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Penn Law Dean Michael Fitts brings visionary leadership to Tulane presidency

February 26, 2014

Michael Fitts, newly named president of Tulane University, brings experience from 14 years as dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Michael Fitts, newly named president of Tulane University, brings experience from 14 years as dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
(Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Great academic leaders must be “part visionary leader, part obsessive manager and part mother superior,” Michael Fitts wrote for a law review in 2010.

The visionary leadership of the newly named next Tulane University president has been widely evident during his 14 years as dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His managerial obsessions and mother superior traits remain to be seen.

Fitts responded to legal education’s challenges by innovating: the law school partnered with the renowned Wharton School, Penn’s medical school and other academic units so that law students there now can choose from 35 joint degree and certificate programs. As he has explained it, lawyers have the ability to dissect a problem from all angles, and in today’s global environment, they also must be able to think strategically, understand the intricacies of their clients’ business and have negotiating skills.

Fitts added partnerships in Asia and Europe and increased support for students going into public interest work. He led the effort to add a $33.5 million building to the law school, and a fundraising campaign called Bold Ambitions was just that, raising more than $200 million.

Fitts also is a scholar and an insightful, creative thinker. He taught for 15 years and has written about political parties and presidential power. He often has told of being inspired to go into law by Atticus Finch, the highly principled and quietly courageous lawyer in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, played by Gregory Peck in the movie.

Tulane Law Assistant Dean of Admission David Weinberg, a Penn law student when Fitts became dean, said he has “a strong understanding of the importance of cross-disciplinary education, a keen awareness of the challenges of globalization to the legal profession and a passion for partnering with our city to enhance experiential learning opportunities for students.”

Tulane and the law school “already do these things exceptionally well,” Weinberg said, and Fitts “will take our efforts to a new level of excellence.”

Andy Wisdom (L ’94), Presidential Search Committee co-chair, said Fitts “possesses the rare combination of an affable personality and a keenly perceptive mind that will enable him to lead Tulane during this time of profound change and evolution in higher education.”

The Tulane Law Connection asked Fitts a few questions to learn more about his thinking. Here are his answers:

How do you see Tulane Law School fitting into your vision for the university overall?

What’s so special about the study of law is that it illuminates almost every significant issue, problem and perspective in our society. A great law school like Tulane is, and should continue to be, involved in virtually all of the issues across the University. In many ways, that’s been the strength of Tulane Law, and I look forward to that engagement going forward, ensuring that it continues to be a major force not only for the University, but also in legal education.

What unique qualities can a law school dean bring to a university presidency that are different from presidents coming from other fields?

Again, it goes back to the fact that legal education intersects with almost every field in the University. A law school dean naturally brings that collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach to a presidency. In addition, legal education teaches you how to think through problems, organize issues and prioritize. These qualities are important to being a lawyer, a dean and a university president.

At the same time, it needs to be recognized that law deans have had to confront very significant financial and professional pressures recently. Over the last five to 10 years, the legal profession has undergone significant changes, which have in turn tested every law school in the United States. Many of these same issues are and will be important to higher education more broadly, including undergraduate education. Those of us who have experienced this transformation in law and legal education are thinking through a lot of the same issues that everybody across the academy has been and will soon be addressing.

What do you think lies ahead for legal education?

On the one hand, it’s a time of rapid change. All of the changes that have been impacting other parts of American society and the economy are being felt in the profession and the legal academy, whether it’s globalization, technological change, competition or economic restructuring. It makes it a very exciting time to be involved in the law, responding to these changes and making sure that we stay ahead of the curve.

Will we get to see you in a law school classroom and, if so, what subject(s) will you teach?

Not my first year, but ultimately I hope to be teaching, probably a course in nonprofits.


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