The Appalachian School of Law opened in the fall of 1997 in a renovated school in the center of Grundy. The school was an integral part of a concerted effort to bring new life to this once prosperous community. The Appalachian School of Law was universally viewed as the crown jewel of the effort to bring renewed prosperity and opportunity not only to Grundy, but also to the whole region.
But from the outset the school appears to have been riddled with mismanagement, questionable ethical practices, sexism, and even racism. In hindsight, the magnitude of the problems was so great that it is difficult to explain why no one focused in on the need to deal with the problems and to have campus security.
The school apparently had some problems attracting a first-rate staff—not unusual or unexpected for a new college. But, the examples of immature and childish behavior raise serious questions. A very telling example of the staffing problem is found in a lawsuit filed by Professor Steven Cooper in the second year of the school’s operation. On October 20, 1998, Steven Cooper filed a suit against the school “for wrongful discharge brought by a tenured and accomplished professor of law who was unjustly dismissed for cursing at a junior colleague who had rudely questioned his character and honesty.”
According to Professor Cooper’s lawsuit, he was awarded tenure “effective August 1, 1997, upon the recommendation of (the school’s) president, all as evidenced by the letter dated January 17, 1997, from President Lucius F. Ellsworth……” The suit further states that Cooper accepted “the low salary only because he had been assured he would be awarded tenure, i.e., a lifetime employment contract.
The suit then recounts the following events: “On or about April 21, 1998, a professor at ARLS, Eric Holmes (“Holmes”), rudely shouted a string of curse words during a meeting of several members of the law school’s staff and faculty. Holmes’ foul language included repeated declarations of ‘bullshit’ and ‘horseshit’ well within earshot of those in attendance.”
Then the suit asserts, “Before walking out of said meeting on April 21, 1998, Holmes approached Cooper from the rear in a threatening manner, shook his finger, and stated loudly ‘shut the fuck up.’”
On May 6, 1998, Cooper apparently had an argument with another faculty member, Gail Kintzer, which centered on Kintzer calling Cooper “lazy,” impugning his commitment to the law school and its mission, and questioning his request to be reimbursed by the school for school-related expenses. The lawsuit claims that Kintzer complained to the school dean, Dennis Olson, about Cooper cursing her as well as Holmes cursing at Cooper. The dean subsequently reprimanded both Holmes and Cooper.
The lawsuit then cites a memorandum dated July 15, 1998, in which the chairman of the school board charged that Cooper had violated various rules and laws when he cursed Kintzer. The suit then says that on July 23, 1998, the school board voted to suspend Cooper without pay and bar him from the campus. The board did not suspend Holmes; in fact, they promoted him to dean in July 1998 after removing then Dean Olson.
In September 1998, Cooper appeared before the school board, expressed regret for cursing Kintzer and asked to be reinstated. He was not.
The lawsuit recounts some rather unprofessional conduct by faculty members who are part of a profession that prides itself on intellect, education, and the use of English. The lawsuit not only puts a cloud over all three of those attributes that are said to be at the heart of the legal profession, but also is a disturbing look at the law school’s faculty.
Had the above been the only example of poor judgment on the part of the school’s faculty, one could chalk it up to an exception. But, at least one other member of the staff had a reputation for not being able to conduct a class without using a string of four letter words--frequently.
Professor Dale Rubin had a reputation for profane language. According to students in his classes, he would pick on a student and unmercifully ridicule him or her for the whole semester. His conduct made many feel exceedingly uncomfortable and certainly was not conducive to learning. Despite his education at Stanford and Berkley and his many articles in learned publications; he appears to have never mastered civility, dignity, or some of the more lofty ideas commensurate with his chosen profession.
Earlier, when the position of Dean of Students had opened, Professor Dale Rubin was one of the three candidates for the position. Professor Tony Sutin and Professor Tom Blackwell, the two murdered faculty members, were also candidates. Professor Sutin was awarded the post.
The law school, in its understandable enthusiasm to become established, appears to have been willing to cut corners and dance around the edges of ethical behavior. For example, The Cannons of Official Conduct for the State of Virginia includes a statement that “(judges) shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund raising or membership solicitation.” Yet, the school has held, until recently, an annual fund raising golf tournament to solicit and raise money. Judge Nicholas E. Persin’s name and the prestige of his office, was used to publicize the tournament. Indeed, the tournament was referred to as the “N.E. Persin/Appalachian School of Law Golf Tournament and Gala.” Linking Judge Persin’s name to a golf tournament may not be an infraction of the law, but it is indicative of a willingness by all parties involved to “bend” the limits of ethical behavior.
More disturbing indications that the school was willing to cut corners, has come from former school employees. In one instance, a former employee claims to have been privy to school officials’ willingness to “play fast and free” with statistics. The individual claims to have been reading a file containing evidence that the school was willing to “adjust” evidence relating to the school’s minority enrollment—specifically to Peter Odighizuwa’s status as a student.
The employee was seen by a school official and was told to destroy the file. The employee made a copy of the file and then followed instructions. That copy was given to attorneys who filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of Angela Dales’ estate.
The same employee says that he was called at home when insurance investigators were on the campus after the shooting. The school officials told him to stay at home and he would be paid for his day off. It was best for the employee to stay home, he was told because the school was sure that the employee “…would not want to do or say something that would hurt the families of the victims.”
After reading the above, is it any wonder that the Appalachian School of Law, failing to control conditions on the campus in general, ignored Odighizuwa’s danger signals and largely dismissed his threatening behavior toward faculty, administrative staff, and students. (I will go into the Odighizuwa’s threatening actions in greater detail later.) On the rare occasions the school did respond to Odighizuwa, it did so in ineffective ways. (To be continued)