Howard University President James E. Cheek said yesterday that he had requested the resignation of law school Dean John T. Baker because of "incompetence" and "insubordination," and said Baker's departure was "unrelated in the main" to a dispute over graduating students who the law faculty said had not met all degree requirements.
At a news conference, Cheek assailed reports that Baker had resigned after indications that Cheek would overturn the law faculty decisions. He said he had permitted nine of the 13 students involved to receive their degrees last Saturday because they were "academically qualified to graduate."
"The university resents the charges that it lowered its academic standards for any of these students," Cheek told reporters. He announced that he had ordered Baker to vacate his office at noon yesterday, instead of on June 30, as previously arranged, and said he had named J. Clay Smith, 44, a law professor at Howard, to take over as dean immediately.
Baker told faculty members on May 2 that he was resigning after less than a year because he had not received the resources and support he needed.
Baker released a written statement yesterday in which he said he would decline to take issue with Cheek publicly "because of . . . pride, dignity and a sense of professional responsibility." At graduation, Baker declared that he did not "apologize for adhering to the highest standards of excellence."
Baker, 46, who graduated from Howard Law School with honors, became dean in July after serving as a professor at Indiana University and earlier as an associate law professor at Yale.
Maurice Holland, the acting dean at Indiana Law School, said Baker would return to the faculty there in the fall. "We're delighted to have him back," Holland said. "He's very highly regarded by his colleagues and students."
Cheek said Baker sent him a letter March 25 asking for a $25,000 raise over his $95,000-a-year salary. He said Baker told him he was in a "depressing financial situation, was suffering from extreme physical exhaustion" and was "sorely tempted to return to Indiana." Cheek said he rejected the request for a raise and told Baker he was concerned about his "apparent incompetence" and believed he had "less than 100 percent commitment to the affairs of" Howard Law.
Cheek said that after students complained to him in late April about not being allowed to graduate, he determined that Baker was in "dereliction of his duty as dean" by failing to "provide for the students involved an opportunity to have their situations reviewed."
Cheek said Baker had committed an "act of insubordination" by telling a law librarian, "To hell with university policies and procedures," when the librarian refused to comply with a request that Cheek did not describe.
Cheek said he asked Baker to resign the day after Michael R. Winston, the vice president for academic affairs, began hearings on student appeals of the faculty decisions on graduation.
Cheek said that in two cases he allowed students to graduate with one or two course credits fewer than the 88 required under law school rules because "by precedent at the law school it was known . . . that the requirement has been waived." He said the American Bar Association, which accredits the school, requires a minimum of 86 credit hours.
Winston said that in three cases the faculty sought improperly to have students comply with a course requirement that it set after they entered Howard and that had not yet been submitted to university trustees. In two cases, which he did not further describe, Winston said Baker had reversed a faculty decision on course credits.
Winston said Cheek also allowed one student to retake an examination he had failed because a university physician certified there were "mitigating medical circumstances." He said another case involved "the completion of registration."
Cheek expressed concern about the relatively low passing rate of Howard Law graduates on bar examinations but said the problem was shared by black law students nationwide.
Earlier, Baker had said the law school, whose enrollment of 437 is 92 percent black, should become "more racially diverse." Cheek said he "resents it when anyone advocates that to improve education at Howard we must be integrated. That is racist." He said Howard already is "more integrated" than most law schools.