University of Montana appoints interim law school dean, plans to launch another recruitment

By: - June 17, 2022 5:59 pm

Enrollment at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law is about 248 students, which is roughly half female. (Keila Szpaller/Daily Montanan)

An interim dean will steer the University of Montana law school this fall after a recruitment failed to bring a new leader to the campus and two of three interim co-leaders plan to leave UM.

This spring, UM had touted the credentials and experiences of four finalists for dean, and the provost confirmed Friday the university made offers. However, the position will be re-advertised in the summer, according to a letter from Provost Pardis Mahdavi.

We were not successful in identifying the right leader for the School of Law at this moment, despite the search committee’s excellent efforts over the course of the past several months,” said the letter sent to the law school.

In an email to the Daily Montanan, Mahdavi said the outpouring of interest in the position underscores the strong reputation of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, Montana’s only law school: “Some offers were made during this process, and because of the strong pool of applicants who initially applied for this position, we are very optimistic that this summer and fall we will again identify more dynamic leaders.”

The reason UM couldn’t seal a deal this time wasn’t clear, but the provost’s note said Elaine Gagliardi will serve as interim dean starting July 1. On faculty since 2001, Gagliardi has served in “a range of administrative capacities” and is a respected teacher and scholar in estate and business planning, the letter said.

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz told the Missoulian that the cost of living in Missoula has affected nearly all of the university’s recruitments. For example, the median cost of a house in the county has jumped to $530,000 this year so far compared to $452,000 in 2021, according to data from the Missoula Organization of Realtors.

Former UM dean Paul Kirgis stepped down in the fall semester, as did associate dean Sally Weaver, following student reports the two discouraged women from taking sexual assault allegations to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. Kirgis remains on the faculty and Weaver’s contract ended in spring semester.

After the step down, UM appointed three faculty members to lead the law school, Monte Mills, Sara Rinfret, and Cathay Y.N. Smith. The letter from the provost noted that both Mills and Rinfret would be “pursuing exciting opportunities beyond UM next year, and Smith will be on sabbatical next year.”

The letter noted the provost would be working with the search committee in the coming months to continue the search for the permanent dean: “We have learned important lessons from this search that we will use to revise the position advertisement and re-advertise later in the summer in hopes of finding a permanent dean to begin in this role in January 2023.” The letter did not provide details about changes to the position advertisement.

The School of Law has earned high rankings nationally, and finalists for the dean position noted its high marks in their public presentations this spring. According to UM, it jumped 31 spots in the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Schools list this year, ranked No. 7 in National Jurist’s PreLaw Magazine’s 2021 list of Best Value Law Schools and No. 5 for clerkship placement, and landed 4th in Best Value Schools’ 20 Most Affordable Law Schools.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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