Dean Jon Mills — UF Law’s ‘Master Craftsman’ of Consensus, Commitment and Vision — Steps Down This July

Published: April 21st, 2003

Category: Feature

Jon Mills is a man of his word. He said when he agreed to serve as dean that he would step down in 2003, and he will turn over leadership of the nation’s 11th largest law school to incoming dean Robert Jerry this July, right on schedule. He also has kept another, larger commitment — to help his college address a critical need for new and expanded facilities, keep and recruit quality faculty, rebuild relationships with alumni, and develop a strong sense of community at the college. “


Jon has done a terrific job, and his work has created a strong and unified foundation upon which the college’s future progress will be built,” said Jerry, former dean of the University of Kansas School of Law and now Floyd R. Gibson Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Jon has been extremely helpful during this transition period. He has been a pleasure to get to know, and I am certain we will be friends as well as colleagues,” Jerry added.


Thanks to Mills’ leadership, Jerry will inherit a college that is in the top tier — and rising — of the nation’s best law schools. Relationships with alumni, faculty and students have strengthened, and funding is in place and construction imminent to modernize and nearly double classroom and library space. A near record number of new professors are working with outstanding, longtime faculty to build on established areas of excellence and contribute to the school’s growing national — and global — reputation. And the college has the best-qualified, most diverse student body and highest percentage of minority faculty in its history.


This promising picture is very different than when Mills became interim dean four years ago. Trouble was brewing in late 1999 among alumni, faculty, students and others in the college’s extended “family.”


The school had just accepted the largest gift in its history and added “Fredric G. Levin” to its name in honor of the UF graduate and leading trial lawyer who made the contribution. The popular dean who accepted the gift — Richard Matasar — had resigned in the midst of raging controversy over naming the state’s foremost law school for an attorney in the private sector — no matter how successful — instead of an honored public servant like the late Lawton Chiles. In addition to alumni disharmony, there were problems with racial issues, lack of community and collegiality, and American Bar Association representatives who were threatening the college’s accreditation due to a lack of adequate library and classroom space. “President John Lombardi asked me to serve as interim dean when Rick left, and I agreed to do it for a short time — perhaps six to nine months — to buy time for the college to get past these difficulties before it had to conduct a dean search,” said Mills.


Charles Young became interim president of the University of Florida in November 1999, shortly after Mills became interim dean, adding another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation. Many people would have been daunted, but Mills was tuned more to the potential than the problems. “I’m one of those odd souls for whom the more difficult it is the more interesting it is,” said Mills. “I saw the situation as a challenge. I was excited about the opportunity to do something for my alma mater: to help the institution develop a common vision.” In 2001, President Young asked Mills to take the title of dean. He agreed to serve for two more years. “Jon was asked to step in as dean at a very difficult time for the College of Law,” said UF Provost David Colburn. “The institution needed someone who understood the issues confronting the college, who was prepared to engage these issues in a constructive manner, and who had the ability to involve the faculty in this process. “


Jon and I had worked together on public policy issues prior to his becoming dean and in the establishment of the Reubin Askew Institute on Politics & Society. I knew he was right for this job, and it soon became clear to others that Jon had great leadership skills. Jon pursued these issues facing the college one at a time, carefully communicating with faculty, alumni, students and other groups to make them part of the process. The progress made in resolving these matters has been extraordinary.


Additionally, Jon has gone out of his way to ease the transition of incoming dean Bob Jerry by introducing him to alumni, friends and supporters throughout the state.” Mills said, “After I realized I would be serving in this role longer than I had intended, I focused on raising resources and persuading the president and state to help us attain funding for facilities, not only because there was such a glaring need, but also because doing so would be a major strategic gain for the college and significant, central symbol of our move to a feeling of quality, excellence and pride.” “I first met Jon in 1977,” said Warren Cason, former chair of the UF Foundation Board of Directors and Law Center Association (LCA) Board of Trustees. “I’m not surprised he went on to head the most successful fundraising effort in the history of the UF College of Law.” “The name ‘Jon Mills’ opens many doors for the college in law firms, government, corporations and judge’s chambers,” said Senior Director of Development and Alumni Affairs Donald Hale.


“What keeps the door open are the qualities his name represents: integrity, honesty, fairness and compassion. He embodies attributes we hope to instill in anyone who wants to be a lawyer.” “I thought I anticipated how much time would be devoted to fundraising, but really I had no idea,” said Mills. “Our alumni need — and deserve — attention, and time we spend doing that is well spent. I was very fortunate that I could spend much of it in the company of Donald Hale. He and his staff are intelligent, responsive and truly care about making the College of Law a better place.”


“Jon is tremendously smart and a great person to deal with,” said Robbie Robinson, immediate past chair of the LCA Board of Trustees. Mills said, “There was a lot of angst when I stepped in as interim, and our alumni needed to be reenergized. Many of our graduates were upset — either at the decision to change the college’s name or Rick Matasar’s resignation. “Our alumni leaders have worked hard to help turn this around, and we’ve healed some wounds. I think most people see now that this institution is long term and bigger than all of us, and we need to focus on that and what the college needs to succeed. This is not to say everyone is perfectly satisfied — that would be impossible — but there are many who have said, ‘let’s put controversy behind us and move on.’


“Proof of improving relations with our alumni is the astonishing success of our building campaign. To obtain $25 million in that short, difficult period of time is truly remarkable. Looking back, I think if we knew then how hard it would be to raise that amount of money and match it in that amount of time, we might have thought it was impossible and not have attempted it.” “Jon has been building the College of Law’s reputation literally around the world,” said LCA Board of Trustees Chair Marybeth McDonald. “He has a great ability to pull people together. His strength and leadership style came just when we needed it most.


I have been fortunate to know Jon since I was a student here in 1982, and he is always positive that good things are going to happen. This part of his personality is contagious, and you come away knowing something will happen, and whatever it is will get done.” Mills said, “Marybeth has been an energetic leader during the fundraising and design stage of the new building. She also happens to be the first woman to chair our Board of Trustees, and a mark of how that group has changed. Its composition now better represents the state of Florida and the Bar in its representation of minorities, and that new membership is bringing us closer to our graduates. “It also helps to have a vision. One of the first things I set out to do was to establish a strategic plan through a faculty committee. That committee — headed by Professor Jeff Davis — worked with faculty and students and gathered information to bring before the faculty so they could craft a very specific and detailed strategic plan and implementation strategies,” said Mills. “As we put that plan into action, we’re talking about it with alumni and being completely open about what we are trying to accomplish so they understand why we are doing things.


This helps with alumni engagement, and they are indeed very engaged. “I think students also feel more empowered now, and I give enormous credit for that to the faculty and Student Affairs and other areas that deal with students, such as Career Services. We’ve been more creative and done some unique things — like bringing students to alumni receptions — and re-emphasized the fact that students are why we’re here,” said Mills. “Evidence of the growing strength of our relationship with students can be found in their record 31 percent participation in the graduating class gift. They pledged what was for them large amounts of money to the college at a time in their lives when their resources are extremely limited. This show of loyalty is a remarkable testament to our students,” said Mills. Chris Hand, president of the school’s John Marshall Bar Association, said, “Jon empowers people to express their views. As a student leader, I have found that he always listens, then finds a solution. Our school is stronger for the storms it has weathered under his leadership.” “I’ve tried to be very accessible to students and keep my door open to them, and they certainly have been perfectly willing to come in and talk about issues that concern them,” Mills chuckled. Mills also zeroed in on issues key to retaining and acquiring quality faculty. “I read a lot on ‘good deaning’ and other observations on how to make a difference and impact an institution,” said Mills. “It was evident that having really good professors is essential.


Many of our faculty have been or will be retiring. We are filling their positions with an incredible group of new faculty, and using a specific strategy to hire a number ‘laterally,’ so they come to UF with established reputations and can be leaders the moment they begin. These professors — Berta Hernandez, Barbara Woodhouse, Bill Page and incoming Legal Information Center Director Kathie Price, to name just a few — will be key in enhancing the college’s reputation and helping it attain the next level. “It is important and interesting to note we are acquiring these folks from top ten private schools — Harvard, Pennsylvania, NYU — who are coming here because they perceive UF as a better place to be,” Mills added. As associate dean for academic affairs for two years, Professor Mike Seigel worked with Mills on another priority: to help build a sense of community at the college, and make staff realize they are integral to the institution.


“We tried to engage everyone in the law school community and make the atmosphere less stratified,” said Mills. “We worked very hard to address issues of disparity, and changed clinician, legal writing and instructor positions in governance to better recognize the importance of these members of our faculty. “We also improved our relationship with staff, who are so key to everything we do. We instituted a lot of little things that had never been done before — faculty/staff picnics, ‘Employee of the Month,’ socials at my home, and our first-ever staff retreat this year — that seemed to really make a difference. Staff have come together more than before.” “I learned while working with Jon that he embodies all the characteristics of a great leader. He has vision, and is a terrific ‘idea guy’ who listens to and learns from the people around him and lets them have the credit and the spotlight,” said Seigel. “I learned a lot from watching Jon’s patience and belief in the goodness of people; his ability to manage a crisis and turn seemingly bad events into profitable ones; his tolerance of chaos, which sometimes is necessary to allow solutions to develop; and his absolute dedication to and love for the institution he has served so well.” Mills faced one of his biggest challenges when then Associate Dean for Faculty Development Kenneth Nunn resigned as dean after citing issues with diversity at the law school.


“The diversity controversy was very difficult for the college, but I think it was a transforming experience. It’s been said that you can’t examine yourself without having an effect on your own conduct, and the fact that we examined ourselves changed the way we felt,” said Mills. “Dealing with these issues has been energizing to some extent, because you truly feel you are making a difference.” “When you put it into perspective and realize this law school was part of the landmark case on diversity, that we once excluded people based on race and now have posthumously awarded a degree to Virgil Hawkins — who was denied admittance long ago — and named our clinics in his honor, you can see we’ve come a long way. We’ve changed and learned a lot, and we continue to work on raising our awareness,” said Mills. “We had a commitment to diversity long before this controversy, and we had and still have one of the most diverse student bodies in the country.


U.S. News & World Report ranks us first in diversity among top tier law schools in the Southeast and 30th in the nation, and we now have the highest number of minority faculty in school history,” Mills added. Many cite Mills’ skills at building consensus and understanding among disparate groups. He has worked hard to refine these skills, but he was born with his talent for them. “I somehow end up leading most organizations I’m a part of — from elementary school to the legislature,” said Mills. “And one of the things I’ve internalized is that no individual has all the answers, you learn by listening to and empowering others.” Mills says stepping down won’t be difficult, though he “will miss working so closely with alumni, faculty, staff and students, and that feeling of being at the core of a group of fine and dedicated people striving toward a common goal.”


“But I’m looking forward to what I’m going to do after June — spend more time with my daughters and wife, teach Florida constitutional law, and return to the Center for Governmental Responsibility and research things I’m interested in — like the Center for the Rule of Law in Latin America — which could literally change the world by impacting how countries in this hemisphere work together.” Mills’ name recently was floated as a candidate for UF president, but he says that is very unlikely. “As I said, I do not have specific plans for what I want to do next,” said Mills. “But the advantage of being relatively young is that I will have plenty of time to explore other options later; for there is much I want to do.” Mills has made a special point at college functions to thank his wife, Beth, for her loyalty, support and hard work while he served as dean. “My wife, Beth, is my best friend, and has been incredibly supportive of me and this college,” said Mills.


“She did enormous numbers of things — while I was traveling and at home — to help bring faculty, staff and alumni together and build a sense of community. “I am grateful to the students who pass through here and allow me to take part in their education, and the alumni who awe me with their dedication and support. And to this wonderful faculty, many of whom are my friends and advisors as well as my colleagues. “I am tremendously grateful to the associate deans for academic affairs who served with me — George Dawson, Mike Seigel and Mike Friel — three different personalities who each brought enormous amounts of dedication, sound judgment and understanding to the running of a law school.


Associate Deans for Faculty Development Kenneth Nunn, Chris Slobogin and Bill Page — who were very successful in designing and developing an atmosphere of collegiality and intellectual development — deserve special recognition, as does Professor Stuart Cohn and all those who have helped make the UF College of Law a real presence in the global community. “I owe a special thanks to the law school’s staff — particularly Doris Perron, who dealt with my incredibly difficult schedule and literally thousands of e-mails — who have all been highly competent and an extreme pleasure to work with. “It has been a great honor to serve the college I love and work with people I care about,” Mills concluded. “I look forward to continuing my work with them in a new role in the future.”