Drexel University's yearlong search for a dean to lead its new law school ended yesterday with the selection of a local academic: the top official at Rutgers-Camden, Provost Roger J. Dennis. He begins at the end of the spring semester.
Dennis, an expert on corporate and antitrust law, has served as provost since 1997. Before that, he was dean of the Rutgers-Camden law school for six years.
"Really the core of my professional identity as a teacher and scholar has always been the law," Dennis said in a phone interview yesterday.
It is a little unusual for a provost - particularly one like Dennis who leads an entire campus - to take the lower-ranking position of dean. But Drexel law is hardly typical. The school opened its doors just last August, and Dennis will become its first dean.
"The chance to create a new law school is a pretty unique opportunity," Dennis said. "It's a legacy job."
New law schools actually open fairly frequently - six received accreditation last year alone - but the vast majority of those schools are at small colleges or universities, many of which exclusively offer law degrees. Drexel says it has been more than 25 years since a comparable university opened a law school.
At Rutgers-Camden, Dennis has come under scrutiny in recent months because of his 2002 hiring of New Jersey State Sen. Wayne Bryant as an adjunct professor.
Federal and state authorities are investigating Bryant's employment with various publicly funded agencies and institutions, including Rutgers-Camden.
Already, federal officials have said Bryant received a $38,000 salary for "little to no work" at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for his "political juice" on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, which directs funds to state colleges.
Federal authorities have not commented on Bryant's job at Rutgers-Camden, but in October they subpoenaed all documents relating to his hiring there. Yesterday, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey declined comment.
The university brought Bryant on in the fall of 2002 and paid him a total of $130,000 over four years. While Bryant lectured occasionally at the Rutgers-Camden law school, he did not teach a course. Dennis has said he hired Bryant, who is black, in part to improve faculty diversity, and in part because of the legislator's expertise.
Rutgers is conducting an internal audit of the hiring.
"I'm not privy to where they're at or what's up with that," Dennis said. "Internal audit committees report directly to the board."
But Dennis was adamant yesterday that the Bryant matter played no part in his decision to leave Rutgers-Camden.
"No. No. I hadn't even thought about it. This is a really wonderful professional opportunity," Dennis said.
In addition to his ample administrative experience, Dennis has worked extensively with the American Bar Association on law school accreditation. That background should prove helpful to Drexel, which will begin the long process of winning ABA approval in the fall.
"It's great, great news," said Drexel law acting dean Jennifer Rosato, who will serve as associate dean of students once Dennis arrives. "I think I can say that collectively we were very, very pleased."
Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Jennifer Moroz contributed to this article.