Law School Dean Michael Fitts was named the president of Tulane University on Tuesday afternoon, a position he will formally assume on July 1.
Fitts, who has been a professor at Penn Law since 1985 after earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his law degree from Yale University, will leave behind a legacy of fundraising prowess and an emphasis on interdisciplinary education after a 14-year deanship. His move leaves Penn with five deanships and an Athletic Director slot to fill.
There is no word yet on who may be named as interim dean, Penn Law spokesperson Steven Barnes said. Fitts could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
“This is a bittersweet moment for all of us at Penn,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said in a memo to the deans. “We are going to miss him greatly.”
Fitts inherited Penn Law at a time when there were some divisions among the faculty, law professor Kermit Roosevelt said. Under Fitts’ leadership, the faculty became more cohesive and increased in number by 40 percent.
Fitts led Penn Law’s Bold Ambitions fundraising campaign, exceeding the campaign goal and ultimately raising over $200 million. He oversaw major renovations of Penn Law’s buildings, which finished in January 2012 with Golkin Hall, a $33.5 million project.
Ironically, Fitts’ fundraising talents weren’t obvious before he assumed the deanship. “I have not done a lot of fundraising,” he told The Daily Pennsylvanian following his appointment in 2000. “But I have a great product to sell — an excellent law school with a lot of opportunities.”
When he was appointed, Fitts aimed to expand faculty, increase interdisciplinary education and raise Penn Law’s standing in the U.S. News and World Report. At the time, the school was ranked 12th; in 2013, it landed at number seven.
Students and faculty said Fitts was involved with every aspect of Penn Law and a visible presence in the halls.
“I remember hearing that there was a judge Dean Fitts wanted to encourage to interview Penn Law students for clerkships,” Roosevelt said. “Knowing the judge was a former wrestler, Dean Fitts offered to wrestle him. Perhaps it was perceived more as a threat — in any case, the judge did interview Penn students and hired some.”
“He was very much a students’ dean,” said second-year law student Kevin Reardon, who is simultaneously earning a management certificate from Wharton.
Reardon’s program — whose inaugural class entered in the fall of 2013 — is one of several interdisciplinary programs Fitts helped pioneer. Among others is a joint degree program with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a center that publishes on technology policy.
“Mike Fitts has been an absolutely superb dean of the Law School who has dramatically improved every aspect of legal education at Penn,” law professor Louis Rulli said. “He will be sorely missed.”
Current Tulane president Scott Cowen announced last spring that he would be stepping down. Cowen, who came to the New Orleans-based institution in 1998, is known for shepherding the school through Hurricane Katrina — and, to the students, for dyeing his hair green and sitting in the student section during homecoming.
“We’d been on pins and needles the entire time,” Tulane sophomore Sarah Hostetler said of the wait since Cowen’s announcement. Tuesday afternoon, Tulane sent out an email announcing Fitts’ appointment to students, faculty and staff. Fitts spoke to a crowded room at Tulane that same afternoon.
“We’re all beaming down here,” Hostetler said. “Tulane students definitely want to see his commitment to New Orleans. We come down here, and we don’t stay on the campus of Tulane.”
Fitts’ academic specialties include legislative and election law and separation of powers.
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