OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Flap over 'Clinton' change

In 1999 the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Bowen Law School established an endowed professorship called the "Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy." It's since been available for a five-year term to UALR faculty members who apply, though held solely since inception by soon-to-retire Professor John DiPippa.

I'm told DiPippa and the dean of the law school several months ago began calling this appointed position the "William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service." It appears the decision to rename (and seemingly refocus) the professorship after Clinton was made without the current faculty's involvement.

Now a flap over the change has resulted among some Bowen faculty members, best illustrated by a lengthy email from well-regarded (believe I'll just refer to him as distinguished) Professor Tom Sullivan. Below is an edited version of Sullivan's lengthy May 22, 2021, email addressed to the faculty (acquired via FOIA).

"I don't recall when the Law and Public Policy Professorship was re-named for President Clinton," Sullivan writes. "I first noticed this reference in the signature block on an email sent by John DiPippa in March," which referred to John M.A. DiPippa, Dean Emeritus and William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service.

"This professorship was originally designated as the Law and Public Policy professorship and was created, as I recall, after we moved into the current building. There was discussion that the Law School itself would be named for Clinton, but that was scuttled because there was serious concern that he would be subjected to some adverse legal action ... for giving false testimony in the civil action brought by Paula Corbin Jones. ...

"I couldn't find any reference to the professorship as the 'William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service' on the Bowen web site. In fact, John's faculty page describes him as: Dean Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy.

"It may be that I missed an announcement ... but I am not aware of the re-designation of the professorship in the name of William J. Clinton or the reference to 'Constitutional Law and Public Service.' Had this been brought to the faculty for discussion ... I would have opposed the change in designation for a number of reasons:

"First, President Clinton was disbarred from practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Arkansas courts following the impeachment trial, in 2000 or 2001. I believe the John took the opportunity to defend him against disbarment at the time, but conceded that some form of censure was appropriate, being quoted at the time by the Washington Post: ... 'But DiPippa also said Clinton should be punished more severely because of his position. He suggested a suspension of his license for some period of time. Disbarment ought to be reserved for what I've called incorrigible lawyers--lawyers who are just going to repeat their offenses and continue to harm clients, he said.' ...

"I simply do not think it appropriate for a law school to honor a disbarred lawyer--it strikes me as hardly sending a deterrent message to law students or practitioners. But beyond the disbarment, I have grave concerns about Bowen being aligned with significant policy decisions taken by Clinton that have [caused] irreparable damage to our legal system.

"The mass incarceration of Americans, particularly affecting the poor and African American communities, was accelerated during the Clinton administration in an effort to deflect potential Republican claims that Democrats were/are soft on crime. ...

"Second, the 1994 law shaped Democratic Party politics for years. Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, Democrats wanted to wrest control of crime issues from Republicans, so the two parties began a bidding war to increase penalties for crime. The 1994 crime bill was a key part of the Democratic strategy to show it can be tougher-on-crime than Republicans."

"Of particular importance, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which effectively eliminated federal habeas corpus as a protection against state court criminal convictions tainted by procedural irregularities and failure of state courts to correctly apply U.S. Supreme Court precedent in disposition of claimed violations of federal constitutional protections."

I asked DiPippa to explain how Clinton's name became inserted into the professorship. It appears, from his response, that adding Clinton's name to the professorship may have stemmed largely from his own actions.

"It was always named thus. It was my understanding that the donor, Bill Bowen, wanted the professorship ... to be for Constitutional Law and be named after Bill Clinton," said DiPippa. "This information went to the faculty when the dean called for nominations in the late '90s. When I was appointed, the name was not finalized, so we used a plain version. It didn't really matter to me what it was called and I never thought much about it.

"Although originally our professorships were lifetime appointments, we changed our policies over time to make them five-year terms," he continued. "When mine came up for reappointment in 2015-2016 (I believe), I told the dean, who was not on our faculty when I was originally appointed, that the professorship was for work in Constitutional Law and carried the Clinton name.

"I was more concerned that it be awarded in the correct substantive area than anything else. The dean said he would look into it but he reappointed me with the name I had been using because he could not find any official documentation. Last summer, I received word that the original documents were found in the files on the main campus and was told I could use the name."

Professor Robert Steinbuch, a widely respected (and equally distinguished) Bowen School colleague of Sullivan's widely known for straight talk and legally pursuing transparency causes in the public interest, takes issue with that version.

He said the records at the time demonstrate, "Dean Rod Smith informed the full faculty that Bill Clinton approved the naming in 1999. ... As I had been told, the school affirmatively decided not to name the professorship for Clinton after he was disbarred. This makes sense, as it's a bit absurd to have a professorship at a law school named after a disbarred attorney.

"As such, the better read of events seems to be that Clinton's name was intentionally removed from the professorship," said Steinbuch. "Further supporting the history I describe, it seems that the 'Public Policy' clause was used to replace the Clinton name when the school, including the faculty, affirmatively decided to change the name of the professorship. If you are returning to the original, seemingly rejected, Clinton-named professorship, then the 'Public Policy' needs to be deleted, unless there is some other undisclosed donor preference that supports including that clause."

Sullivan amplified Steinbuch's thoughts. "Of general importance is the usurpation of faculty governance by the law school administration. At a minimum, the question of re-designating a named professorship should be announced to the faculty for purposes of eliciting legitimate concerns. The faculty originally adopted the rule regarding named professorships that was altered to give the dean sole authority for designation--apart from specific directions given by a donor.

"I don't recall whether there was faculty input in altering terms of the original rule, but I do recall the faculty were generally notified of the current rule, as published. In either event, the legitimate authority of the faculty to advise and consent, if not promulgate, a policy that may have significant consequences for the law school in terms of our mission and reputation, shouldn't be dismissed by expediency or political interests of a dean, advisers or supporters answering only to the dean."

Sullivan concluded, "I assume the actions taken in re-designating the Law and Public Policy professorship have been approved by the UA Board of Trustees pursuant to board policy and UALR's chancellor."

Oh how my aging heart aches in remembrance of the stimulating joys from endless academic "rigor" during my five-year professorship at Ohio State University.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.