After months of bubbling discontent among professors over the law school’s faculty compensation practices, University of Texas School of Law Dean Larry Sager was forced to resign his position Thursday.
Sager confirmed to The Texas Tribune that he signed a letter of resignation that afternoon, effectively immediately, at the request of UT President Bill Powers.
"The fact of the matter is, and there's no two ways about this fact, that I resigned now because I was asked to by the president of the university," Sager said.
Sager announced in August that he intended to step down from his post as dean of the state's largest law school at the end of the academic year. No reason was given at the time, though Sager told the Tribune it was at Powers’ urging.
Powers told the Tribune that there had been growing concern about Sager's management of the law school. "I was hopeful that when the faculty knew that, after a dean search, there would be new leadership that some of the concerns of the faculty would abate," he said. "That has not been the case."
His decision comes as extensive open records request relating to Sager’s handling of compensation is causing significant unrest and distraction among professors at the law school. "There are some deep divisions among the faculty," Powers acknowledged, saying it had reached a point where a change was necessary to allow the faculty to "look forward and be more productive as we went ahead."
At the center of the conflict is the law school’s practice of awarding substantial salary stipends and “forgivable loans” to recruit and keep faculty members. The loans listed in the open records request, obtained by the Tribune, include a $500,000 payment to Sager himself.
There are also several sexual discrimination complaints filed by women at the law school in the 75-page long open records document that point to a gender pay gap. In a letter to Sager included in the documents, Professor Lynn Blais expresses concern that women are underrepresented on all the major governing committees at UT Law, including the budget committee responsible for setting faculty compensation.
In an hour-long interview, Sager said that gender equity was a cause he was “very attached to” and that he’s pushed hard to hire and retain women at the law school. He also said his efforts to attract star professors to the law school in a highly competitive market was complicated by an “increasingly estranged” relationship with Powers, the man he followed as dean of the law school.
“It's very hard to talk about, and especially for me without saying things that are really pretty damaging and sharp,” he said. “The least one can say is that there has been a very intense personality conflict between the two of us and that undermined our relationship entirely and that is a circumstance that I deeply regret.”
During his five years leading the law school, Sager has made 16 new hires, many laterally from the sought-after faculty of other law schools. For desirable candidates, in addition to plum compensation packages, Sager said he offered generous benefits to compete with their other job offers, including the forgivable loans.
Powers also said that faculty compensation had to be competitive, especially because UT must compete with private schools for top academic talent. But he conceded, "That has been a concern of many faculty over the last year or so at the law school today."
Though, he clarified that questions were about implementation and "not the existence of the [Law School] Foundation making the support. He said, "That is a very important thing that helps nearly every faculty member."
Sager described the loan arrangement in a letter he sent to faculty Thursday afternoon:
We, too, have frequently included non-salary commitments, in the form of one-time loans. These have been accompanied with a promise on our part to defray the costs of repaying the loan in annual installments of five or seven years, provided that the recipient of the loan remains on our faculty. Typically, these loans are aimed at the purchase of a home, and have helped to settle our new colleagues and their families in Austin. In exchange for these loans, I have asked and received from the recipients a moral commitment to remain members of our community for at least five years.
Sager emphasized that the practice had been in place long before he took over as dean, and that it was prevalent among many law schools. In his letter to faculty, he noted that he himself had raised more than $10 million for the purpose of recruiting and retaining faculty —the bulk of the funds that went toward the loans.
He said the UT Law School Foundation made the $500,000 payment to him in recognition of his strong performance as dean — and in acknowledgment that his salary was lower than many of his counterparts at other schools.
A tenacious fundraiser, Sager has gathered just under $80 million in donations to the law school in his five-year tenure as dean. Under his watch, the school has also significantly raised its national profile: last year it entered the coveted “T-14” realm when it surpassed Vanderbilt to move into the top 14 law schools in the U.S. News and World report rankings.
Easily distinguishable by his mane of unruly gray hair, Sager is a frequent presence at student events and in the halls of the law school, where he is known to walk around with a tiny cup of espresso in hand and his wife is also a tenured professor. He said they had yet to determine their future plans — with tenure, they could both stay on at UT as professors — but that they would at least finish teaching their courses this semester at the law school.
“What happens going forward here, as mechanical matter is unexceptional,” he said, “As an emotional matter, that's a more complicated thing under all these circumstances.”
A committee has already been actively searching for a new dean, and Powers said it would continue without any change. Meanwhile, the law school's associate dean for academic affairs, Stefanie Lindquist, will serve as interim dean.
"She's very able and has been involved in the day-to-day running of the law school, so the law school will be in good hands," Powers said.
Here is Sager's resignation letter, which discusses some of his efforts at the school:
Here's the open records request that caused the stir at the law school: