The popular dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law said he was forced to resign this week, and in an unusual move, he used a widely circulated email to air internal tensions over the university's spending of law school revenues to subsidize other programs.
Phillip Closius said in a letter to the law school community that he was asked to resign Thursday, the day after the university received an accreditation report from the American Bar Association that raised questions about the administration's rationale for siphoning off large percentages of law school proceeds.
During Closius' four years as dean, he has overseen a rise in national rankings and the groundbreaking for a new $107 million law center.
The news of his resignation prompted surprise and outrage among students and alumni, who described Closius as a dynamic leader and tireless advocate for law students.
Closius said he was troubled by steady cost increases for law students, noting that tuition for in-state students has gone up 70 percent over the past seven years and tuition for out-of-state students has risen 48 percent in the same period.
"I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable justifying tuition and fee increases to law students when the money was actually being used to fund non-law University initiatives," he wrote in the Friday morning email.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Closius said scholarships, faculty salaries and the school's law library were underfunded because of the revenue situation. "We've been trying to get this resolved through dialogue and conversation, but that has not been effective," he said. "I did not expect it to lead to my demise."
The university announced a national search for Closius' replacement Friday morning and said Closius will return to teaching after a yearlong sabbatical.
"Under the leadership of Phil Closius, the school developed a strong operational foundation from which to build," UB President Robert L. Bogomolny said in a statement. "He has strengthened an already outstanding faculty, increased the national recognition of the school, and enhanced the success rates of our students. I look forward to his continued contributions to the School of Law as a leading educator and legal scholar."
His departure comes at a time when the school is squarely in the public eye because its architecturally ambitious new building is rising at the corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. The law school's reputation had improved during Closius' four years as dean, with its ranking in U.S. News and World Report rising from 170 to 117. During the same period, the university has sought to expand beyond its traditional mission of producing law and business graduates, greatly increasing its undergraduate offerings.
Recent law graduate John Petrovick said students wondered where their increased tuition payments were going when the university added a new bookstore, coffee shop and apartments while trimming hours at the law school library.
"I was deeply disturbed by the letter to the student body and the news that Dean Closius was forced to resign," Petrovick said. "In general, the student body felt that Dean Closius was doing great things for the school of law. We didn't all like the fast-paced changes we were forced to endure during our law school education, but we all tolerated it because we truly believed he would make our degrees much more valuable in the future."
Jim Astrachan, a 1974 graduate who teaches copyright law at the school as an adjunct professor, called Closius "impossible to replace."
"If it wasn't for Phil, I wouldn't be teaching there," said the longtime Baltimore attorney. "He was an absolute cheerleader for the law school and the student. He was a huge believer in the consumer, the student. Apparently, Phil took that belief to the point where it cost him."
James Vidmar, a 1980 UB graduate and member of the law school's advisory board, said he found the resignation "very deeply disappointing."
"I think it was clear that there was tension to those of us on the board, but I didn't want to think this was coming because he's a hall-of-fame-caliber dean," Vidmar said. "He's done things nobody thought anyone could do there."
Brett Ruby, a rising second-year law student from Rochester, N.Y., said he and his peers are outraged by Closius' forced resignation. He recalled how the dean met with him and a friend on short notice to help them find internships in the sports industry.
"What gets to me the most about all this … is that Dean Closius was forced out of UB Law for essentially doing his job," Ruby said. "He felt that UB Law students weren't getting the most out of their tuition dollars, and he pressed the administration on fulfilling the promise they made to him when he took the job. That promise, of course, was to work with him on fixing this problem."
Closius described the deterioration of his relationship with Bogomolny and other university leaders in his Friday email.
"In the last two years, tensions have been increasing between the University administration and me regarding the financial relationship between the University and the School of Law," he wrote. "When I was a candidate for the Deanship, I was aware that, historically, the University retained a high percentage of the revenue generated by the law school. I was assured by the President at that time that he was aware of the problem and would work with me to remedy it over time."
Closius said the percentage of law school revenues taken by the broader university has increased over the last two years. The issue of law schools subsidizing other programs is a lively one across legal education, but Closius suggested that the problem is worse at UB than almost anywhere else.
He said the university took about 45 percent of the money generated by tuition, fees and state subsidies in the 2010-2011 academic year, well above the industry standard of 25 percent to 30 percent, cited in a recent New York Times article.
"I do not know of any law school in the country receiving such a small percentage of its generated tuition revenue," Closius wrote.
Closius added that the American Bar Association also indicated a concern about the amount of money the school was contributing to the university and "requested that the University President and Dean submit a report by March 12, 2012 which provides in part a rationale for the School of Law's share of costs for non-law school activities and central administration services."
Asked for further response to Closius' statement, UB spokesman Chris Hart said via email, "The University is not legally permitted to discuss personnel matters. As the community is aware, the UB School of Law and the University of Baltimore have made remarkable progress during the past decade. This forward momentum will continue."
Vidmar said the use of funds verged on abuse of the law school and added that the circumstances of Closius' resignation could hamper his alma mater going forward.
"At the very least, I think it complicates your search for a new dean," he said.
Closius said his relationship with university administrators also soured after a disagreement regarding naming rights for the school. Closius said he believed Bogomolny had set the price at $10 million and that he negotiated a donation of that sum from prominent Baltimore litigator Stephen L. Snyder. But he said Bogomolny then rejected the gift, stating that the sum needed to be $20 million. He said Snyder declined to meet that price.
"Shortly thereafter, I was informed that I could no longer have regular contact with a number of key prospective donors," Closius wrote. "My relationship with the University administration was altered for my remaining years as Dean."
The naming rights for the school were separate from those for the new building, which is named after the parents of Orioles owner and UB alumnus Peter Angelos, who pledged $10 million for the $107 million project.
Closius also left the dean's job at his previous stop, the University of Toledo, under contentious circumstances. He drew similar acclaim for boosting that university's law school but was demoted to a faculty position after a contract dispute.
Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.
In a letter to the University of Baltimore law school community dated Friday, law dean Phillip Closius described what led to his resignation. To read the entire letter, go to baltimoresun.com. The following is an excerpt:
"The unwillingness of the University to discuss in a meaningful way the growing imbalance in the financial relationship was also becoming a matter of principle to me. We have increased our in-state tuition over 70% and our out-of-state tuition over 48% in the last seven years. ... I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable justifying tuition and fee increases to law students when the money was actually being used to fund non-law University initiatives. I was also concerned about my continuing effectiveness as Dean given statements by University officials that there were no plans to remedy the situation and that significant funding for School of Law programs was not a University priority."