To understand why special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr might want to leave Washington to become dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Law, one need only catch the view from the deck outside his new office--he’ll gaze out at the deep blue Pacific stretching to Santa Catalina Island and at Malibu hills perfect for his passion, horseback riding.
But what does Pepperdine see in Starr, a controversial figure from the highest-level wars of politics? Well, consider an instant poll of a class of first-year law students, asked Tuesday whom they wanted for their dean.
Bill Clinton? Only two of the 70 students clapped their approval.
Hillary Clinton? A sprinkling more.
What about . . . Ken Starr?
Raucous applause and cheers.
On a campus where Young Republicans outnumber Young Democrats by more than 2 to 1, it’s no surprise that the hiring of the 50-year-old Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor who has been directing vigorous criminal investigations of the president and the first lady, would whip up such enthusiasm.
But to students and faculty at the campus known more for its breathtaking scenery than its academic prowess--its unofficial nickname is Malibu U.--the hiring of the distinguished former jurist is a coup for another reason: prestige.
In 1983, Starr became one of the youngest judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals and later was considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bush. Pepperdine law school, in contrast, was ranked in the fourth of five tiers among American law schools last year by U.S. News and World Report. So the announcement Monday that Starr will head the school “makes Pepperdine a far more visible and attractive institution” to prospective students and donors, said Peter Arenella, UCLA criminal law professor.
At the Malibu campus, officials were forthright about pinning their hopes on Starr.
“He will certainly help put the school on the map, which we certainly need,” said the current law school dean, Ronald F. Phillips, who announced more than a year ago that he would leave that post to become a vice chancellor, concentrating on fund-raising.
Starr is a good fit for other reasons. Pepperdine has long had ties to the Churches of Christ, a predominantly Southern denomination that believes in a literal acceptance of the Bible, and the university considers Christian commitment an important characteristic of its leaders. Friends and associates describe Starr, the son of a Baptist minister, as a man of deep religious convictions.
The school has just as lengthy ties to the GOP--another reason that many observers say Starr’s choice makes sense.
His appointment, meanwhile, has fueled speculation that he is winding down his aggressive probe into the business dealings of the first couple, but the special prosecutor discounted those theories Tuesday.
“I think that is wrong, it is erroneous, and it is a very dangerous thought,” Starr told Associated Press outside his office in Little Rock, Ark.
He said the criminal investigation of President and Mrs. Clinton “is going to go on for some time,” probably under yet another independent counsel.
University officials said they were the ones who approached Starr after three faculty members recommended him to the search committee assigned to find Phillips’ replacement. As an inducement, Starr will be given the option of filling the first vacancy in Pepperdine’s spectacular faculty housing--Spanish-style homes that crown the Malibu hills each with a million-dollar view.
In addition to being named dean of Pepperdine’s law school, Starr also will serve as head of the university’s new School of Public Policy. He is expected to assume both positions by Aug. 1.
He also will be allowed to retain his affiliation with--and do private legal work for--Kirkland & Ellis, a firm based in Chicago but with offices in many cities, including Los Angeles. During his tenure as special prosecutor, Starr has drawn criticism for his continuing role in the firm, which represents a number of large corporations, serving as lead counsel for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., among others. Starr himself successfully argued a major case for the tobacco companies last year, persuading the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to decertify a nationwide class-action suit filed against them.
Starr was questioned for retaining the case while investigating President Clinton, whose opponent last year, Bob Dole, was heavily supported by the tobacco industry. Starr defended his actions in a speech last spring, noting that Congress had authorized lawyers chosen as independent counsel to maintain private practices.
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, said he can recall no other instance in which such a “world-class” practicing lawyer was brought in to be a law school dean, a position usually filled from the faculty ranks. “It will turn heads that he’s going there,” Gillers said.
On the Malibu campus, however, there seemed little preoccupation with the political machinations that may be behind Starr’s move. There was mainly celebration. It was clear to most students and faculty interviewed Tuesday that his hiring was a big win for the campus by the sea.
Some students--worried over whether they will be able to parlay their legal education into well-paying jobs--said they hope that Starr’s selection will translate into better opportunities for them, and respect for the school.
“With the addition of Ken Starr, we are going to start building a national reputation,” said Marcus Vickers, Pepperdine’s first African American president of the Student Bar Assn.
What Pepperdine gets from Starr is a more lustrous profile, greater potential to raise funds and someone who can open doors in Washington.
But Starr clearly gains in the deal, as well, friends and associates say.
In trading Whitewater for a water-view office, he gets a respite from vicious Washington legal wrangling--and distance that will help him, some legal experts said, if he still hopes to become a Supreme Court justice.
Starr, said slongtime friend Alex Kozinski, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, has yearned to “be an academic” and has a long-standing relationship with Pepperdine, including teaching there last summer. Starr used the university beach house during that stint, he recalled, and “he liked it a lot.”
Although Starr is not a surfer, Kozinski said the new dean likes riding horses, a hobby well served by Malibu’s rustic terrain. “He is a Texas boy. He is quite handy on a horse. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw him riding in the hills,” Kozinski said.
Kozinski, who met Starr more than 20 years ago when they were law clerks for Chief Justice Warren Burger, also cited Starr’s religious beliefs. “He has always had a deep root in the fundamental Christian community,” Kozinski said. “He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. But his affinity for that group is genuine and long-standing.”
Steven S. Lemley, the university’s provost and head of the search committee, described Starr as a man with “a strong ethical sense and a deep Christian character.” Combined with his legal credentials, “he is a great fit for Pepperdine.”
Others said Starr’s pleasant nature--a surprise to those who know him only as a hard-charging prosecutor--also is a good match for Pepperdine.
“I am floored by what a low-key, easygoing guy he is,” said Ben Stein, a former Richard Nixon speech writer on the law school faculty. “He is the least shark-like guy . . . calm, deliberative and unantagonistic.”
Stein, who has gained some fame as a blank-faced comic actor, said Starr’s personality complements that of a law school that is one of the most laid-back in the country.
“This is like surfer law school,” said Stein, who teaches securities law. “It is the friendliest, least competitive, least tense law school in the world . . . for people who want a quiet relaxed life--not for aggressive, Alan Dershowitz types.”
Starr’s solid Republican connections also carry weight at Pepperdine, whose former president once was named a Republican National Committee member by Nixon. The university’s founder, George Pepperdine, was an admirer of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. And over the years, an array of conservative luminaries have spoken or taught at the school.
Key conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court--including Sandra Day O’Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and, most recently, Antonin Scalia--have appeared at campus functions or taught summer seminars.
Economist Arthur Laffer, creator of the “Laffer Curve” that came to symbolize Reaganomics, spent two years on the Pepperdine faculty.
To be sure, prominent Democrats also have addressed the law school, including former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk. Other Democrats have risen from Pepperdine’s ranks, among them Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn and several members of the California Legislature.
But it is the names of wealthy Republican movers and shakers that adorn Pepperdine’s buildings. There’s the Firestone Fieldhouse, a gift of the late Leonard Firestone, and the George Graziadio School of Business, named after the head of Imperial Bancorp.
“Any portrayal of Pepperdine as a bastion of conservatism would be inaccurate. But I think there is a greater element of that here than at other places,” said Lemley. “I separate partisan politics from a general conservative world view, which is very strongly held here.”
Pepperdine is nonsectarian. But Lemley and Phillips are both members of Churches of Christ, and the university’s charter specifies that its president must have Christian roots.
Conservative values permeate the institution. Undergraduate students are required to attend a weekly convocation at the Firestone Fieldhouse, which opens with a prayer and includes topical speakers. Dancing was banned on campus until the late 1980s, and drinking is still taboo.
In keeping with Pepperdine’s “Christian values,” Phillips said, the law school has sought to distinguish itself from the intimidating professors and “Paper Chase” competitiveness of other schools. It would be rare, Phillips said, for a student to hide a book in a library to gain a competitive edge over classmates. Professors are encouraged to focus on teaching rather than scholarship and make themselves available to students after class.
“We feel that we can be just as demanding from a supportive stance as a confrontational one,” Phillips said.
Pepperdine’s Christian orientation played a key role in the law school’s decision to launch its Institute for Dispute Resolution in 1986. “We wanted to try to find a middle ground rather than resolving things by conflict,” said Pepperdine spokesman Jeff Bliss.
Bliss said there was no doubt that the school’s religious orientation and Starr’s affinity for it played a key role in forging the deal.
“For Pepperdine it’s important to have professors, deans and leaders who fully support our Christian mission. It’s something we certainly find agreement on,” Bliss said.
Students, though, seemed more impressed by Starr’s high name recognition in the legal world than by his religious and conservative credentials.
“It will increase the values of our diplomas,” said Robin Sax, a third-year law student. “This is a huge opportunity to expand our horizons and grow beyond Southern California.”
Susan Rosenfeld, a 1993 Pepperdine law graduate, said she frequently heard job interviewers say of Pepperdine, “‘Oh . . . the school by the beach.’ Now they won’t say that anymore,” she added, smiling broadly. “They’ll say Ken Starr.”
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PEPPERDINE SCHOOL OF LAW
In naming Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr as its new dean, Pepperdine’s law school continues a tradition of tapping leading conservative legal figures. Some highlights in the school’s history.
* 1970: The law school receives provisional accreditation from the State Bar of California and the first full-time day class (34 students) opens.
* 1973: The school is relocated to a larger facility in Anaheim.
* 1975: Full ABA approval received.
* 1976: Pepperdine decides to build a permanent law school facility at its Malibu campus. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun speaks at commencement.
* 1979: U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist delivers the dedication address for the new law school in Malibu.
* 1980: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun presides over the annual Moot Court competition and speaks at law school dinner.
* 1981: Pepperdine becomes first U.S. law school to establish a semester-abroad program in London.
* 1982: The law school establishes a board of visitors, which over the years will include Rehnquist, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Malcom Lucas, California Supreme Court Justices Armand Arabian, Joyce Kennard and Frank Richardson, U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith--and Starr.
* 1985: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner presides over Moot Court.
* 1986: Rehnquist teaches summer class in constitutional law.
* 1987: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at the school.
* 1990: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White presides over Moot Court; Scalia teaches a summer class in Constitutional Law.
* 1993: Starr teaches a summer course in constitutional law.
* 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas presides over moot court and is the featured speaker at the School of Law dinner.
* 1996: Pepperdine inaugurates a master’s degree program in dispute resolution.
Source: Pepperdine University
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CALIFORNIA LAW SCHOOLS
Pepperdine officials say they hope the appointment of Kenneth W. Starr will raise the profile of the Malibu university’s law school, which now is listed in the fourth tier of law schools nationally in the closely-watched rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report. Here are the magazine’s latest comparisons of california law schools and their students:
FIRST TIER LAW SCHOOLS:
Rank by Rank by Median ’95 School Academics Lawyers/Judges LSAT Score Stanford 2 1 171 UC Berkeley 6 7 166 USC 20 21 163 UCLA 16 16 162 SECOND TIER LAW SCHOOLS: UC Davis 30 33 162 UCSF (Hastings) 24 18 162 THIRD TIER LAW SCHOOLS: Loyola 65 56 158 Santa Clara 88 82 157 Univ.of San Diego 75 97 160 FOURTH TIER LAW SCHOOLS: Univ.of the Pacific 98 97 154 (McGeorge) Pepperdine 108 70 157 Univ.of San Francisco 98 82 157 FIFTH TIER LAW SCHOOLS: California Western 148 162 152 Golden Gate 148 156 153 Southwestern 139 142 153 Whittier 158 150 150
‘95 Median Starting School Salary Stanford $71,000 UC Berkeley $67,000 USC $70,000 UCLA $70,000 SECOND TIER LAW SCHOOLS: UC Davis $51,000 UCSF (Hastings) $66,000 THIRD TIER LAW SCHOOLS: Loyola $69,500 Santa Clara $51,000 Univ.of San Diego $59,000 FOURTH TIER LAW SCHOOLS: Univ.of the Pacific $52,000 (McGeorge) Pepperdine $55,000 Univ.of San Francisco $54,000 FIFTH TIER LAW SCHOOLS: California Western $40,000 Golden Gate $45,000 Southwestern $54,000 Whittier $48,000
Source: U.S. News & World Report