New Tulane chief has history of innovation

Having spent 15 years as a professor there, Michael Fitts knew the challenges in store when the University of Pennsylvania Law School went looking for a new dean in the late 1990s.

Whoever took the job had his work cut out, the thinking went: At the time, despite its high national ranking, many Penn Law faculty members saw the Philadelphia law school simply as a good first teaching job until Harvard or Yale would come calling, current professors and administrators said in interviews this past week.

After a few rounds of interviews, members of the committee searching for a new dean grew impressed with Fitts’ ideas for reshaping the school, like his plans to integrate studies with other departments at the university, said Paul Levy, a member of Penn Law’s board of overseers who was part of the group that selected him for the top job in 2000.

“I think he was viewed (favorably) for the combination of institutional experience as well as his very inclusive personality ... no rough edges,” Levy said about Fitts’ appointment. “It made him the person that we thought could really be an important rallying point, and he was.”

Before long, faculty began to see Penn Law as a place worth staying at for a while, said Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at Penn since 2002.

“One of the things that people once said to me was that Penn is a great place to start your career, because a lot of people started at Penn and then they left,” Roosevelt said. “Mike has done a great job of holding onto our top faculty members, and he’s even brought some back.”

Fitts was announced Tuesday as Tulane University’s 15th president, replacing Scott Cowen, who is scheduled to step down in July after leading the New Orleans school for 16 years. His hiring, approved by Tulane’s board Tuesday afternoon, followed an eight-month search launched after Cowen announced last summer that he planned to retire.

During his 14 years as Penn Law dean, Fitts helped increase to nearly three dozen the number of degree and certificate programs offered jointly by the law school and the private Ivy League university’s various other schools and interdisciplinary programs — an effort that many say could be his lasting legacy there.

The idea of combining the law curriculum with other coursework has seemingly caught on. Nearly three-quarters of Penn’s law students graduate with a joint degree or obtain a certificate at another school in the university, said Fitts, who contends that the diversity in coursework makes Penn Law graduates attractive to potential employers.

Figures tallied from student response surveys seem to back that up: About 98 percent of the law school’s 270-member class of 2012 has found work, with pay averaging about $130,000 a year. Almost 200 said they were working at a law firm, including 40 who had landed a judicial clerkship, according to the school.

“I don’t know of another law school in the country that comes close to that, and it has been tremendously important for us in educating our students,” Fitts said.

Last year, Penn Law worked with Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to offer a graduate program for students to earn a law degree and a master’s degree in engineering. Another pact between the law school and Penn’s Wharton School lets law students also earn a certificate in business management, merging law with management and leadership skills.

Some Penn Law board members speculate that Fitts may want to take a similar approach at Tulane.

“What I think he finds exciting about Tulane is that it’s an opportunity to really take the school forward. He loves the fact that there are several schools down at Tulane, and the ability to try to adapt his interdisciplinary view could be very, very powerful,” Levy said.

A West Philly boy

Fitts, 60, has lived much of his life in the university’s shadows, having grown up in West Philadelphia, about 10 blocks from Penn’s campus. His father, a native of Jackson, Tenn., graduated from Penn’s medical school and later rose to chief of surgery at Penn Med, the oldest medical school in the country. Fitts’ grandfather was dean of the university’s business school.

“It certainly wasn’t a tony neighborhood,” he said in a phone interview last week. “West Philadelphia, significantly west of the campus. Some people from the university lived there, but a lot of people were not from the university, and I had a lot of friends who were not connected with the university at all.”

Fitts’ mother was from the Philadelphia area, where she worked as an economist and later stayed home to raise her three children.

In high school, Fitts wrestled and played soccer. “When I was younger, I was a jock. Now, you wouldn’t perhaps believe that, looking at me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s sort of like looking at a middle-aged former football player after they’ve given up sports.”

During summers, he worked as a camp counselor and, occasionally, a ditch digger. Even though he grew up in a family of doctors, he always had his sights set on law school.

“I always loved law, because of both its social commitment, in making society and the world a better place, as well as its intellectual component,” he said. “It allows you to think through, in a very rigorous way, some of the most important issues in society. It’s the ability to both engage with the world around me and help improve it, and at the same time, to think very deeply about some of the most important issues.”

When it came time for college, Fitts’ father pushed him to enroll elsewhere. He went to Harvard, graduating in 1975, and earned his law degree from Yale in 1979. Later, he worked as a clerk at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia for two years, and spent another four years with the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Justice Department. He focused on the constitutional separation of powers, an area that later became his focus in the classroom.

In 1985, Fitts headed home, taking a job at Penn Law as an assistant professor.

By then, “both my father and grandfather had passed away. Obviously, I knew many people around the university at that time,” he said. “But it was a little bit different than going back and serving on the faculty with your father and grandfather.”

Learning to raise money

When Fitts was named dean 15 years later, he had no fundraising experience. But over time, he said, it started coming to him more naturally.

“Fundraising is simply about caring about the institution, understanding the strengths of the institution, and why it can make a difference, and liking people, to sit down with people, talking with them, getting to know them and conveying to them your enthusiasm about this place and why it’s so important that they share this enthusiasm,” he said.

Under his watch, Penn Law raised a record $180 million in six years in a capital campaign, the school announced in 2012. Much of the money went toward boosting financial aid, hiring more faculty and expanding the school’s program offerings.

“That’s so important for a leader of an institution that has to not only raise money, but really tend to the needs and wishes of a lot of different constituencies,” said Kevin Baine, a member of Penn Law’s board.

Asked about his efforts to smooth divisions in the law school when he took over, Fitts said it’s natural for people to have varying ideas about the direction of a school. His role, he said, was to “bridge those gaps in a way that makes the institution better for everyone.”

“Differences of opinion are wonderful and they provide energy, and universities are the most — and should be the most — incredibly diverse,” he said. “But also, you need a leader. You need to be able to work through and make decisions that in the end are going to make the institution better for everybody.”

The full package

Tulane board members boasted during last week’s announcement that they had gotten the full package in naming Fitts as the school’s new leader.

“As a distinguished scholar, Mike Fitts will certainly function beautifully in the superb and world-class community of scholars that we have here at Tulane,” board Chairman Darryl Berger said when Fitts was introduced. “As an administrator, Mike has demonstrated, throughout his entire career, including an unprecedented three terms as dean of the law school at Penn, outstanding skills as a leader, strategic thinker and, not incidentally, a prodigious fundraiser.”

Andy Wisdom, co-chair of the 15-member search committee, said 75 names were submitted as part of the search. That list was whittled down to 40, then to 25, then to 15.

“I think he stood out right away,” Wisdom said about Fitts. “It’s not like any of the 15 people we interviewed were deficient in any way. These were super strong candidates. It really comes down to sort of, at the end of the day, slicing the onion of excellence. They’re all excellent, but he stood out because he’s got a fabulous record, because he’s got a fabulous temperament.”

Members of Penn Law’s board of overseers, in phone interviews, frequently described Fitts in similar terms, calling him a “consensus-builder” who possesses “boundless energy” and “contagious enthusiasm for his work.”

They credited Fitts’ push with the joint degree and certificate programs that helped set the law school apart from the pack, and said he not only came up with the idea but successfully implemented it.

“He’s been innovating the law school, and has really distinguished it, I think, as the leading law school in the country in terms of promoting interdisciplinary study,” Baine said.

He said the dean’s friendly disposition has helped make board meetings enjoyable, and that he’s a good listener.

“No matter what the issue, he always seems to demonstrate an understanding of everyone’s perspective,” Baine said. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s just going to charge in and say, ‘Here’s the answer.’ He really listens, and it’s very clear that he has the perspectives of the students and the faculty and the alumni and the outside legal community very much in mind.”

No stranger to N.O.

Though he’s spent much of his life in the Northeast, Fitts said he’s no stranger to New Orleans, having traveled to the city several times before the interview process began.

He said the search committee approached him in the fall. “I read up, talked to some people about Tulane, and over the course of a month became very excited about the institution, and really felt it was a perfect fit, between both my views about higher education and the personality and the culture of Tulane,” he said.

He has two children in their mid- to late 20s. His wife, a stay-at-home mom who worked as a lawyer before that, has a sister who lived for a time in New Orleans. “She used to visit there, and so she loves New Orleans,” he said.

Now, just as his father told him to get out of the city where he grew up when it was time for college, Fitts said he’s ready for something new.

“It’s important in life to make changes at various moments,” he said. “I’ve spent, obviously, a large part of my life in Philadelphia. I love Philadelphia. Tulane and New Orleans are exciting places. There’s nothing like New Orleans in the United States as a city, just given its culture, its diversity and its energy. I’m really looking forward to getting to live there, and getting to know the folks in New Orleans and Tulane much better.”