Michael Hoeflich, KU's next law dean, will inherit a number of controversies when he assumes his new post in July.
The hiring of Michael Hoeflich as Kansas University's law dean is an unusual event.
For the first time since 1928, a new law dean wasn't selected from among the KU faculty. Hoeflich is Syracuse University's law dean.
"I think everybody here agreed we needed an outside dean," said Bill Westerbeke, KU law professor and member of the dean search committee.
Westerbeke said the entire KU law faculty supported Hoeflich's appointment. That's also uncharacteristic for a school frequently divided in recent years.
"I think the atmosphere in the building is very positive," Westerbeke said during an interview in Green Hall. "There are, of course, challenges. Like any unit, we have some problems."
Hoeflich, 42, has been dean at Syracuse for six years. He and his wife, Karen, wanted to move back the Midwest. They had lived in Champaign, Ill., for eight years. Both have family in that part of the country.
"It's sort of a homecoming," Hoeflich said.
Awaiting him at KU when he takes over July 1 will be festering controversies.
He said he has no interest in getting involved with one of those issues, but intends to hit the other head-on.
The most obvious involves former KU law professor Emil Tonkovich. He was fired by KU in August for violating the faculty code of conduct. His appeal is pending before the state Board of Regents.
Tonkovich was dismissed after an eight-month public hearing that pitted law faculty against law faculty, law students against law students.
He allegedly induced one of his law students to engage in a sexual act with him.
What does Hoeflich think about Tonkovich's case?
"The advantage of being the new guy on the block ... is I'm not a part of it and can stay not a part of it," he said.
The second issue involves the KU law school's image. The Tonkovich case was in full view when a memorandum leaked to the media landed the current law dean in hot water.
In a memo about the level of state financial support for KU's law school, Robert Jerry ruffled feathers throughout the legal community by writing that Washburn University's law school in Topeka was of "low quality."
Hoeflich said that at Syracuse he aggressively sought to develop a good relationship with law school alumni and other people with an interest in legal education.
"What I learned in my years as dean is that it's immensely important to foster ties between the school and the alumni, the Legislature and the public in general," he said.
He wants to transform KU's law school into a more proactive entity that assists Kansans with a wide range of legal and public policy service.
For example, that might include a law student research center. Hoeflich set one at Syracuse that provides free legal research to elected officials in that state.
Jerry, who will take a one-year sabbatical after leaving the deanship, said the job of a law dean gets harder every year.
In the past year, 42 of 176 deans at U.S. law schools left their jobs. The demands of the position have lowered the average dean's term to 3.5 years.
Despite the natural resistance to change, Jerry said his successor should look at new ways of delivering legal education.
"That ranges from different ways the school can provide services to students, to use of computers and the curriculum," he said.
While photocopying documents in KU's law school, second-year law student Mark Kistler of Kansas City, Kan., talked about another area Hoeflich might focus on.
Kistler said KU's law students could benefit from a program that reduces college loan debt for graduates who take public-interest legal jobs.
"If you're looking at huge debt, but want to do something for the community, that debt makes that career choice impossible," he said.
Westerbeke said he's prepared for a new era under Hoeflich's leadership.
"It's now a matter of waiting to see how it plays out."