When Ken Gormley took over as the interim dean of Duquesne University School of Law in December 2008, he faced a divided faculty and student body up in arms over the previous dean's ouster.
Decades-old factions among faculty members deepened, and those opposed to Don Guter's removal were especially angry at the university president who led the overthrow.
There were protests on campus, threats by donors to stop giving and unrest on the Bluff.
But since that time, Mr. Gormley -- who was appointed dean almost a year ago -- has attempted to revitalize the law school.
He created an advisory panel of well-known alumni and practicing judges and attorneys in Allegheny County to help guide the 100-year-old institution into calmer waters. He put a renewed emphasis on scholarship among faculty members. He revamped the grading scale and skills classes for students and is about to undertake a full curriculum review.
Mr. Gormley also just published a best-selling new book chronicling the history between Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr and its impact on American society, and has put together a yearlong series of events, bringing in national speakers, to mark the law school's centennial.
Those who know him best cite Mr. Gormley's ability to bring people together, his patience and hard work, and enthusiasm for everything he takes on as the keys for the law school's increasing momentum.
Mr. Gormley faced many challenges when he took on the leadership of the law school. Academia has long been known for bitter infighting, and divisions can be formed in any number of ways, including simple disagreements about the role of faculty. Duquesne University President Charles Dougherty, who joined the school in 2001, said such disagreements led to divisiveness decades ago.
Former Duquesne University president and current chancellor John Murray said he believes the culture of dissension in the law school dates to the 1960s, when a division sharpened between some professors who wanted to conduct research and publish and another group who thought it was simply their jobs to teach.
Those who wanted simply to teach formed a clique that was difficult to break. "Scholarship before [Dean Nicholas] Cafardi was actively discouraged," Dr. Murray said. "There was a lot of inbreeding that went on," he continued, explaining that the law school often hired only its own graduates during that time and did not seek out experts in their fields or those from outside the area. By the time Don Guter was removed in 2008, he said, it was clear the faculty members had hit a breaking point.
Dr. Dougherty, who was responsible for letting Mr. Guter go, makes no apologies for what he called a highly unusual move.
"A dean has to be successful at two jobs -- be a leader of the school they represent, but also be a team player with the university as a whole," he said, and he believed Mr. Guter wasn't doing both.
But Bruce Ledewitz, a longtime law professor at Duquesne, strongly disagreed. He argued that the law school under Mr. Guter was making gains in every measurable category -- including bar exam scores; enrollment and scholarly work.
"Charles Dougherty is unable to recognize talent if it doesn't kowtow to him," he said. "That's why he fired Don Guter -- because he wasn't a 'yes' man.
Because of the bitterness among some faculty over the firing, Mr. Gormley's first mission as dean was assuring the local bar association, alumni and students that what was happening in the law school wasn't catastrophic -- "that there were better days ahead."
Because Mr. Gormley had a lot of working capital with all three groups, Dr. Dougherty was confident that as interim dean, he would be able to accomplish that goal.
"Ken already had high stature in the bar. He was kind of the ideal person," he said.
With a long history of dedication to gender equity and minority recruitment, Mr. Gormley has a strong reputation in the legal community for fairness.
"Ken is, at his core, a consensus builder and an optimist," said Linda Hernandez, a former student of Mr. Gormley's and now the gender equality coordinator for the Allegheny County Bar Association.
Dr. Dougherty agrees.
"He has, as part of his personality, this sense of native fairness," he said.
Mr. Gormley said, "I start with a presumption of good faith [on the part of the faculty members] regardless of what position they've taken in the past."
A native of Swissvale who attended Harvard Law, Mr. Gormley repeatedly refers back to his roots growing up in a blue-collar town. He believes that background taught him to stand up for his beliefs.
In an effort to heal the rift among faculty members, Mr. Gormley said he works hard to celebrate the successes of each faculty member and encourages them to do the same for each other.
Even Mr. Ledewitz acknowledges that scholarship under Mr. Gormley has been more strongly supported than under any previous dean.
"I was opposed to his being hired as dean, but he's always been fair to me," Mr. Ledewitz said.
In trying to bring the various groups together, Mr. Gormley has chosen as the law school's priorities items on which everyone can agree -- such as planning for the law school's centennial.
"Every time I have seen one bad thing, I have tried to suffocate it with five good things," Mr. Gormley said.
Mr. Ledewitz notes that there is still a division among the faculty.
"I think he's failed in the most important job --to unify us," he said.
Still, Mr. Ledewitz said he does see some signs of moving forward. New faculty members are being hired, and with that influx of people, the divisions diminish.
"This is a program for the long haul," Dr. Dougherty. "This is not something that happens overnight. We're never going to achieve nirvana in a faculty group, but what we need is someone, who on critical issues, can muster support."
That's what he believes Mr. Gormley provides.
Among the potential roadblocks faced by Mr. Gormley during his first year as dean, three federal lawsuits were filed against the law school and university by faculty and staff members.
One that was particularly hurtful to him included an accusation of sexual harassment specifically naming Mr. Gormley.
Alice Stewart, who ran the law school's low-income tax clinic, claimed in a lawsuit that she was denied tenure and that she was subjected to sexual harassment by Mr. Gormley.
The count was almost immediately removed from an amended complaint when the university filed a motion to dismiss. In the motion, the university characterized the allegation as a statement made by Mr. Gormley to Mr. Guter, in which he discussed a relationship Ms. Stewart had with another professor on campus, and that the relationship was impeding the possible promotion of another female tenure-track candidate. The allegations did not fit the legal definition of sexual harassment.
"I considered taking some sort of action in response to the original complaint, but I decided not to do that," he said. "I was hired as dean to stop the drama, not to perpetuate it. I resolved to set a professional tone and allow the lawyers to handle this, like any other employment matter."
That particular lawsuit was recently settled for an undisclosed amount of money, and Ms. Stewart left the university.
The other two cases are still pending in the federal court system, and both Mr. Gormley and Dr. Dougherty prefer that they play out there.
"Responding in court documents -- not in the media -- is how lawsuits are supposed to be handled, if you are a professional and committed to taking the high road," Mr. Gormley said.
As it marks its 100th anniversary, the law school enjoys a strong regional reputation for producing good attorneys. But Dr. Dougherty and Mr. Gormley have intentions of turning that reputation into a national one.
Among the goals for improving the law school, the university president said, is creating a better ratio of faculty to staff, increasing bar exam scores, cutting class sizes, and creating more clinical skills' classes to give students practical experience to take to the job market.
Further, Mr. Gormley and Dr. Dougherty talk about a much heavier focus on scholarship among faculty members -- a stronger emphasis on research and publishing.
"That's how reputations get built nationally," Dr. Dougherty said. Professors should be able not only to teach effectively, but also to contribute to their own disciplines.
Dr. Murray agreed.
"This is what Ken has in mind for Duquesne. It's a long-term proposition. Scholarship evolves."
And that, Mr Gormley said, is exciting.
"I feel confident that we're now moving ahead, and that there's a real feeling of energy in the law school."
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com or 412-263-2620.