A Look Back One Year After Becoming Dean, Tony Varona Navigates Miami Law Onward and Upward

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Dean Tony Varona in his office

Dean Tony Varona

When Miami Law welcomed Anthony Eudelio Varona to lead the law school in 2019, he said he applied a lesson from early in life. “As a kid I learned to swim by jumping into the deep end as soon as I could,” he said. “That’s exactly what I did to prepare for a successful start to my deanship here.” Little could he have imagined the foreshadowing of his remark.

No one could have expected the world―and traditional legal education―would be irrevocably changed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Miami’s decision in early March 2020 to cancel on-campus classes required an immediate pivot to remote, online instruction. Although Miami Law had innovatively explored distance learning, the switch of over 300 classes to virtual instruction within the span of a few weeks was unprecedented.

Varona was confident Miami Law could handle this sudden shift. Early on, his conviction in Miami Law’s fortitude was displayed when he was one of the first law deans to make a major gift to the law school they lead. With his husband John Gill, Varona pledged $100,000 to support student scholarships and the school’s greatest needs, and announced it at his chair investiture.

“John and I felt so strongly about the future and promise of Miami Law that we decided, early in my deanship, to make this initial gift,” Varona said. “And, in light of the effects of COVID-19 on our students in particular, we accelerated our payments so that the funds could be put to immediate use.”

Not only was Varona well-positioned with experience as a media professional to pivot to leading the law school virtually, but he also had the background – and backbone – from his upbringing to rise to the challenges in his first year as dean.

From Exile from Cuba to Lawyer to Dean – Varona’s Formation Set Him Up to Succeed

Varona was born in 1967 in Cuba, where his mother, Edelmira, was studying to become a schoolteacher, and his father, Eudelio, worked as a butcher. In 1970, conditions in the communist country had become so bad that the family decided to leave Cuba for the United States. Thanks to their Spanish roots, Varona, his mother, and maternal grandparents were able to reside with relatives temporarily in Galicia. A few months later, once Varona’s father was given permission to leave the island, the family was reunited in exile at New York’s JFK airport. They settled in Newark, New Jersey, in its working class and immigrant-rich Ironbound neighborhood, with members of their extended family.

Eudelio Varona was able to find work as a butcher and bodeguero. With his brother Fabio, he ran a small bodega or neighborhood store, and then together purchased and moved to a larger storefront about a block away.

With encouragement from his parents, Varona learned to speak and read English at an early age, and soon became the family’s interpreter. “My father would bring home important mail, invoices, regulatory notices, and other documents from the bodega, and I would translate them for him,” he recalled. Varona also accompanied relatives to immigration and other government offices. With that early experience in unraveling red tape and serving as an intermediary, Varona said, “the lawyering bug bit me as a child. I saw the importance of everyone having access to effective advocates—regardless of their financial circumstances. I also saw, and was disturbed, by how immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and the working poor were so often marginalized, disrespected, and shortchanged by law, administrative agencies, and other government institutions that are supposed to help them.”

Even before he could read, Varona’s mother would take him to the book section in the local discount stores where he would browse through the children’s books and always – despite the family’s very limited financial resources – be able to select at least one. His books were his most prized possessions.

In elementary school, Varona first displayed his lifelong search for knowledge. His parents continued to encourage his studies, even scraping together enough money to buy him his own set of Encyclopedia Britannica when he was in the fifth grade and they were still struggling to make ends meet. “I filled out a postcard for more information and, some weeks later, the Britannica salesman came to our apartment. I translated, of course,” Varona said. “When the salesman told us the price, I found it so enormous that I didn’t want to translate it. But I did, and my mother asked that I call my father at the bodega. I rang him, and he said, ‘Of course we will buy it, we will manage, but you have to promise to study hard with it.’”

For high school, Varona initially enrolled at his neighborhood’s public high school. He was concerned, however, that his “college prep” courses ended up including large-group chorus sessions and woodworking classes, apparently as a result of a shortage of teachers and resources for more traditional academic subjects. Not seeing himself as an aspiring professional singer or carpenter, Varona turned again to his parents for help.

“Somehow, they found the money to send me to Our Lady Queen of Peace High School, a now-defunct working class Catholic school in North Arlington, NJ,” he recalled. “I was able to get a high school education with more of a college preparatory track, while still helping out at the bodega when I could and working another part-time job at a Newark hospital,” he said. “My parents were deeply committed to my academic success every step of the way.”

From high school, Varona went on to earn his Bachelor of Arts in political science and French, and his juris doctor from Boston College. While in law school, he worked as a student attorney at the Greater Boston Legal Services-affiliated poverty law clinic at the Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau in Waltham, and as a teaching assistant for a 1L lawyering skills course. Once in Washington, D.C., Varona earned an LL.M. with a focus on civil rights and civil liberties from Georgetown University Law Center, where he later taught as an adjunct professor.

Varona also navigated the “challenging task” of coming out as gay as a young adult. “Fortunately, I had a supportive and loving family and circle of friends who embraced me,” he said. “I also have been lucky to have a husband and life partner who has supported me, cheered me on, and been my best friend for 26 years.”

Varona entered the legal profession as an honors program enforcement attorney at the Federal Communications Commission, and then became an associate at Mintz Levin and then Skadden Arps. After building his communications, media, and administrative law experience, Varona spent nearly five years as chief counsel and then general counsel and legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, where he built from scratch the organization’s legal department.

In 2000-01, Varona served as a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School. Soon after that, he achieved his first full-time academic appointment in 2002 as associate professor of law at Pace University School of Law in New York. After three years at Pace, Varona joined the faculty at American University Washington College of Law, teaching contracts, administrative and public law, and media law.

In his 14 years at American University’s law school, Varona received numerous awards for his teaching and scholarship, including Teacher of the Year for 2007-08, a shared innovation in pedagogy award in 2011, the “American University Outstanding Teaching Award in a Full-Time Appointment Award” in 2014, and the 2018 Guttman Casebook Award – shared with two co-authors of a casebook in administrative law. Along with his teaching and scholarship, Varona served as faculty advisor to the AUWCL Latino/a Law Students Association and the Lambda Law Society.

Varona brought national recognition to American University’s law school, planning legal scholarship conferences, and most recently served as host and planning committee chair for the Fourth National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference in March 2019, thought to be the largest gathering of minority law scholars ever to take place in the U.S.

At American, Varona served as associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and then vice dean between 2010 and 2018. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Washington,” Varona said. “It is where I grew up as a lawyer and law professor and learned important lessons about the law, legal education, and law school administration. I also made lifelong friends among my many dear colleagues and students at AU.”

Coming to Miami Law

In early 2019, Varona was preparing to enjoy a year-long sabbatical at American University and was not looking for a new administrative position. He had passed up several invitations for dean searches around the country in the past. But when a search firm emailed him about his nomination for the Miami Law deanship, his response was an immediate “yes, let’s talk.” For Varona, this was a “big wow!” moment. “I love Miami, and have long admired Miami Law and its faculty, staff, and alumni. I knew that I had to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Varona’s husband, John Gill, an internet communications expert, also was ready for the move. “When I read the search firm’s email message out loud, John said, without skipping a beat, ‘that’s your next job; it’s perfect for you.’” Varona and Gill already had deep family connections in South Florida and had purchased a second home in Fort Lauderdale nine years ago, when doctors diagnosed Varona’s father with Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, Eudelio Varona died in April 2019, just days before his son’s final round of interviews for the Miami Law deanship. “We buried my father just a couple of days before my campus interviews and community presentations,” Varona recalls. “Although I was still grieving, I could not contemplate pulling out of the search. I felt like I owed it to him, and all that he and my mother sacrificed to make my education and career possible, to continue my candidacy.”

First-Year Highlights at Miami Law

In August 2019, Dean Anthony E. Varona began as dean of Miami Law, and became the first dean of the School of Law to hold the M. Minnette Massey Chair. Here are just some of the highlights from Varona’s first year as dean, in roughly chronological order:

Before starting

  • Even before officially starting as dean, Varona launched a wide-reaching “listening and learning tour,” in which Varona met one-on-one with each faculty and senior staff member, in small meetings with well over 600 alumni and stakeholders, and in various “cafecitos” and town halls with Miami Law’s students and staff. The many conversations culminated in a detailed message to the full Miami Law community on November 1, 2019, which set out an ambitious vision for the law school’s future, focusing on “excellence, prominence, and community.” The message met with great enthusiasm and excitement.
  • Also shortly before assuming the deanship, Varona named an executive leadership team—his “dean’s executive cabinet”— to help him implement his ambitious vision for the law school by bringing tenured professors into the law school’s senior administration. As initially constituted, the “DEC” included Andrew Dawson, Cristol Professor of Bankruptcy Law, as vice dean for academic affairs; Lili Levi, a Dean’s Distinguished Scholar, as vice dean for intellectual life; Caroline Bradley, a Dean’s Distinguished Scholar, as associate dean for international and graduate studies. Kele Stewart continued as associate dean for experiential learning and Raquel Matas also continued as associate dean for administration and counsel to the dean.

Fall 2019

  • In addition to naming an executive leadership team, Varona carefully examined the law school’s administrative structure, reorganized reporting lines and established several senior administrative leadership teams in addition to the DEC. This reorganization freed up decanal direct supervision time yet ensured continued avenues of communication between the dean and the senior staff.
  • With the appointment of a new position of vice dean for intellectual life, with its core mission the enhancement and elevation of Miami Law’s activities as a hub of scholarly exchanges, the law school expanded its already robust Legal Theory Workshops inviting distinguished scholars discussing their innovative legal scholarship over a range of important topics.
  • Besides creating the DEC-level position of Associate Dean for International and Graduate Programs, Varona also appointed Carmen Perez-Llorca to the new role of Assistant Dean for International and Graduate Programs, thereby providing significant leadership and strategic focus to Miami Law’s already impressive offerings in global and post-J.D. legal education. Varona also took part in an unprecedented all-Spanish online introduction to Miami Law’s graduate offerings, which attracted over 1000 registered attendees. It was the first time the dean of Miami Law addressed Latin American lawyers and prospective students in their native language.

  • On November 13, 2019 Miami Law celebrated intellectual life and showcased thirty-eight books authored, co-authored or edited by its prolific faculty and published from 2016-2019.

Spring 2020

  • Varona successfully shepherded the candidacies of two clinical faculty members for promotions to tenured full professor of law, Professor JoNel Newman and Professor Bernard Perlmutter.
  • Fulfilling a commitment to address deficient facilities, Varona secured the support from UM’s central administration to engage an architectural firm to develop a space program for the Law School. Working from a facilities needs assessment completed by a Space Committee of faculty and administrators Varona created early last fall, the architects’ programming effort will help determine whether to substantially renovate and or expand the law school’s footprint in its existing Law School campus, or whether to build an entirely new facility elsewhere on the Coral Gables campus or in a different location altogether.
  • The Honorable A. Jay Cristol Endowed Chair in Bankruptcy was bestowed onto Professor and Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Andrew B. Dawson.
  • In March 2020, understanding the immediate need for a one-stop page for coronavirus information for the Miami Law community, Varona instituted a Coronavirus FAQ’s webpage that is linked at the top of all webpages pages, and has been updated daily since it went live.
  • Recognizing the concerns of graduating students poised to take the Bar, Varona in April led 12 Florida law school deans in requesting the Florida Supreme Court and The Florida Board of Bar Examiners to make adjustments to the Florida Bar Exam administration in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to advocate strenuously on behalf of the Class of 2020 throughout the summer and into the fall.
  • Additionally, the Miami Law Student Emergency Fund was established with seed support from the Law Parents and Partners Committee and the Law Alumni Board to support students most hard-hit by COVID-19-related financial needs. (Although born of this crisis, the Student Emergency Fund will exist beyond the pandemic’s life and will be used to serve Miami Law students most in need). Over $1 million was raised during the pandemic to support scholarships, student emergency needs and summer employment opportunities for our May 2020 graduates.

Summer 2020

  • Varona partnered with his senior leadership colleagues to lead a painstaking and thoughtful process of significantly reducing expenses – including staff rightsizing – to account for the financial pressures brought on by COVID-19.
  • With recent Miami Law graduates facing uncertainties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Varona reached out to the alumni community for their support of the Class of 2020. “Many of our recent graduates are encountering financial, family, healthcare, and other stressors that will worsen significantly if their employment is delayed, unavailable, or otherwise affected by the uncertainties around the Florida Bar Exam,” Varona shared in an email to Miami Law alumni. The response from our alumni was immediate, generous, and broad.
  • A pipeline program for high school and college students interested in law, the Online Summer Legal Academy, launched in August 2020 and far exceeded expectations, attracting nearly 5000 applicants from across the United States, and providing a high quality introduction to law to 140 lucky students – most of them women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the first in their families to attend college.
  • Varona hosted inaugural meetings of the Miami Law Dean’s Advisory Council and Academic Review Committee, comprised of distinguished leaders in practice, legal education, business, and the judiciary.

August and September 2020

  • The new academic year (2020-21) welcomed an impressive new class of 1Ls and LLM students, with the 1Ls boasting average LSAT scores and GPAs that are the highest at Miami Law in at least the last three decades, thanks to the tireless efforts of new Associate Dean for Admissions and Enrollment Management, Katrin Hussman Schroll, and her team. Schroll was recruited by Varona from the University of Maryland at the start of 2020 following a nationwide search.
  • The start of the 2020-21 Academic Year also brought with it three new faculty members, a new associate dean and three new directors. Cruz-Mentschikoff Chair in Law and Economics William Bratton, Associate Professor of Law Pablo Rueda-Saiz, and Professor of Legal Writing and Lecturer in Law Jarrod Reich joined the faculty. Varona also created a new DEC-level role of Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Community (now held by Professor Osamudia James), and appointed Professor Jessica Owley as Faculty Director of the Environmental Law Program, Jill Barton as Faculty Director of the Legal Communications (LComm) Program, and Jessi Tamayo as Externships Program Director.
  • Because of COVID-19’s persistence, the 2020-21 Academic Year commenced in a blended online/in-person format, with the law school launching a new and innovative “1L Communities” and “Faculty Section Leader” program aimed at ensuring a high-quality student experience throughout the year.

The Right Dean for the Right Time

“I knew that Tony was extraordinarily able and well prepared for this position when he was first appointed,” said Vice-Dean Levi, "but this unprecedented pandemic has truly showcased his nimble and effective leadership across the board under circumstances nobody could have anticipated." Levi added that "through his ceaseless work this year, Tony has supported, advanced and made visible every notable aspect of Miami Law and its people. And Miami Law hasn't let COVID-19 get in the way of our ambitious scholarly initiatives because Tony, himself a serious scholar, is 100 percent invested in enhancing and promoting our intellectual life.”

Vice-Dean Dawson has also been impressed by Varona’s energy, enthusiasm, and spirit of inclusion. “He is committed to ensuring that our students continue to receive an elite legal education that will prepare them to address the complex legal challenges of our day,” he said. “Tony is the right dean for us at this time.”

Varona is a strong proponent of shared governance with the faculty. “Balancing the relationship between a law school dean and the faculty is a dynamic process that requires regular and transparent communication and consultation,” Varona said. It involves the empowerment of the faculty by the dean through a robust faculty committee structure, as well as bringing tenured professors into leadership roles to represent the will of the faculty on the leadership team. “But it also requires understanding that the dean is ‘first among equals,’ and that the buck always stops with me,” he added.

When asked to reflect on Varona's past year, Laurie S. Silvers, B.A. ’74, J.D. ’77, Vice Chair of UM Board of Trustees and Chair of the Law Dean’s Advisory Council commented, “Law alumni are fortunate to have a high energy visionary leader like Anthony E. Varona as our Dean during these challenging times. His leadership, consensus building, and work ethic are exemplary and have already elevated Miami Law’s visibility. His concern for our students and those in need demonstrate his compassionate sense of justice. His early efforts to reach out to the law alumni, through his ‘listening and learning tours,’ and obtain their input regarding the future of our school is commendable. Those of us who are privileged to work with him applaud his enthusiasm and scholarship as well as his commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive society and preserving the Rule of Law.”

Throughout this past year, and especially as the pandemic limited our in-person interactions, Varona has continued to emphasize the need to preserve and build community. He has sought to keep the Miami Law network stable and strong by continuously communicating with every Miami Law constituency. Through initiatives such as virtual town halls with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and alumni-led conversations about the legal job market, Varona is committed to keeping students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the broader legal community in the loop regarding the law school’s response to the pandemic.

“In this time of trial by fire,” said Varona, “I could not have wished to have been part of a more dynamic and nimble community. As we contemplate the future, Miami Law will continue to stand out as a leader in our community and our profession. The future is bright.”

“When I look back on my parents’ lives, I am inspired by how they were able to rise above their humble circumstances. They understood the value of education for their children—a feeling shared by today’s parents as well. My service as dean of Miami Law is the fulfillment of my parents’ and my own American dream, and I am humbled by this opportunity to help lead our school, at this moment, and into the future,” he added.

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