Oral History Interview with Cliff Thompson (1991)

University of Wisconsin Law School Library
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00:00:00 - Educational Background

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Partial Transcript: This is Barry Teicher of the University of Wisconsin Oral History Project, today is December 12, 1991.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson describes how he grew up in Kansas and went to Harvard as an undergrad, and then had a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at Oxford and then finished his law degree at Harvard.

He first became interested in law at an early age but it wasn't an "overwhelming passion." He feels very indebted to great teachers in Kansas and his undergraduate education at Harvard for preparing him for his later career.

Keywords: Harvard; Harvard Law School; Oxford; Rhodes Scholarship

00:02:17 - Work in Sudan, Zambia, and Ethiopia

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Partial Transcript: How did you get involved in that whole phase of your career?

Segment Synopsis: Thompson talks about his work in Africa, from 1961-1973.

At the time that he was in law school at Harvard (1958-1960), the post-war era in Africa was taking hold and most African countries were heading toward independence. In 1960 (the same year he graduated from law school), a large number of countries became independent in Africa. He was interested because he had an English law degree as well and knew there were very few people trained in law in the colonial areas and likely would need legal personnel in their early stages of independence. He thought it was an opportunity to work with something historically important and adventurous.

His interest was also influenced by a Ghanaian friend at Oxford and the fact that his wife was working at MIT doing research on an African project and he would talk with her about it.

Since there was no Peace Corps at this time (or internet/computers), he wrote many letters in order to look for work in Africa. Therefore, after graduation, he decided to go to West Africa alone to look for work. His family was very supportive of this.

On his way to Africa, Thompson stopped at the Ford Foundation in New York to confirm some addresses, but while he was there he talked with Francis Sutton, the Foundation's Associate Director for Africa. Sutton then offered Thompson a job with the Ford Foundation as an Associate Program Officer for Africa, although it would be based in New York. This eventually led to a job in Africa itself, as both the Executive Director of the Sudan Law Project and as a professor at the University of Khartoum.

After this, Thompson was able to get many jobs in Africa since he had become established. He was "in demand" since there was a lot of need for legal assistance in Africa. One of these subsequent jobs was helping to co-found the first law school in Zambia. (Prior to this, there were only 12 Zambian lawyers in the entire country.)

His last job in Africa was in Ethiopia, where he helped the law school make the transition from a predominantly foreign faculty to a national one. In fact, the current dean is Ethiopian and one of Thompson's former students.

Thompson says that it was very exciting to teach in Africa at this time because he knew that all of the future leaders of the different countries would come out of the law schools where he was teaching.

GPS: Link to map
Map Coordinates: -15.428, 28.309
00:16:34 - Deanships at SMU, Hawaii, and Idaho

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Partial Transcript: After being there for 13 years, you decided to move back to the States and you accepted I believe a deanship at SMU.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson corrects the interviewer in stating that he was not initially dean at SMU; he was a professor property law and jurisprudence.

After he came back from Africa, he had an offer to work at a large law firm in London, but he decided that he wanted to stay in the academic world instead, but he wanted to establish credentials as an American law teacher whose expertise was not foreign law. He didn't want to be marginalized and wanted to establish himself in a more traditional area so he could avoid any difficulty with funding. He also wanted to have some expertise with American law since he hadn't been working with it for 13 years.

SMU had always had a jurisprudential interest and their professor had just retired, so Thompson was hired as the replacement. After 4 years at SMU, he then became dean at Hawaii.

Thompson went to Hawaii, similarly to when he went to Africa. Hawaii had just obtained statehood in 1959 and had many issues. One of the issues was that they wanted to open up governmental positions to local Hawaiians, and for this, Hawaii needed a law school.

This law school was started in 1973 but was threatened with closure as the first dean had been fired and there were many problems. Thompson wanted to help out and he found this to be the most difficult work he had yet encountered. After two years, he left Hawaii after being successful in his work there. He left in 1977 because the public schools in Hawaii were notoriously bad and he wanted his four children to have a good education.

Therefore, he accepted a job at the law school in Idaho, which wanted an established person in the field to help boost the prestige of the school and help it to become a renowned regional school.

GPS: Link to map
Map Coordinates: 21.296, -157.819
00:24:10 - Accepting the Deanship at Wisconsin

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Partial Transcript: Actually I think we got over to Wisconsin (laughs).

Segment Synopsis: Thompson describes how he was hired at Wisconsin-- by chance, in two of his deanships, members of the Wisconsin faculty had been visiting professors at the schools and Thompson got to know them. These professors were then instrumental to nominating Thompson to the deanship of the UW Law School.

Margo Melli called Thompson and offered him the job and he told her that he liked to work at schools where there were issues he could fix in a relatively short amount of time. Melli then told him about the problems Wisconsin had.

Thompson says that Wisconsin had two big problems when he came there- the first was a paucity of funding, and the second (related) problem was an overly competitive atmosphere among the faculty, due in part to the lack of funds. When Thompson arrived, the financial situation was very bad.

Keywords: Margo Melli; University of Wisconsin Law School; Wisconsin

00:31:06 - Early Deanship at Wisconsin

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Partial Transcript: Well, apart from the fact that I simply talked to everybody and visually soon got a sense that I was being warned off of this person, that person, that group or other group, I suppose one of the dramatic early things that happened was a group of four, well I think the faculty was strong but four particularly strong members of the faculty came to see me.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson talks about how he received a visit from four prominent faculty members during the early days of his deanship at WI, concerning the reallocation of some of the school's resources. Thompson hesitated in making a decision, and he was then more or less threatened by this group of faculty that they would isolate him if Thompson opposed them. Eventually, though, they backed off and in the long run they became friends with Thompson (after time and the school had more money).

Thompson does think that he was a good fit as dean at WI at this time. There were very diverse interests at UW and Thompson was able to see a unity in the faculty and scholarship in Law in Action (which WI pioneered), which denotes a strong belief that the law in the case books is important (the black letter law), but that it does not accurately reflect the actual daily practice of law. Therefore, limiting law school to just analyzing cases in books is inadequate, so clinics and practical experience is very important.

Thompson also talks about the differences between being dean at the law school in Ethiopia and at UW. In Ethiopia, he had much more power, and in the US (and at WI), although faculty wanted the dean to support them, they did not want the dean to be their spokesperson.

Thompson also relates an anecdote about creating the Institute for Legal Studies. The idea came about from David Trubek, and Thompson supported it, although Trubek did not want Thompson to be its spokesperson. Thompson helped to garner support for this plan and met with opposing faculty and eventually convinced them that the opposing faculty's own projects would not be threatened financially with the creation of this Institute. In this situation and others of this nature, Thompson tried to play the role of facilitator rather than the originator-primary supporter of new ideas, and this helped him with his faculty relations.

However, Thompson did initiate one policy himself-- the policy that would require professors to submit final grades by a certain deadline. He did this since he felt it was a very important practice and he had initiated it at every other law school at which he had been dean. Therefore, this policy was passed within the first year of Thompson's deanship, although Thompson says that he doesn't think most people realized that he was its originator. He says that it is better for many people to get credit for things that are done, rather than to have one dominating leader.

Keywords: David Trubek; Institute for Legal Studies; Law in Action

00:46:27 - The APC and the Law School Administration

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Partial Transcript: This is side 2 of the interview with Cliff Thompson.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson begins by talking about the Academic Planning Council (APC) at UW; it is normally a group of four faculty plus the dean and varies as to what it does depending on the school. When Thompson arrived at UW, the APC only had one important role- to evaluate the dean at the end of his tenure.

Thompson thought that the APC should have a larger role and that this role should be expanded to include evaluations of faculty for the administration of catch-up pay, and to serve as a sounding board for controversial issues. He also changed the APC so that its members would be elected to the faculty to 3 year, overlapping terms.

Thompson also talks about how the law school's administrative organization was the worst he had ever seen. He does think that some things were good (admissions office was very small but doing a very good job) and that some improvements occurred during his tenure but that the administration structure remained weak overall.

When Thompson was dean, the dean didn't even have a secretary- there was a group of 7 secretaries but this made it really hard to keep things confidential. He made changes but it was still very difficult- so there is now a secretary in the dean's office but she still has to do a lot of things for other faculty and is not solely the dean's secretary. Overall, Thompson felt that the administration was at a "C-" grade when he started (except for the duplicating room and the admissions office, which he would give them an "A"), but that during his tenure it moved up to about a "B-".

Orrin Helstad, Thompson's predecessor as dean, was very helpful to Thompson in understanding important issues and adjusting to the role of dean. Stuart Gullickson (the associate dean) also stayed an extra year and helped Thompson to transition, and Gerald Thain, the next associate dean, was also very good.

Thompson describes the large committee structure within the law school. The law school faculty saw the committees as important arenas for protecting their individual resources. Thompson felt that these committees did not always perform important functions, so he cut down on the size of some of them (the ones that rarely met or did very little important work). The ad hoc, recruitment, and tenure committees were the ones which dealt with important issues and Thompson did not cut the size of these.

Subjects: APC; Academic Planning Council; Gerald Thain; Orrin Helstad; Stuart Gullickson

01:07:50 - The Dean's Council and UW Chancellors

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Partial Transcript: The Dean's Council- could you talk about that for a minute and do you see them as being meaningful?

Segment Synopsis: Thompson speaks on the Dean's Council (a council made up of UW school deans, including the law school dean) and the various UW chancellors.

When Irving Shain was chancellor, the Dean's Council functioned as a forum for communicating ideas and policies from the chancellor's office to the deans although there were some opportunities for discussion and instances when the approval of the deans was sought. Thompson thought that Shain was the best boss he had at both seeing the big picture and the details. When Bernie Cohen became acting chancellor, he tried to refocus the Council to include more discussions of substantive issues, but he was not able to do this effectively. Chancellor Shalala was less consistent in how she approached the Dean's Council and would often not attend the meetings, although at times she utilized the council to help her make important decisions for the university. Thompson found Shalala the second best (after Shain) but says that she was not as consistent and good at planning as Shain.

Thompson was a member of many university committees, any that he felt strongly about, including the committee to select a candidate for the position of university provost. Thompson also talks about the role of the provost, and says that David Ward was a good choice, although Thompson was disappointed that Professor Walter Dickey (of the law school) was not included on the short list of candidates. Dickey had had important experience in state government, which Thompson thought clearly qualified him to be on this short list of candidates.

Lastly, Thompson talks about dealing with the regents. He says that the views of the chancellor very much influences how/if a dean deals with the regents. Most chancellors would discourage direct contact of the deans with the boards of regents. Chancellor Shain was one who discouraged this contact, but Chancellor Shalala did not. Thompson himself felt that he should maintain some contact when there were lawyers on the board of regents since otherwise they would feel neglected if the dean of the law school did not maintain contact with them. He felt it would have been better if he could have maintained contact with them instead of keeping this hands off approach.

Subjects: Bernie Cohen; Chancellor; Chancellor Shalala; David Ward; Dean's Council; Irving Shain; Provost; Regents; Walter Dickey

01:24:54 - Fundraising in the Law School

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Partial Transcript: Today is the 17th of December 1991, I'm with Cliff Thompson again, this is part 2 of our interview and we're going to talk a little bit about fundraising in the law school.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson starts with talking about the early efforts at fund-raising at the law school, but says that this had died down by the time Thompson became dean. There was never an endowment for the law school, although one was started the year before Thompson became dean. The goal of this endowment was $3 million.

During Thompson's tenure as dean, annual contributions rose from ~$40,000 to over $250,000 per year. As well, the endowment campaign raised $7 million ($4 million above the original goal). This additional funding was incredibly important for keeping and attracting prestigious faculty (especially Marc Galanter) and in maintaining UW as a national leader, especially in the area of Law in Action.

David Utley assisted with the endowment campaign in the beginning- he was assigned to do this by the University of Wisconsin Foundation, and he did this half time. Eventually there was enough money for a full-time fund raiser, though, and Christopher Richards was hired in this capacity. Thompson describes the fundraising process as the dean being like a political candidate, and Thompson was very heavily involved in the fundraising efforts. Thompson finds this very important as people expect to see the dean and will not be happy if someone goes in his/her stead.

One aspect of fundraising was soliciting contributions from alumni, but a crucial source of new funds also came from the university budget. "Catch-up" pay was an important issue at this time- meaning the state gave the UW more money so they could "catch-up" to other peer universities in terms of faculty salaries. Thompson was able to convince Chancellor Shain that the law school was in need of a more than equal share of the catch-up pay because of the difference between salaries at the law school and other UW schools as compared to those of their counterparts at other leading schools. These additional funds were then used to attract and hold on to prestigious faculty. It had never been a policy of the UW law school to offer a competitive salary when prestigious faculty were offered tenure at other universities, but now with the catch-up pay, it could and did.

The building campaign was also a recipient of state funding. By the time Thompson left the deanship, the law school was at the top of the university priority list for new buildings.

Thompson's next goal (after increasing faculty salaries) was to raise funds for the law school library. He put on a long campaign and talked individually to many students and got them to vote for a tuition increase to benefit the library. The chancellor matched the amount raised by this tuition increase, so that $420,000 was raised for the library.

Thompson mentions that the UW Law School is normally in the top 20-25 in the nation, but before the faculty salary increase was only 92nd in terms of faculty salaries. After the increase, though, it was in the top 30s in this aspect. From the increase, the law school was also able to add more named professorships- leading to a capacity for 20 or more named professorships.

Subjects: Chancellor Shain; Christopher Richards; David Utley; Endowment; Law in Action; Marc Galanter; University of Wisconsin Foundation; catch-up pay; fundraising

01:52:34 - Affirmative Action at the Law School

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Partial Transcript: I'd like to switch now for just a few minutes and talk about one of the most talked-about things on campus today- the affirmative action policies and I'd like to hear it specifically to the law school.

Segment Synopsis: Thompson talks about the affirmative action policy at the law school when he arrived, and says that its record was outstanding. He strongly supported the affirmative action policy that already existed. He also mentions the "Emancipation" mural [name of mural: "The Freeing of the Slaves," painted by John Steuart Curry] in the reading room as being a symbol of the law school's strong record in this area.

Thompson also mentions Professor Jim Jones (an African American) as being an important national leader for affirmative action. Professor Jones started the Hastie Fellowship, which gives qualified but disadvantaged students the opportunity to earn a master's degree from the UW Law School and pursue a career teaching law. Many acclaimed law professors have come out of this program.

Thompson also says that the UW Law School was a leader in encouraging women and minorities to enroll as students and to teach on the faculty. The UW law school is unique in that women were always there (not many, but some) since the 30s, although some larger schools (e.g., Harvard) didn't admit women until the early 50s.

Thompson says that a role of the law school should be to provide minorities with the opportunity to gain access to positions of power. He thinks this is very important. In 1988/89, the UW Law School received a national award from the Society of American Law Teachers for its affirmative action work in hiring minority law professors Such hiring was made possible, in part, because of the increased funding.

In fact, the current law school dean, Daniel Bernstine, was a Hastie Fellow under the Jim Jones program. Many other Hastie Fellows went on to become successful scholars. Additionally, Thompson mentions that over 100 UW Law School graduates are now teaching in law schools all over the country.

Subjects: Daniel Bernstine; Hastie Fellowship; James E. Jones, Jr.; John Steuart Curry; Professor Jim Jones; Society of American Law Teachers; affirmative action