Embattled University of Miami School of Law Dean Anthony Varona will remain at UM as a tenured faculty member after President Julio Frenk abruptly fired him in May.
Varona, who has received wide support from law school faculty, alumni and the faculty senate, sent a June 29 letter to the law school community, a day before he was to officially step down from the position. In the letter, Varona thanked Frenk and Provost Jeffrey Duerk “for the opportunity to serve as dean for 23 months.”
“I gave it my all,” Varona said in highlighting his accomplishments as dean – including admitting what he said was the strongest law class in more than 30 years, raising $8 million, launching an environmental law program, and adapting learning models to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tone of the letter was in sharp contrast to Varona’s initial reaction to Frenk’s May 24 decision to fire him as dean but keep him on as a tenured professor.
“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,” Varona said in a statement after his firing. “I am hopeful that clarity and fairness will prevail as we move forward, and that the University’s decision will be rescinded.”
Varona, 54, was 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 eight of his 14 years at the university. 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 administrative and public law 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. He also held the M. Minnette Massey Chair, which he is relinquishing despite Frenk saying he could keep it.
In his dismissal of the dean, Frenk said the law school needed “a dean with the required vision and effectiveness of execution to bring the school to new levels of excellence” and has refused to provide further explanation for firing Varona.
Buoyed by immediate support from UM’s law school community, Varona hired prominent civil rights and employment lawyer Debra Katz to represent him in all legal proceedings related to his employment at UM.
Katz called 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 said in a May 27 letter emailed to Frenk.
Neither Varona nor Katz responded to Miami Hurricane requests to clarify if they are still contesting Varona’s dismissal or if they are seeking a retraction from Frenk. Rather, Varona’s recent letter seemed to accept that he was out of the dean’s office.
“I am proud to be a tenured member of the outstanding Miami Law faculty, a great honor and privilege in itself,” he wrote.
Frenk also did not return Miami Hurricane calls for comment. But in a June 30 email to the UM community, the president announced he was appointing Stephen J. Schnably as acting law school dean, effective July 1.
“Professor Schnably brings a wealth of experience, the respect of his colleagues and students, as well as deep institutional knowledge and community relationships to the role,” Frenk said in the announcement.
Schnably has been at Miami Law since 1988, having previously practiced at Wilmer Cutler in Washington, D.C. He earned both his undergraduate and law degree from Harvard.
Schnably’s areas of scholarship include constitutional law, federalism, and international human rights, and he is well known for his work in civil rights litigation to protect the constitutional rights of the homeless.
“I’m really honored that the president has the confidence in me to do this,” Schnably said in a phone call with The Hurricane
Schnably, 66, said he is unsure how long he will serve as acting dean but does not anticipate his term lasting more than a few months while the university does a search for an interim dean.
“My role is just to make sure that the university has the leadership during this transitional period to continue to realize a lot of the great things that we are doing,” Schnably said.
In his final communication as dean, Varona thanked the UM law community once more.
“Together we devised a shared vision that emphasized excellence, prominence and community and that challenged us to aspire to new levels of achievement in many areas. We made significant progress on all fronts,” he said in the statement.