Legal Education

Former law school dean sues Texas university over loss of tenure

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Alleging that she was stripped of tenure without cause and denied due process, the former law school dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law has brought a federal lawsuit against the historically Black college.

The complaint, filed by Joan Bullock on Sept. 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, seeks a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief to stop the university from terminating Bullock and reinstate her as a tenured faculty member. It alleges due process violations, breach of contract and retaliation.

In June, Bullock was informed that the university was “taking a different direction,” according to the complaint, and she was presented with a written severance agreement that she refused to sign on the basis that she was hired as a tenured faculty member. The complaint also claims that Bullock inherited significant problems when she started the dean position in 2019, and she was prevented from hiring essential personnel for ABA-accredited law schools.

Bullock is the law school’s first female dean, according to the complaint. The complaint claims that some men who preceded her “departed the position of dean under legal and ethical cloud,” but all remained on the faculty after stepping down as dean.

Texas Southern University is a public university, and the state constitution gives tenured faculty significant protections, Dorian Vandenberg-Rodes, Bullock’s lawyer, told the ABA Journal in an email.

“It cannot apply different rules or standards to certain professors’ tenure or make up the rules as it goes along,” Vandenberg-Rodes wrote.

The university did not immediately respond to a Journal interview request.

Shortly after Bullock was hired as dean in 2019, she fired the law school’s associate dean of admissions, according to the court filing. Edward Rene, identified by the Houston Chronicle as the law school’s former dean of admissions, was charged with theft in 2020.

Two students told the FBI that they received scholarships for more money than expected, and Rene directed them to reimburse the overage amounts in the form of checks, cashier’s checks or money orders made payable to him, according to an August 2020 criminal complaint filed against him by the Harris County, Texas, district attorney.

Rene’s case remains open, according to court records.

Bullock’s complaint claims that after she fired Rene, she hired a consultant to assess the law school’s admissions department, and the investigation led to the university firing of Austin Lane, its president.

Under Bullock’s direction, according to the filing, the law school’s admissions department moved to a paperless application system and required that all applications be submitted through the Law School Admission Council portal. Also, she directed the university’s information technology department to create an online portal for seat deposits, which eliminated admissions personnel from receiving cash.

The school has a history of public accreditation notices. In 2017, it received a public censure from the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. That involved noncompliance with Standard 104, which addresses information that law schools provide to the council, and equal opportunity provisions detailed in Standard 205(b). The finding followed a federal discrimination lawsuit brought against the school by a female associate dean. According to a 2017 dismissal order, the claims were settled.

Also in 2017, the law school was found to be out of compliance with Standard 301(a) and Standard 309(b), which address academic programs and support, and admissions provisions detailed in Standard 501.

The council found in 2020 that the law school had come into compliance with the standards, according to a 2020 Texas Southern University press release.

Bullock’s complaint claims that before she was dean, the law school had not obtained an LSAC study to predict student performance for several years. Most law schools get annual studies, according to the complaint. And as dean, she directed the admissions department to provide data for a three-year LSAC study focused on students’ first-year performance and the predictive value of their objective credentials when applying to law schools.

Additionally, according to the complaint, at-risk students were not notified of their standing before Bullock started the position, nor were they placed on probation. She implemented a formal notification program, created a tutoring program for first-year students and mandated that at-risk 2L students attend skills training classes.

The TaxProg Blog also has coverage of Bullock’s complaint.

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