The time-honored tradition of naming a law professorship after a famous scholar or donor has gone off the rails a bit at a University of Arkansas law school — and the twist involves none other than the would-be honoree himself, former President Bill Clinton.
Newly released records show the scandal-plagued former president had withdrawn his approval for a teaching chair to be named after himself at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Yet emeritus professor John DiPippa, who has held the post since it was first endowed in 2000, recently dubbed it the Clinton chair anyway.
Now the university is embroiled in questions about what prompted the sudden attachment of Mr. Clinton’s name to the teaching chair, as well as the history that apparently settled the issue. A state Senate hearing on the matter had been planned for Tuesday, but it was postponed because a special session required meetings to be shuffled.
The controversy erupted this year, when Mr. DiPippa, with the approval of law school Dean Theresa Beiner, suddenly began calling the teaching position the “William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Policy.”
However, a recently discovered, handwritten message about the teaching chair dated Oct. 27, 2000, reads: “Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy correct title for John DiPippa per Dean Goldner.”
The abrupt change raised questions among some faculty members and about whether a law school should honor a lawyer who had his license suspended for five years after being found in contempt of court for giving dishonest answers in a civil deposition.
In addition, at least one faculty member expressed concern about laws Mr. Clinton signed that led to an increase in incarceration rates among Blacks, his approval of a state execution in 1992 when he first sought the White House and his record of treating women badly, according to internal emails that surfaced through a public records request.
State Sen. Jason Rapert said Tuesday he will reschedule a Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs hearing on the matter. The Republican lawmaker had called for the meeting after having criticized law school officials and promising surprising revelations.
“When you see something like this so strange and so odd, it warrants some discussion when it comes to taxpayer-supported entities,” Mr. Rapert told The Washington Times. “One way or another we’re going to ask some questions.”
Ms. Beiner, the law school dean, did not respond to questions about her earlier approval of Mr. DiPippa attaching “William J. Clinton” to his professorship’s title.
Mr. DiPippa was a stalwart Clinton supporter during myriad investigations of the president and his administration, and internal university correspondence appears to show the chair was designed in part to reward him. William Bowen, the donor, also liked the idea of honoring Mr. Clinton with a chair, according to school records.
When Mr. Clinton accepted a five-year suspension of his law license and being held in contempt of court for less than truthful responses in civil depositions, Mr. DiPippa was a key negotiator in the deal that saved Mr. Clinton from outright disbarment, internal law school emails show.
“John DiPippa was fair and convincing in his remarks on talk/news programs and to news outlets as questions involving the president commanded the media’s attention,” law school Dean Rodney Smith wrote in an internal memo July 27, 1999, months before the chair was announced.
“John DiPippa would be our first Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law,” Mr. Smith wrote.
In October 1999, a White House assistant counsel named Meredith Cabe wrote the school “we have no objection,” to naming the chair after Mr. Clinton, records show.
But something apparently changed. In September 2000, then-Dean Charles Goldner wrote Mr. Bowen saying he had announced the chair and Mr. DiPippa’s appointment to it, but that they were hoping Mr. Bowen would agree to lend his name to it.
“As you know, at the request of the White House, we have not made this the William J. Clinton professorship right now,” Mr. Goldner wrote.
The chair was endowed, and Mr. DiPippa occupied it from the beginning. For decades, there was no debate or question about its title, and in August 2013, a university description of “named professorships and funding” called it the “distinguished professor of law and public policy.”
“President Clinton did not approve his name to be used in connection with the professorship,” that description says, while also retelling the stillborn attempt to instead name it after Mr. Bowen, a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice.
The University of Arkansas has one law school at its flagship campus in Fayetteville, as well as the Bowen school in Little Rock. The university also has a separate public policy school named after Mr. Clinton, who is also a former state attorney general and governor, as well as former president.
It remains unclear why, after so many years, Mr. DiPippa attached Mr. Clinton’s name to the chair.
“I simply do not think it is appropriate for a law school to honor a disbarred lawyer — it strikes me as hardly sending a deterrent message to law students or practitioners,” professor J. Thomas Sullivan wrote Ms. Beiner last May, when faculty first noticed the new chair name.
In response to Mr. Sullivan’s objection and questions from other faculty members, Ms. Beiner repeatedly cited the October 1999 White House memo but made no mention of the multiple subsequent documents that show Mr. Clinton did not support the naming, multiple emails show.
Ms. Beiner did not respond to Mr. Sullivan’s initial query, but after another faculty member, Robert Steinbuch, raised questions she told them on May 28 that “your colleagues are not interested in the naming of this professorship.”
Mr. Steinbuch said the multiple documents stating Mr. Clinton did not approve of the name vindicated the queries from him and Mr. Sullivan.
“From the beginning it was clear that this was not named after Bill Clinton,” Mr. Steinbuch told The Times. “They said, ‘oh, lost mail,’ to explain their sudden addition but that is not true. It’s clear that his position was not named for Bill Clinton and it should obviously remain not named after Mr. Clinton.”
Mr. Rapert said he is aware of the records in question although he said he did not have them in his possession yet.
“They should just stay with what it had been referred as when there was no controversy,” he told The Times on Tuesday. “It’s very troubling that you might have had the current dean and some others who wanted to change this because why would you want to proceed that way? They’ve created a false narrative, and you wonder why did they pursue this when it doesn’t make a lot of sense?”
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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