MASTERSON ONLINE: Bowen faculty rebuff

The Bowen Law School faculty hath decreed (so let it be written, so let it be done): No longer will Jewish Professor Rob Steinbuch be allowed to select guest speakers to host his own classes for a few absences during the Jewish high holidays.

When this overblown matter finally arrived before the school’s full faculty the other day, following months of delays and committee-ing (my word), its members embraced a committee recommendation and in a split vote changed the school’s guest-speaker policy.

This meant, for the first time since Steinbuch joined Bowen’s faculty almost 20 years ago, he will no longer be able to independently choose guest lecturers.

Instead, he and other faculty must secure the blessings and permission of the school’s associate dean.

The other bottom line: He says he’s now not optimistic about future chances of being approved to use his preferred guests because of Bowen’s internal politics, adding he is a rare conservative on a faculty of liberals.

Sounds to me like the full-grown Steinbuch (and others) are no longer capable of selecting their own temporary substitutes after years of doing so without a hitch.

He and two other Jewish professors at the school see this unnecessary move as discriminatory, particularly since the previous policy allowed him and others to invite guest speakers without administrative permission.

I realize that for readers this issue is rather like slogging through the thorny weeds in a slough of insider petty college politics that affects few lives. My own perceptions included.

Except I also view this matter as symbolic of retribution against Steinbuch for his independent tendencies, particularly when it comes to comments last year where he disagreed with the Bowen administration over renaming a constitutional law professorship after former Governor and President Bill Clinton.

Readers may recall this past summer when the law school’s Dean Theresa Beiner sought to rename an endowed professorship after Clinton, notwithstanding the disbarment proceedings against him.

When Steinbuch, widely considered our state’s premier Freedom of Information Act legal authority and currently a Republican candidate for the state Legislature, objected to the renaming without faculty involvement, he said he was told nobody was interested in his concerns.

An FOIA request produced evidence that the quiet renaming was improper and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s chancellor countermanded the way the professorship had been renamed.

None of that would have unfolded without information gleaned through the FOIA and Steinbuch choosing to question the administration’s actions.

The following month, Steinbuch took off to observe the two holiest days of his religion. In his absence, he invited a federal judge to act as a guest lecturer, as he had done without incident for nearly 20 years.

No biggie, right? After all, the school’s established practices and rules clearly permitted it.

However, afterwards the dean informed Steinbuch he could no longer select his substitutes.

The award-winning professor then appealed to a three-person panel, two of whom were appointed by UALR’s administration.

The panel unanimously found it was indeed discriminatory to prohibit Steinbuch from using a guest lecturer under these faith-based circumstances.

That should have been the final word, out here in the real world, anyway.

At a subsequent meeting, the faculty recommended that yet another committee evaluate overall broader aspects of Bowen’s guest-speaker rule that Steinbuch had long relied upon.

“However, rather than restricting themselves to that issue, the committee decided instead to change its focus and homed in on the very provision that had guaranteed me and all others the right to choose a guest lecturer when we are properly absent,” said Steinbuch.

“Moreover, this unexpected deviation led the committee to recommend only one substantive change to the provision I’d long employed, then ultimately to the full faculty vote to eliminate my right to choose my own guest lecturers. It’s quite sad.”

Steinbuch noted: “It’s clear to me and others that the way this needless action has been handled is rooted in an attack on me specifically.”

Two Jewish colleagues of Steinbuch’s told the faculty the committee’s arbitrary change of focus also looked to them like retaliation. Steinbuch has filed a retaliation complaint.

One professor of Jewish faith is the university-wide winner of the best teacher award, Josh Silverstein, a doctrinal law professor who was a dissenting member of the committee whose recommendation to the full faculty directly affected Steinbuch.

Silverstein was both the sole doctrinal law professor on the committee and only member to object to its actions, which he described as appearing retaliatory.

The other concerned Jewish professor ironically holds the professorship that would have been named after Clinton if not for Steinbuch’s efforts.

As the professor of the now “not-Clinton” endowed professorship on the constitution, Nicholas Kahn-Fogel, wrote in an email to faculty: “Nobody who supported the school’s position originally has come to Rob and said, ‘you know, I’m sorry this happened to you. We need to make sure this kind of discrimination doesn’t occur again’.”

Apparently, no one on Bowen’s faculty has yet to express concerns to Rob–certainly no member who supported the school’s position on making this change.

In that context as an observer, I think it’s fair to wonder how I’d interpret it had I been the victim of such alleged discrimination and after a formal finding that I’d indeed been a victim of it. And what if not a single faculty member who’d supported the discrimination had afterwards approached me to say they were sorry this happened and we’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Then what if they eliminate the very right I’d relied upon to reveal the committee’s finding of discrimination?

It’s likely I’d feel the way Professors Kahn-Fogel, Silverstein, and Steinbuch do.

I’d also wonder when (and if) someone higher up UALR’s ladder would take notice of the form of retaliation Steinbuch says he’s feeling today and act to rectify it.

Steinbuch says all the exhaustive, counterproductive contention lingering for many months hasn’t been positive for Bowen’s or UALR’s overall image.

Yet today he’s far from being finished. If elected to the House, he intends to strengthen Arkansas’ religious-freedom and anti-retaliation laws to ensure no one else endures the harassment he’s experienced.

Known as anything but a shrinking violet, the outspoken professor told me he’s received calls for years from legislators seeking his opinion on combining the state’s two law schools.

He said he’d always recommended against those proposals and no such effort manifested. In light of these experiences, his mood understandably has changed.

Steinbuch said he no longer believes in good faith that he can continue to guide legislators in the same direction, especially given what has transpired at the school regarding his faith requirements and resulting treatment.

As a Christian, if I were a professor on let’s say, a heavily non-Christian faculty who made these faculty decisions in like manner, I’d feel much the same as Steinbuch, all things considered.

How about you, valued reader?

Thank you, ATLA

Speaking of lawyerly stuff (perhaps because I sometimes feel like I sorta practice law of using facts and light as evidence for my views in the “Court of Public Opinion”) I felt particularly humbled when the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA) chose to recognize my efforts over the decades with its annual Citizen Merit Award issued the other day during its annual convention in Eureka Springs.

The citation reads: “The Citizen Merit Award is given to recognize outstanding contributions towards fighting to protect the rights, safety and the liberties of all Arkansans. Because of his consistent effort to provide a voice for all citizens of Arkansas.”

Thank you, ATLA members, for such a humbling, deeply appreciated and unexpected honor.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected].