The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

General counsel vacancy entering 11th month, to be filled soon

Photo by Samuel Jackson for The Lafayette
The general counsel provides legal guidance to the college.

The following is a selection of the legal challenges Lafayette College has faced over the past 10 months:

This begs the question: Where has Lafayette’s lead lawyer been the whole time?

The general counsel role was vacated last June with the retirement of Leslie Muhlfelder ‘81, who had been appointed to the post in 1995 by the board of trustees. Muhlfelder’s retirement was announced in February 2023.

The Lafayette reported at the time that a national search would commence that spring, though the job was not posted until December of that year and the requisite search committee was not formed until February 2024. According to Bob Sell ’84, the chairman of the board of trustees, this was all a part of the plan.

“Some might ask, ‘Why the delay?’” Sell said. “That delay was by design and approved by the board at the May meeting of 2023, and what was approved was a process whereby over the summer and early fall, the administration would do a deep dive analysis on the legal needs of the college, both historically and prospectively.”

According to Sell, there are two finalists for the role – they were interviewed last week. Scott Morse, the college spokesman, wrote in an email that the search committee’s work “concluded with their recommendations of the semifinalist candidates.”

Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd said that the final decision would be made “within weeks, within days.”

Since Muhlfelder’s retirement, the only staff listed on Lafayette’s general counsel webpage is a lone executive assistant. Muhlfelder, before her retirement, served as a conduit between the college and outside law firms. However, in the 10 months since the general counsel role was vacated, Lafayette has relied exclusively on outside attorneys – no interim general counsel was appointed.

“The interim status that we’ve been in has not hurt the institution,” Sell said. “In fact, it’s not impeded any decision making or any legal situation.”

Graph by Trebor Maitin ’24 for The Lafayette

Sell added that he foresees the complexity of legal situations facing the college increasing over time. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the power of the general counsel has grown with the complexity of collegiate legal matters, namely due to increased federal regulations.

“It can be a wise idea to have an inside counsel if the president or the chairman of the board wants someone they can rely on to answer a quick legal question,” said John C. Coffee, the director of the Columbia Law School Center on Corporate Governance in New York.

The Lafayette analyzed private liberal arts colleges in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions with an undergraduate enrollment within 1,000 students of Lafayette. Eighteen of 30 such schools have a general counsel’s office, and of those, only Lafayette and Barnard College in New York have a vacancy atop the office.

“One advantage of having in-house counsel is that they have a deep understanding and commitment to the mission of the College and can be exclusively dedicated to the needs and issues of the one institution instead of having multiple clients that need their attention and services,” Stonehill College spokeswoman Jill Goddard wrote in an email.

Stonehill is located in Easton, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Hamilton College in Clinton, New York exclusively utilizes outside counsel.

“We have been very satisfied for many years working with an outside firm,” Hamilton spokeswoman Vige Barrie wrote in an email. “Therefore we haven’t had reason to pursue alternatives.”

The vacancy in the Office of the General Counsel is one of several longstanding high-level administrative vacancies at Lafayette. The role of vice president for development was vacated 20 days after Muhlfelder’s retirement while the role of vice president for communications was vacated in June 2022. A national search was recently launched for the latter.

Both positions have been filled on an interim basis by consultants from the same Massachusetts-based firm, Mackey Strategies.

Editor’s note: The print version of this article incorrectly states that the general counsel’s retirement was announced eight months in advance. The detail was removed from the online version of the article prior to publication.

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About the Contributors
Trebor Maitin
Trebor Maitin, Managing Editor
Pennsylvania enthusiast.
Samuel Jackson
Samuel Jackson, Staff Photographer

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