Michael A. Fitts


A year into his deanship, Law School Dean Michael Fitts admires the ways the city and the rest of the University share their expertise and understanding with the School of Law.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


For Law School Dean Michael A. Fitts, returning to the city of his birth and to Penn was a process of taking up the family business. His grandfather was dean of Wharton in the 1930s, and his father chaired the surgery department at the Medical School in the ’70s.

As Fitts finishes up his first year in the job, he said he is loving every minute of it.

Fitts’ appointment as dean last March capped 15 years as a professor at the Law School. Along the way, he spent time as chair of the appointments committee and as associate dean for academic affairs. These positions prepared him for a few of the myriad roles he plays as dean in this, the Law School’s sesquicentennial year.

Q. You’ve been quoted as saying that the role of the Law School dean is to provide vision for the school. How, if at all, has your conception of that role changed in the past year?

A. I don’t think it has changed that much. I think that when I became dean I recognized that the legal education provided here is as good as any legal education you’ll find at any law school.

But as law is changing, the legal education here has to change as well. There are a number of areas that have seen substantial growth in legal practice and legal scholarship in recent years, and I wanted to focus the Law School on growing in those areas. They include information technology — what we call intellectual property — finance, corporate finance, communications, health law, and, as well, constitutional law. In faculty hiring since I became dean, and in programmatic initiatives, we have focused on each of those areas, and I think that vision has stayed pretty constant.

Q. Have you encountered anything you hadn’t expected?

A. I’ve spent a long time on the faculty and knew that dealing with the faculty and students would be a large part of the job. I had no idea what spending time with the alumni and fundraising would be like, and I love it. Our alumni are a great group, they’re very supportive of the school, they’re excited about the school, their excitement is contagious. Spending time with the alumni is an unexpected joy of the job.

Q. What accomplishment in your year as dean are you the most proud of?

A. Hiring faculty. Penn’s a small law school, and it should remain a small law school in terms of the size of the student body. It’s a great advantage for legal education. But the faculty’s too small. One of my highest priorities was to add faculty to the school. In the last year we’ve already hired six new faculty, which is about 15 to 20 percent of the standing faculty of the school, and we’re looking to hire a number of other faculty.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

A. Law schools are unusual in that the dean is involved in a huge array of different activities. The dean is directly involved in identifying appointments candidates and recruiting appointments candidates, in fundraising, in the administration, in alumni relations and in bar activities. The job of dean therefore involves moving among a whole variety of different issues. That’s challenging; it’s also what’s fun about the job.

Q. What drew you to academia instead of to legal practice?

A. Well, I did practice for four years in the Department of Justice. So it was in part that practice that drew me to academiA. I was serving in an office that provided legal advice to the Cabinet and the White House. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about separation of powers issues, presidential powers issues, issues of what we call administrative law or the law of bureaucracies. Based on that experience, I knew I wanted to be a legal academic and teach in those areas and write in those areas. What also led me into teaching was the family history, that both my father and grandfather had been academics. So I always had the academic bug.

Q. You’ve said that your stint at the Department of Justice had taught you the importance of staying true to one’s convictions. Can you recall an instance in that job where you were faced with such a conflict?

A. Is this a reference to recent events in Washington? [laughs]

Q. Not at all! I’m just interested in the anatomy of that conflict.

A. The very first issue I worked on in government turned out to be a subject of major political controversy in Washington. I wrote a legal memorandum that involved Secret Service protection of the president. It became a hot issue in Washington. I think the opinion we gave was correct and, in fact, it was ultimately sustained. But it did bring home to me the point that you always had to understand that any legal advice you gave, any position you took, could become the subject of scrutiny and second-guessing, so that you had to be sure that what you were doing over the long run was the right thing.

Q. Do you find the office of dean less of a lightning rod position than being in the DOJ?

A. It’s very different. Your mistakes in government can tend to end up on the front page of The Washington Post. I suspect your mistakes here end up on the front page of The Daily Pennsylvanian. But they’re both opportunities to help shape an institution and make it a better place.

Q. How has cooperation between the Law School and other schools at Penn been furthered this year?

A. Over the last several years, when I was associate dean and now as dean, we’ve set up a number of joint programs with other schools. We’ve also, since I’ve become dean, set up a variety of joint courses with other schools, where faculty from different schools come together and teach. We’ve done that on an ad hoc basis where we bring two faculty together; we’ve done it on a more sustained basis between schools.

Q. Can you give some examples of collaborations?

A. Well, we had set up submatriculation programs with the College and the Wharton School and the Engineering School. And we have joint programs, J.D./Ph.D. programs, with the history department, the philosophy department, and we have a J.D./MBA program with the Wharton School.

Ed Rubin from the Law School and Dan Hunter from Wharton are teaching a joint e-commerce course where they join their two classes together. Our negotiation course is jointly taught between Wharton and the Law School. Finally, this year we started a joint course with the Engineering School, entitled “High Tech Ventures: Legal Aspects and Negotiations.”

Q. What scholarship are you working on now?

A. Personally? Um — none. I have three drafts in my computer, two with irate co-authors. [laughs]

Q. Irate because you’ve been too busy as dean to work on them.

A. Exactly.

Q. You grew up in West Philly. Do you still live in the city?

A. I live in Center City right over the South Street Bridge. I love the city. I’m a city person. Penn is a city school. For the Law School, it allows us to operate a series of programs, both our clinic and our public service program, and it allows us to draw on the judicial and professional resources of the city.

Q. Anything to add?

A. It’s a challenging job, as it should be. It’s also a fun and rewarding job. You get to spend time with smart, energetic students; supportive, enthusiastic faculty; dedicated administrators; and in a whole variety of different contexts. It’s been a lot of work but a lot of fun.

Originally published on March 22, 2001