Ronald Weich, an assistant U.S. attorney general and former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is to be named the next dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law on Wednesday, nine months after his popular predecessor resigned amid a public dispute with the university's president.
Given his lengthy experience on Capitol Hill and his lack of time in academia, Weich, 52, is an unconventional choice to lead the law school. But faculty leaders, alumni and students said that's part of the reason they're excited about him after last year's tumult involving former dean Phillip Closius.
"When you talk about a non-traditional candidate in the abstract, it sounds risky," said Michele Gilman, a UB law professor who chaired the search for a new dean. "But when we met Ron in person, those concerns were ameliorated. We're at a point where we're ready to think outside the box as an institution. There's a feeling that someone outside the ivory tower might be better positioned to understand what the legal market needs and wants."
David Muncy, a third-year law student from New Jersey, said Weich was the overwhelming favorite of students, who met with all five finalists for the job during campus visits.
"We were excited by his incredible career and the perspective that he brings from outside academia," Muncy said. "When you're a professor for long enough, you get disconnected from what's going on in the legal community. But he has worked in government and private practice, which are the two areas students look to the most for jobs."
After nearly 30 years in politics, as a private attorney for Washington-based Zuckerman Spaeder and as a New York prosecutor, Weich said, "It seems like a good moment to bring all of that to UB and shape the next generation of lawyers."
The new dean said it's premature for him to unveil specific plans, but in general, he said he wants to raise the law school's academic quality, attract national recognition, and build stronger ties to the Washington legal community.
He will take over a school that was unsettled last year by Closius' abrupt resignation. In an e-mail to the university community, Closius said he was forced out because of disputes with President Robert L. Bogomolny over the degree to which law school revenues were used to support other university programs. Many students and alumni expressed outrage at Closius' departure, arguing that he had done much to improve the school's reputation.
In the months following the blow-up, the university announced plans to increase funding to the law school by $5 million over five years.
Weich, Bogomolny and Gilman downplayed the lingering effects from last year's events, though Closius remains a member of the law school faculty.
"Certainly, I'm aware of the history, but I'm not unduly concerned," Weich said. "The university's financial commitment will be important over the next several years, and it will be an ongoing discussion."
Bogomolny said the Closius situation was in the "far distant past," though he discussed it with Weich.
"It's important for him to understand what I value in relationships," Bogomolny said. "Candor, clarity, handling disagreements with class, the ability to clearly state one's point of view."
Closius' resignation shocked and upset many students, but emotions have cooled, said Rachel Severance, a third-year law student from Catonsville.
Weich "will have to do some work to restore students' faith in the university," Severance said. "But his appointment will be a big step in that direction, because students see him as someone who can transform the school and take it in a positive direction."
Alumni expressed some of the strongest concerns about Closius' resignation, but Marie Van Deusen, a 1989 graduate and board member at the law school, said she thinks they will give Weich a chance.
"I think Ron will be smart enough to call on key people and say, 'Hey, I wasn't here for that, I wasn't part of it, but let's get on this train and go together,' " Van Deusen said. "I think he'll be able to do that."
Closius would say only that he wished his successor "all the best."
Weich said his time in Washington has taught him to work across ideological divides. He grew up in New York and earned his bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1980 before receiving a law degree from Yale in 1983.
Weich said he fell under Kennedy's spell while working as an usher at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
He joined the senator's office in 1990 after beginning his career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. "He was a great pragmatist," he said of Kennedy. "He stayed true to his ideals, but he understood that to make progress on any issue, you have to work with those on the other side."
Weich, who will start his new job in July at a salary of $352,000, said he plans to keep Kennedy's approach in mind as dean. He said he will also bring with him a thick skin toughened by partisan political fights. After seven years working for Kennedy and another seven in private practice, he worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He moved to the Department of Justice in 2009 as an appointee of President Barack Obama and has spent the past three years overseeing the department's relationship with Congress.
Weich most recently made news last year, when Republican congressional leaders criticized him for signing off on a letter that contained misleading information about a federal weapons sting gone awry. Weich said the letter was prepared in good faith and that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. withdrew it as soon as the correct information surfaced.
"You can't take criticism too personally," Weich said. "Some of it is just the theater on Washington. You have to keep perspective."
Gilman said the search committee was aware of the 2011 controversy but said, "It did not impact our process. It's hard to find a government official who has not been involved in some political controversy."
Muncy said Weich's experience in Washington was a major calling card for students, who crave jobs on Capitol Hill. They were impressed that his references included Holder and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
"UB has a great reputation in Maryland, but that doesn't necessarily carry into the D.C. market," Muncy said. "Ron can be a huge asset in opening that up for us."
An earlier version of this article referred to Reid as former Senate Majority Leader. He is the current Senate Majority Leader. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times