When former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was hired to teach at the fledgling College of Law on Oct. 3, Belmont officials expected some discussion to follow the announcement.
Ten days later, 45 faculty members signed and made public a statement of concern about human and civil rights issues – a statement now known to have been prompted by Gonzales’ hiring. Since then, discussions about Gonzales and the policies he supported in the Bush administration from 2002-07 have gone to a new level in Nashville and around campus.
Dr. Thomas Burns, Belmont provost, wasn’t sure what type of reaction to expect. Gonzales was a high profile figure in a tumultuous political climate, but it had been years since his resignation under fire as attorney general in 2007.
“It’s hard to say how people are going to respond. I’m certainly pleased that people are responding and sharing their thoughts. This is the kind of country we live in,” he said.
The provost is also optimistic of potential discussion about these issues among Gonzales, faculty, and students.
“Judge Gonzales fits with Belmont in that he is not opposed to open and frank discussion, and that he wants to engage our faculty and our students in conversations about things that are important to them but also important in creating future leaders,” Burns said.
The decision to hire Gonzales came after trustee and board member Barbara Massey Rogers approached the university to establish an endowed chair for the new law school in honor of her husband, Doyle Rogers, a well-known Florida attorney.
Burns said the former attorney general was already on a list of potential candidates for this position when his son, now a freshman at Belmont, visited Belmont’s campus as a prospective student. The university initially contacted Gonzales after this visit, Gonzales told the Vision in an interview the day his hiring was announced.
After the initial contact, Burns said Gonzales’ hiring process was “essentially like any other faculty search we would do.” All of the law school faculty were given the chance to meet Gonzales during the process, and they recommended Gonzales’ hire to the provost.
Gonzales’ tenure and experience in the White House Cabinet, the executive branch, and Texas state government were major reasons to pursue the former attorney general for the endowed position, Burns said.
“If you want to think about the people who have the right kind of credentials to provide excellent educational opportunities for our students, this would certainly be the kind of person you would look at,” he said. “That was, for me, the overriding factor.”
Gonzales, still the highest-ranking Latino ever appointed in the federal government, spent four years as White House counsel and more than two years as attorney general during Bush’s presidency. His resignation as the nation’s chief prosecutor occurred after a series of controversies surrounding his roles in the firing of six federal attorneys and in the administration’s policies on torture and wiretapping. However, after lengthy investigations, no charges were filed against him.
Burns said he believes anyone who’d been in such a government position would have been come under fine.
“He’s certainly been involved in political controversy, and I think … he was serving our country in a time of unusual circumstances, to put it mildly,” Burns said. “It was a challenging time, and I can’t presume to have all the knowledge that he had at the time those decisions were made, and I don’t have the knowledge of how impactful those decisions were in terms of the War on Terror, et cetera.”
Burns said he respected Gonzales for doing the job he was asked to do. “[I] believe that those kinds of opportunities can be shared with our students and help create legal leaders in ways that others couldn’t.”
With those perspectives, Burns felt Gonzales would be the right hire for the law school, which welcomed its first class of 132 students in August. “As provost, my job is to – for students – provide the most exceptional education experiences as possible, and so that means bringing in individuals who are capable of delivering that,” Burns said. “In the case of the law school having someone who has had those kinds of experiences, and there are so very few of them to choose from, that was most important.”