After Alberto R. Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general turned academic, signed on to teach at Belmont University’s fledgling College of Law, in the fall of 2011, a group of nearly 50 faculty members at the fast-growing Christian institution in Nashville signed a letter expressing concern about human-rights practices in the George W. Bush administration during Mr. Gonzales’s tenure. The letter, which did not mention Mr. Gonzales or his appointment, spoke out strongly against the use of torture and the death penalty.
Less than three years later, Mr. Gonzales is preparing to lead Belmont’s College of Law. He is set to take over from its founding dean, Jeffrey Kinsler, on June 1. Mr. Kinsler’s departure was planned; he will return to a full-time faculty role.
Mr. Gonzales, who is 58, sees himself as an "external dean." Many of his efforts, he says, will involve building, and selling, the Belmont brand. "We’re still a new and relatively unknown law school, so I want people to know what we have at Belmont," he says. "I think I’ll be able to do that through a lot of the contacts I’ve developed nationwide."
The law college, which has about 300 students and has averaged a 61-percent acceptance rate, will be graduating its inaugural class in May.
Bringing someone like Mr. Gonzales on board at the law college, which is still only provisionally accredited by the American Bar Association, may not seem like a traditional recipe for success. But administrators believe their choice will pay dividends.
"We’re interested right now in increasing the college’s profile locally and regionally," Thomas D. Burns, Belmont’s provost, says. "He has the skills to help us do that."
Mr. Burns says he has been impressed by how Mr. Gonzales, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has handled criticism and won over critics. Before his selection as dean was announced this month, Belmont’s law faculty voted unanimously in support of the appointment, Mr. Burns says.
Mr. Gonzales, who previously taught political science at Texas Tech University, came under heavy and frequent fire during his time in the Bush administration. He served as White House counsel from 2001 to 2005, before becoming the first U.S. attorney general of Hispanic heritage. Amid scrutiny over his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and questions over whether he had testified truthfully about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs at a Senate committee hearing, he stepped down in 2007.
One of the ways Mr. Gonzales has gone about responding to criticism, he says, is by dealing with it head-on. In his classes at Belmont, for example, Mr. Gonzales says he has encouraged students to ask him about serving under President Bush. He often takes time at the end of his classes—he has taught courses on constitutional law, separation of powers, national-security law, and First Amendment law—for question-and-answer sessions. "I don’t shy away from it," he says. "I’m not there to defend what I did. I’m there to explain what I did."
Mr. Gonzales says he is encouraged by Belmont’s potential, despite the bleak job outlook for many new law graduates. Under his watch, he says, he hopes the school will emphasize the practice of law as much as it does the theoretical side. "Law education needs to change," he says. "We need to do a better job than we’re doing now of preparing lawyers to practice as lawyers."
His priority on June 1, he says, will be starting to raise awareness about Belmont. "There’s always going to be a need for good lawyers," he says. "That’s what we’re offering here."