Dean of UM law school fired; tenured faculty protest decision

Anthony Varona has been asked to step down by UM President Julio Frenk.
As of July 1, Anthony Varona will no longer be the dean of the UM School of Law. Photo credit: Noor Khaled

The University of Miami has fired Anthony Varona from his role as dean of UM’s School of Law effective July 1, as announced in an email sent to the UM School of Law community Tuesday afternoon.

“I have determined that new leadership is vital for the benefit of the institution, our students and our community,” UM President Julio Frenk said in the May 25 email. “The historic events of the past 16 months have revealed both challenges and opportunities that highlight the need for a dean with the required vision and effectiveness of execution to bring the school to new levels of excellence.”

In the email, which also was sent to all UM faculty, Frenk cited fundraising as a primary reason for Varona’s removal.

“In particular, the current capital campaign — which will culminate in four short years — presents a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to mobilize significant resources on behalf of Miami Law.”

Hours after Frenk’s email, UM law’s tenured faculty adopted a resolution protesting Varona’s removal and demanding a meeting with Frenk, Provost Jeffrey Duerk and the board of trustees executive committee.

“We protest this decision and ask for reconsideration of it,” the resolution states. According to the resolution, Varona informed faculty that he was terminated as dean on May 25. “The haste and lack of consultation with which the President and Provost have made this decision raise profound and disturbing issues of governance. Both the decision and the manner in which it was made will harm the law school and the university as a whole.”

The resolution describes the law school as being on “sound financial footing.”

“We admire his leadership and vision for the School of Law as a forward-looking institution rooted in excellence, integrity and community,” the resolution read.

These feelings were echoed by many faculty and students, who spoke highly of Varona’s performance as dean during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every communication we get from him shows that he is a caring and thoughtful person who is well suited to take care of the students,” said adjunct professor of law Kira Willig. “When I read the email my mouth just dropped.”

Willig, who has taught at UM since 2007 and graduated from UM law, says students and faculty alike think highly of Varona.

“To me he’s been the best dean,” Willig said. When the email went out, Willig said her phone started “blowing up” from students talking to her about how responsive, caring, helpful and supportive he has been.

“It didn’t surprise me at all that students have as high an opinion of him as adjunct faculty,” Willig said.

2021 UM law graduate Olivia Parise expressed frustration with UM over the firing.

“The university using Varona as a scapegoat for their shortcomings is extremely disappointing,” Parise said. “Varona, while not perfect, did have the best interests of students and the culture of UM in mind while making his decisions, whereas the administration has proven time and time again that they only care about fundraising and finances.”

Parise says students were frustrated with UM’s lack of transparency before making the decision.

“Their lack of transparency in decision making and history of rash decision making makes us lose faith in our school,” she said.

Varona named the of the UM School of Law in 2019, the twelfth dean of the school. He previously served as a professor of law and former vice dean and associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at American University Washington College of Law for 14 years. Before that he was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He holds a JD from Boston College Law School and Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Center.

Varona specializes in gender and sexuality law and was General Counsel and Legal Director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, before he entered full-time teaching.

On May 26 Varona provided the following statement when asked for comment:

“I am moved by the large outpouring of support from many colleagues, students, alumni and friends, in South Florida and across the nation. They have shared with me their shock, concern, and even outrage. I remain stunned by my baseless termination, disturbed by how I have been mistreated, and concerned by how all of this will affect our great law school and university. I am hopeful that clarity and fairness will prevail as we move forward, and that the University’s decision will be rescinded. I continue to give my all to Miami Law and our community members — including our graduates preparing for the summer bar exam.”

UM administration declined to comment for this story.