In a unanimous decision, the University of Miami Faculty Senate is calling on President Julio Frenk to reinstate Dean of UM Law Anthony Varona, who was fired on May 25.
Senate faculty support of the dean comes two days after the law school’s tenured faculty adopted a resolution protesting Varona’s removal, just hours after the president announced the dismissal.
“The Faculty Senate, as elected representatives of the University of Miami faculty, disapproves President Frenk’s unilateral decision to terminate Anthony Varona,” states the memorandum, which was emailed to Frenk and Provost Jeffrey Duerk. “The firing of Dean Varona without appropriate faculty input and consultation has severely tarnished the university’s local, national and international reputation. Moreover this decision threatens to negatively impact hiring, recruitment and accreditation going forward.”
Additionally, on May 27 and May 28, both the Society of American Law Teachers and the Association of American Law Teachers released statements protesting Varona’s termination.
Varona, who had completed two years of his five-year term, was first asked to resign on Monday by Frenk and Duerk. He declined, which prompted his termination, according to a faculty member close to the situation.
After the firing was made public, Varona released a statement calling the termination “baseless.” Varona has hired prominent civil rights and employment lawyer Debra Katz to represent him in all legal proceedings related to his employment at UM.
On May 27, Katz emailed Frenk a letter calling Varona’s firing unlawful.
“I am writing now to demand that you retract the defamatory statement you made regarding Dean Varona’s alleged lack of leadership as the reason for his wrongful termination,” Katz wrote.
The letter specifically cites Frenk saying UM’s School of Law needs “a dean with the required vision and effectiveness of execution to bring the school to new levels of excellence,” as defamatory, arguing that such a statement “could not be further from the truth and are a mere pretext for the real reasons for your removal of Dean Varona from his position.”
In her letter, the Washington D.C.-based attorney said Varona recently published a well-received “vision statement,” and had “admitted the strongest class in Miami Law History.” She listed various achievements during Varona’s tenure, including that he had raised more than $8 million dollars.
As the backlash has grown, Frenk has yet to meet with faculty or comment publicly. His assistant has emailed faculty offering to meet next week.
UM has not returned phone calls requesting comment.
The move by Frenk to fire Varona, and the manner in which he did it, is unprecedented in recent memory, some faculty members say.
“I have never heard of a firing 22 months into a deanship with no explanation,” said Stephen Halpert, a law professor at UM. “Inside and outside the academic world the president looks inept.”
In its resolution, the Faculty Senate said law school colleagues are “understandably shocked” by Varona’s dismissal.
Varona, 53, is UM law’s 12th dean. 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.
Many in the law school community say there must be other unstated reasons behind Varona’s abrupt and unceremonious dismissal.
UM law school alumna Elizabeth Schwartz echoes several who speculate that UM administration, though willing to appoint an openly gay dean, may no longer be comfortable with that decision.
“It smacks of discrimination,” said Schwartz, an LGBTQ activist. “It’s disgusting.”
When Varona was appointed, she and other LGBTQ members had “never felt more proud” of UM law, she said. Now she said she is changing her estate plan and removing donations she had planned for the law school. She says multiple clients have called her looking to do the same.
On May 27 the Association of American Law Schools section on Minority Groups executive committee released an open letter expressing similar skepticism of Frenk’s listed reasons for firing Varona saying they “make no sense.”
“Experience suggests that something more is at play,” states the open letter signed by the members of the executive committee. “It is unfathomable that the University of Miami should take such an arbitrary, capricious and unilateral action against him.”
The letter states the association’s support for the passed resolution by UM law school’s tenured faculty and requests an independent investigation into the firing of Varona. “The need for independent and credible investigation is urgent and vital, particularly given the patently pretextual reason proffered by President Frenk,” the letter said.
On May 28 the Society of American Law Teachers also released a statement calling for a review of the firing.
“SALT expresses grave concerns over the abrupt decision by University of Miami president Julio Frenk to terminate Anthony Varona as Dean,” the letter opens. “Dean Varona was UM’s first Latinx and openly gay dean. The appearance of an arbitrary dismissal raises particular concerns that the dismissal may have been motivated by bias. In this situation, it becomes important to clarify the motivation for his dismissal. To that end, SALT urges a review of the decision.”
Featured photo courtesy of UM Communications.