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In a deanship spanning 14 years, Michael Fitts has become model for excellence, transformation

June 16, 2014

Dean Michael A. Fitts, who joined the Law School faculty in 1985 and was appointed dean in 2000, will step down at the end of June to become the president of Tulane University. His 14 years at the Law School’s helm make him one of the two longest serving deans in modern Penn Law history. Since World War II, only Jefferson Fordham, dean from 1952 to 1969, served longer.

Recognizing that in today’s complex and interconnected world legal problems, as he describes it, “don’t come neatly packaged,” Fitts led a transformation of the Law School’s already outstanding curriculum. His promotion of an interdisciplinary approach to legal education and the acquisition of complementary leadership skills anticipated changes in the legal marketplace, making Penn Law a beacon for the future of legal education.

Those bold initiatives, and a host of other innovations and improvements Fitts championed, have been instrumental in Penn Law’s continued success in attracting the best and brightest students and faculty, and in placing its graduates.

At the heart of Fitts’ bright vision for the future of Penn Law is the understanding that “law and law schools are connected to every significant issue, problem, and perspective in our society.” As a result, Penn Law today is a place of surpassing intellectual vitality and social engagement.

Fitts’ impact is manifest in innovations large and small — from rearranging the Law School’s class schedule to make it easier for students to take courses in Penn’s other world-class departments and professional schools, to expanding the size of the faculty and increasing the breadth and depth of its expertise in fields at the cutting-edge of legal practice, to overseeing a top-to-bottom renovation of the law school campus. He is also credited with a 100 percent increase in scholarship support, as well as extending our international reach and deepening our commitment to public service. 

Summing up his transformative impact one faculty member recently commented, Fitts “didn’t snap a magic wand, he just worked incredibly hard and saw around corners.”

In a kind of exit interview, Penn Law Dean Michael A. Fitts describes the keys to his tenure and explains why leading the Law School has been such a fulfilling job. 

Q: Did you ever envision serving 14 years as dean?

A: Never in a million years. When I took the position you probably would have described me as a reluctant dean. I hadn’t sought the position, and I assumed I would probably serve one seven-year term. As soon as I became dean, however, I found I loved the job. I enjoyed all the different challenges and opportunities and the great variety of it. And it soon became clear to me that it was something I would enjoy doing for an extended period of time. 

Q: What are the attributes of an effective dean?

A: It’s very important to be focused long term on the broad goals you want to achieve. I understood early on that Penn Law’s interdisciplinary program, its relationship with the other schools at the university, and the personal collaborative relationships within the institution were the qualities and strengths that I should build on as dean. To a large extent, almost everything I have focused on can be viewed as an outgrowth of those long-term goals. I’ve certainly ended up doing many, many things I never conceived of when I first became dean. But in retrospect, my focus remained on what made Penn and Penn Law great and how we could deepen those strengths and distinctive qualities of the law school.

Q: You said you did things as dean you never could have conceived. What were those things?

A: When I first became dean I was not focused at all on bricks and mortar. I thought the Law School needed to expand the faculty, which was far too small, and needed to focus on the curriculum, especially with other schools. And that was clearly what I spent the first few years energetically developing. But as part of that expansion it became very clear first, that our physical plant needed substantial renovations to accomplish not only a larger but more distinctive program, but also that the nature of those renovations had to be an outgrowth of those goals that we thought were so important to the school. And so what I’ve found over the last 14 years is that we have effectively rebuilt the entire campus, but in a way which flows directly from the academic program and the collaborative culture that we’ve tried to build.

Q: Given your family’s Penn roots, what did it mean to serve as dean of Penn Law School?

A: I grew up on the campus and my father and grandfather both attended the University and spent their careers here. I had a very good sense of what made Penn different, both its entrepreneurial quality and its interdisciplinary opportunities. I’d seen that with my father at the medical school and my grandfather at Wharton. Those were strengths that they had developed in their administrative capacities. And so when I became dean of the Law School my interest in pursuing those strengths were a result not only of what I saw as the changes in the profession and Penn Law’s ability to be ahead of the curve in meeting those changes, but also what I saw as the strengths of Penn and the culture of Penn as an interdisciplinary university across twelve different schools.

Q: What surprised you most as dean?

A: The biggest surprise was how rewarding it was to raise funds for the Law School. Development is a critical part of any deanship. What is rewarding about the process of development is that you are able to get to know so many interesting, exciting, successful people. You have a chance to talk to them about the opportunities available at the institution, and in a large number of cases, get them engaged in the importance of Penn Law School and what they can do to continue our success. It’s a fun process. I’ve loved my relationships with the alumni and I’ve loved getting them involved with
the school. 


Q: How would you characterize the changes during your tenure?

A: There have been substantial changes. We started with the goal to expand the faculty, and it’s increased in size by roughly 40 percent, especially in areas that needed much more coverage. The legal profession had changed and it was critical that we have faculty who are experts in a large number of the emerging areas. So we added a number of faculty in intellectual property, in corporate law, in health law, and in international law. There also was a rapid expansion of the curriculum as we worked to interconnect with the other schools in the University, not only with formal programs but with certificates, so that we moved from not a particularly large number of students taking programs outside the Law School to today where easily two-thirds of the student body are being recognized for cross-school study when they receive their law school diplomas. 

In addition, the administrative staff, which is absolutely superb, has expanded and taken on responsibilities that have been essential to the success of the Law School. There are just so many different areas, including career planning, public service, development, and technology, in which a top-ranked law school must excel. And we do. The final change, of course, is the physical campus, which I certainly never started out to improve. As I look back, essentially the entire campus of Penn Law School has either been renovated or rebuilt.  

Q: You’ve often joked that the measure of a dean is the number of buildings they build. By that standard, how important has Golkin Hall been to the development of the Law School?

A: The campus supports and reflects our academic philosophy. A great lawyer must be able to work with clients and other lawyers in order to find solutions to the complex problems of a diverse society. Penn Law’s physical campus is designed to create maximum interaction between members of the community. Most similar institutions have buildings for faculty, and buildings for classrooms, and buildings for libraries. We have self-consciously sought to create what the real estate magnates would call mixed zoning and what I call spatial diversity, where activities are included around the entire campus so that everybody comes into contact with one another. That has been critical to the success of Penn Law School. Golkin Hall, which reflects that philosophy, as well as all of the renovations we have undertaken, have been critically important to our vision of what a great legal education should be.

Q: What brought you the most satisfaction?

A: Most satisfying to me is that the Penn Law community recognizes our unique strengths. I think students understand who we are and why we’re special and excellent and different. I think alumni recognize that. I think the faculty recognizes that. It’s this self-conscious understanding of who we are that resonates with me. 

Q: What is your unfinished business?

A: We have a number of initiatives that are literally being launched right now — a Master’s of Engineering with the Engineering School which will support future intellectual property lawyers; a Master’s in Law which will be offered to students at the Medical School to provide a background in law without having to practice; a new government initiative to expand our relationships and visibility in Washington, D.C. I would love to be here to see those to completion. They’re really exciting initiatives. I’m sure my successor will continue those as well as several things I can’t even imagine.

Q: How important is the alumni leadership in the transition?

A: The one constant remains the large group of deeply committed alumni who have been there time and time again to offer advice, direction, and support. And that group of people, the members of the Board of Overseers, the Law Alumni Society Board of Managers, and literally thousands of our alumni will continue to work on behalf of the Law School. That is the mark of a truly great institution — the intellectual, emotional and financial support of the alumni.

Q: What is the future of Penn Law School and the profession?

A: Clearly the profession has transformed over the last five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. And the Law School has gone through enormous changes over that same period. Many of the changes we have pursued have placed us in a truly excellent position. We continue to get an extraordinary number and quality of applicants — close to 6,000 per year. The placement of our students has remained as strong as any institution in the country. But obviously the profession is evolving, and Penn Law may need to make decisions about its curriculum and strategic direction that are going to be very important in ensuring that we stay ahead of the curve. 

Q: What might those changes be?

A: Obviously there are discussions about two-year law schools and revisions to the third year of law school. We have a number of initiatives that will clearly be part of any evolution in legal education.  

Q: How difficult is it for you to leave your professional (Penn Law) and personal home (Philadelphia) after nearly 30 years?

A: I love Philadelphia. It’s been my personal and professional home almost my entire life. So clearly I will always be part of this city and part of this law school. They are true loves. But New Orleans is a unique and exciting city. I look forward to being part of New Orleans and its truly magical rebuilding post-Katrina. Tulane is not only an excellent but a very special university, with a number of great strengths. I will, in many respects, engage in the same type of thinking about the future of education at Tulane as I’ve done here. 

Q: What lessons about leadership will you take to Tulane?

A: A leader needs to continually focus on where you want the institution to be five or ten years down the line and the different ways to get there. It’s having a sense of where you want to go, while, at the same time, closely consulting with all the different groups who are part of the institution and are investing in it and may well know much more than you do about a number of different issues.

At Penn Law School, for instance, our success over the last fourteen years is the result of the extraordinary abilities of the faculty, the alumni leadership, and the senior staff. If I have any strength, it’s in being able to identify the strengths of other people and getting out of the way, because they are going to be much better than I am at pursuing a particular goal.