Duquesne University's abrupt ouster yesterday of law Dean Don Guter produced surprise and anger on campus and led one major donor to say he will withdraw support from the school.
Without giving a reason, university leaders informed law faculty yesterday morning that Mr. Guter, dean since 2005, was out. A statement said Ken Gormley, an associate vice president and member of the law faculty, would serve as interim dean and that Mr. Guter, a former Navy judge advocate general, would remain on the faculty.
During Mr. Guter's tenure, the law school has seen gains in a number of indicators including its bar passage rate, which has risen to 97 percent from 68 percent. But there also have been tensions between the law school and university President Charles Dougherty, including the president's initial refusal to grant tenure to professor John Rago despite a favorable faculty recommendation and backing of the dean.
The president's denial sparked a student protest before Dr. Dougherty reversed course in April 2007 and granted Mr. Rago tenure. A number of faculty yesterday, some expressing outrage over the ouster, said they believe the president had a personal dislike of Mr. Guter over the Rago matter and other issues, including disagreements over law school funding.
Reached yesterday, Mr. Guter, 60, said the president and Provost Ralph Pearson met briefly with him on Tuesday. Mr. Guter said that without offering an explanation, they gave him a choice: Resign within 24 hours or be removed.
"My reaction to this is shock. The school -- really by a lot of people's accounts, not just mine -- has never been in better shape," he said.
A call to Dr. Dougherty was not returned yesterday, but Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare said, "Don has been apprised over the last three years of expectations, and those expectations were not met."
Ms. Fare declined to elaborate, nor would she specify areas of deficiency in the law school, though she said, "Overall, we have a fourth-tier law school that has not moved in the U.S. News rankings.
"We need to improve the level of scholarship within the law school," she said.
She said the dean serves at the president's pleasure and that making the move at the end of the fall semester gives Mr. Gormley the next month for a transition into the job.
Some faculty yesterday said improvements in the law school already were under way, due largely to Mr. Guter's efforts.
"This is an appalling decision. It shows that performance means nothing at Duquesne," said Bruce Ledewitz, a law school faculty member since 1980. "All that matters is if President Dougherty personally likes you."
Mr. Ledewitz shared a letter that Mr. Guter sent yesterday to the president. In it, Mr. Guter asserted that the bar passage rate was the highest for Duquesne in 25 years, relationships with alumni had never been better and giving was robust, and the school had achieved its first-ever specialty ranking in U.S. News, placing 30th out of 200 law schools in research and writing.
He said stepping down would amount to "accepting your invitation to manufacture an excuse to cover up what is obviously and unprofessionally your personal animus toward me."
"Under these circumstances it would be dishonest, disingenuous, unbelievable to the public and, most importantly, unethical for me to abruptly resign in the middle of the school year and in the middle of exams, no less," the letter stated.
"You will, no doubt, proceed to remove me as dean. I see this as unjust and therefore my integrity will not allow me to participate in such a dishonest public charade," Mr. Guter wrote.
In a phone interview, Mr. Guter said the only suggestion he received that expectations were not being met came about 18 months ago from the provost. Mr. Guter said it involved not being supportive enough of the administration.
"The provost gave me four words -- 'personal loyalty' and 'absolute obedience,' " Mr. Guter said.
David Millstein, a Greensburg attorney and 1970 law school graduate who said he has pledged or given about $250,000 to the school the last several years, said he would lobby other large donors to withdraw support. He said he's already made his decision.
"I won't fulfill the remainder of my pledges to the school and I won't give any more money," said Mr. Millstein, who directs the school's Center for the Bill of Rights. "It's outrageous."
Last night, a group of Duquesne law students unhappy with the ouster planned to discuss its options, including a possible protest this week.
"Our student body adores Dean Guter," said Brandon Neuman, 27, a third-year law student from Eighty Four and president of the school's student bar association.
Last year, some students in the law school circulated petitions after Dr. Dougherty, citing a campus policy, barred the law dean from inviting to commencement politicians including President-elect Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Not everyone was unhappy with yesterday's move. Law professor Robert S. Barker said Mr. Guter tried unsuccessfully to scuttle an international conference on constitutional law that he was involved in organizing, and the dean worked to suspend a program allowing international students with law degrees to get a master's in law from Duquesne in one to two years.
"There has been a marginalization of the most productive members of the faculty for four or five years now," said Mr. Barker, who said his own opposition to Mr. Rago's tenure bid put him on the outs with law school leadership.
Of Mr. Gormley, he added, "I am so glad to see him in the deanship."
Michael Streib, another faculty member who was on a search committee that brought Mr. Guter to campus, said there was a perception among some faculty at the time that Dr. Dougherty preferred Mr. Gormley for the post.
"I'm stunned. It's bizarre," Mr. Streib said. "What has happened is certainly an exercise of power. Whether it was an exercise of judgment is something I don't know because no one has offered any cognizable reason for it."
Clarification: Additional information has been added to an earlier version of this article. Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published December 11, 2008 5:00 AM