build and strengthen the achievements of the faculty as a faculty that is known for its innovative scholarship.”
Gardner spent five years as the law school’s vice dean for academic affairs – which he says was good preparation for being a dean. Provost Charles Zukoski named Gardner interim dean in December after other faculty members nominated Gardner.
“I believe very strongly and seriously in institutional service and if the provost of the university asks me to do service, I find it hard to say no,” Gardner said.
The appointment came after Mutua announced his resignation in September. Former law school professor Jeffrey Malkan filed a lawsuit against Mutua in 2011 for wrongfully terminating his contract. Mutua’s perjury charges stem from him testifying that a vote to promote Malkan to clinical professor never took place – a vote seven faculty members testified did happen.
Gardner said the allegations against Mutua and Mutua’s resignation did not hurt the law school’s reputation.
“These charges have been made by a disgruntled former employee who has thus far lost every legal action he has mounted against individuals in the law school,”Gardner said. “It’s incumbent upon every official in this law school and university to adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct and lawyers have their own code of ethical conduct that’s even more rigorous.”
Malkan said his Court of Claims litigation is still pending and his Public Employment Relations Board case was dismissed, but that it was based on Mutua’s testimony, in which he allegedly lied under oath. Malkan plans to ask this to be decision to be vacated when situation with Mutua’s testimony is resolved.
But Malkan said he is encouraged by his federal lawsuit, which he said he expects to go to trial in the spring of 2016 and that UB’s motion to dismiss the case was denied.
Mutua is still teaching as a SUNY distinguished professor at the law school this semester but will be on leave for all of next year. Gardner said there is a tradition in universities that a dean takes time off after stepping down and the university facilitates by granting a leave.
Mutua officially stepped down on Dec. 19, 2014. Matthew Dimick, an associate professor in the law school, said Gardner is more than competent and a “great person” to have at this time when the school is facing challenges – like the long and steep decline in applications to law school. The Spectrum reached out to numerous other law school professors, none of whom wished to speak on the record about Gardner, the transition from Mutua or the morale within the law school.
Gardner said the law school is responding to challenging times and fewer applicants by shrinking the size of its classes. He said the law school is starting to explore other programs that might be of interest to people who want to become better acquainted with the law.
Another way the law school is attracting students is through admission without the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
UB announced in February that students who maintain a 3.5 GPA and score in the 85th percentile of a standardized test like the SAT do not have to take the LSAT to get into the law school. Students in the UB Honors College will automatically be accepted into the law school.
Gardner called the LSAT “superfluous.”
“All the LSAT is designed to do [is] to give you one indication that the student is capable of doing their work,” Gardner said. “If we have other indications that the student is capable of doing their work and will succeed and prosper, then there’s no need for the LSAT.”
Gardner said he could not imagine why anyone would think worse of the law school because of its LSAT-free admission. He said hundreds of colleges and universities have made the SAT optional, so he sees no reason for concern.
Gardner said the law school uses the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), a comprehensive survey that gets administered to law students by an independent surveying organization. UB commissions them to do surveys and get feedback from students. A faculty-student committee then reviews this material.
Another way Gardner said he obtains feedback from law students is by just talking with them.
He said he has met with the executive board of the Student Bar Association to “meet and greet and hear what was on their minds.” Gardner plays in a jazz band that performed for students at their law school auction.
CJ Cook, a first-year law student, said he has never been more intimidated by a professor.
“The man was brilliant and was not afraid to shoot you down when you had the wrong answer,” said Cook, who took Gardner’s Civil Procedure class. “But he pushed us to be better arguers and better thinkers.”
Cook said Gardner was a “phenomenal professor” and turned what he thought was going to be a boring class into an interesting one.
Gardner has been working closely with the faculty as well.
Dimick said Gardner has done a lot to brainstorm and rally the faculty to come up with ideas.
“Gardner created several ADHOC committees to spearhead and probe and discuss different possible ideas to help the law school,” Dimick said.
According to Gardner, part of the law school’s core commitment is to foster inclusion and an atmosphere that is respectful to diversity. He said the law school tries to take diversity into account in its hiring and admissions process.
Gardner said a great number of the law school’s course offerings are organized around the interests of diverse communities. The law school has courses on race, gender and sexuality that get into the question of how the law treats those issues.
Gardner said UB law students put in nearly 29,000 hours of community engagement and service in 2013. He said about 15,000 hours was in legal externships, which put students into non-profit legal offices around the region, 8,300 hours of direct pro-bono work and 5,500 hours of work in legal clinics that provide services to indigent and underserved communities.
Gardner, who has been married to his wife for 28 years and has a 20-year-old daughter, always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, even though he grew up in a family of musicians and artists in the Bronx.
His great grandfather was an actor. His grandfather was a violinist and composer. His grandmother was a concert pianist. His father was a musician and music teacher and his brother is currently an actor in New York City.
While in law school, he volunteered at an association in Chicago called the Better Government Organization, an organization that was trying to take on the “corrupt Chicago political machine,” as Gardner put it.
He said he became a lawyer because he wanted to reform the political system.
Gardner wanted to end the inequality of influence caused by economic – which he says has only gotten worse. He also wanted to expand access to the political system in terms of the right to vote. He said people have been complaining forever that political discourse is nasty and shallow and filled with distortions.
“It was a long time ago, but it’s all going to sound very familiar because not much has happened,” Gardner said.
Gardner taught as a professor in Western New England University, William and Mary, the University of Connecticut and Florida State University before eventually coming to UB in 2001.
He taught constitutional law for 27 years and found teaching in Buffalo different than in other places he taught in Southern states like Florida and Virginia. Gardner especially noticed the difference when he taught UB students about the New Deal and federal regulations of labor relations.
“With students in Buffalo, everyone has in their family a parent or an uncle or grandparent who is a member of a large industrial union, so kids here understand it,” Gardner said. “Kids in the South have no personal experience of knowing someone who was a union member or an activist.”
Gardner said there is always diversity of the student population “no matter where you are.” He said UB is a little different because it is a public school so there tends to be more socioeconomic diversity to the student body.
Gardner said the best thing about being asked to serve on an interim basis is he can find out whether it is something he would like to do for a longer period of time. Gardner said President Satish Tripathi, the provost and Gardner himself will decide how long he will remain dean.
For now, Gardner said the main thing the law school wants to accomplish is to train highly competent ethical professionals to go out and assume positions of leadership.
Ashley Inkumsah is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org