Montgomery County Leadership: Phil Closius, Dean, Wilmington University School of Law
Phil Closius, dean of the Wilmington University School of Law, spent his childhood in two very different environments – New York City and the suburbs of Kansas City – but appreciated both. He had two dreams that remained constant since he was in second grade: to go to the University of Notre Dame and to become a lawyer.
After a few years working at large law firms, Closius realized that environment didn’t appeal to him and spent over 40 years as a law professor and dean of two law schools. Now, he’s helping launch Wilmington University’s new School of Law in 2023, which will emphasize a student-centered approach and affordable tuition.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the second of two boys in Long Island, New York. I spent four years in Kansas City, Missouri. Then my parents moved back to Westchester County north of New York City, to a town called Mamaroneck.
What did your parents do?
My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad was a long-time executive for International Paper.
What memories have stayed with you from growing up in Long Island or Kansas City?
They were two very different experiences. In Long Island, I had a great extended family. We would go, almost every Sunday, into the Bronx and see my grandparents and aunts and have Sunday dinner with them. I always looked forward to going there because they lived three or four blocks from Yankee Stadium, so, in the summer, we’d sit in the bleachers and watch the Yankees.
Kansas City was very different because we were away from everybody, but it was a good experience for me. I was there from seventh through 10th grade. I liked the schools and my friends. It was a completely different vibe from New York, but I enjoyed the suburban life.
Did you play any sports when you were young?
No, I never did, but I’m a great fan. My wife always gives me grief because I have a high school letter in bowling. She refuses to acknowledge that as an actual high school sport.
How did you distinguish yourself in high school?
I was one of the smart kids. I did speech and debate. In high school in Kansas City, I got involved in a speech tournament and finished second in the whole city. I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet.
What about jobs when you were a kid?
My first job ever was in a law office in Kansas City. It was a horrible job, but I thought it was cool. They hadn’t updated their binders in two years, so I spent the whole summer doing that. I also worked in a summer rec program in Mamaroneck for one year.
I worked in the accounts payable department at my dad’s company, International Paper, for four summers in college. In law school, I thought I should see what it was like to work in a factory, so I worked in a factory for a year.
What did you learn from those jobs that stay with you today?
I learned the most in the International Paper Company accounts payable office. They taught me all kinds of things I still do. In accounts payable, you had to open it, and then at the end of the day, you had to close everything out, so you made sure that your debits equaled your credits. You had to use the adding machine and double-check it backwards and forwards. I still do that in everything I do.
There were a lot of nice people there who took a young kid under their wing and told me their ideas of how businesses work. They used to tell me repeatedly if you’re looking at a company and you want to know whether it’s well-run or a mess, check payroll. If they can’t do payroll right, that means everything else is screwed up too. I’ve never been afraid of reading financial statements, and it’s because of that background.
What kind of music were you listening to when you were growing up?
I was listening to the same music I listen to now. In the car, I always listen to 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s music.
For me, music is divided into Kansas City songs and Westchester songs. The 50s and early 60s stuff, that’s Long Island. Then ’62 to ’66, which is the Beatles, is all Kansas City. I like Jim Croce, Carole King, the Four Seasons, and America.
You were a smart student – you could have gone anywhere to college. Where did you decide to go?
Since I was in the second grade, I always wanted to attend the University of Notre Dame. The football team was good, and I had a lot of Catholic education.
Looking back, was Notre Dame a good choice for you?
I loved Notre Dame. If you asked me where I really became me, it was Notre Dame.
Why, what happened to you at Notre Dame?
It was a great period to be there, from ’68 to ’72. The tuition was low, so my friends there weren’t fabulously wealthy. It was more middle-class values.
It was also probably, the most liberal Notre Dame’s ever been in its existence. It was right around the time the school became co-ed – the first women showed up the year after I graduated.
I enjoyed theology classes a lot, but the pope would not have been happy, let’s put it that way.
Those were great years to be in college, ’68 to ’72. That’s when the world happened.
I’ve taught a lot of law school classes, and when the Trump things all started, I said, you know, I’ve lived through this. I’ve lived through the college kids versus the rednecks, the old versus the young, and we survived it. You don’t have National Guard people shooting their way out yet. I lived through Kent State, I lived through it.
I said to people during the Trump years, “I understand you’re young and liberal and progressive and whatever, but do you know what it felt like to watch the president you liked, the presidential candidate you thought was going to change the world and the leader of the civil rights movement get shot?” Try that to get depressed about the future.
When did the law bug bite you? When did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?
I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer since second grade. I am still trying to understand why. I had never met a lawyer until my summer job at a law firm.
Where did you go to law school?
I went to Columbia, back in New York. I loved Notre Dame, but for law school, I wanted to be more urban, more involved in a city with real problems.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you?
My dad was the biggest influence in my life. He was always supporting me. He was always telling me, “Do what you really want. Follow your heart.” After he retired from International Paper Company at 65, he went on to teach college for 15 years. He always wanted to be a teacher, so I got that bug from him.
He’s the one who influenced me the most. Everybody else was always supportive, but I don’t have many individual mentors.
Peter Angelos, who was a graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law and owner of the Orioles, was a great mentor to me later in life. He’s a great person – I learned a lot from him.
What did your dad see in you that made him take a special interest in you?
He thought I was smart. He used to take me to museums and the Hayden Planetarium. We always talked about books with each other – I liked to read from them when I was young. And my dad taught me about being a good person before the intellectual stuff. We talked about treating people the right way and the right thing to do. My whole moral code comes from him.
At the law firm, I had a couple of partners with whom I was good friends. They helped me understand that law firm life was not for me.
So, how did you get to Wilmington University?
In March of this year, I had never heard of Wilmington University. I got a phone call from Joe Farnan, a federal district court judge in Wilmington. He was also a graduate of the University of Toledo Law School, where I was for 28 years, the last seven of which were as dean. I met Joe as dean of Toledo, of his school, and we kept in touch.
When we talked in March, Judge Farnan said, “I’m chairman of the Board of Trustees of Wilmington University, and we want to start a law school. We don’t have a second candidate – you’re the person we want to run the law school.”
My initial reaction was, “Are you out of your mind? Why does anyone think we need another law school in Delaware or the East Coast?” He asked if I would at least come up for lunch and talk about it.
I came up, and we had a three-hour meeting with Wilmington University President LaVerne Harmon. We concluded that no one needs a law school that’s doing everything that everyone else does. I’ve over 40 years of experience in legal education, and I’ve got good ideas about what works and what doesn’t. I want to create a new paradigm for law schools.
Wilmington University matched perfectly with my values. I wanted to be student-centered, I wanted to be affordable, and I want people who really care about teaching – and that’s what we’re doing.
What is Wilmington University Law School doing that’s unique and distinctive?
Most law schools are faculty-centered. We will be student-centered, which influences a lot of what we do.
Our curriculum is going to be very different. For the first two years, I will have everybody take the same classes because there are certain courses all lawyers should take. When you get a law degree, it’s not in corporate law or criminal law. We’re certifying that you’re capable of doing anything in law.
Everybody I know who went to law school thinks the third year was a waste of time, so we’ve made the third year completely optional. You can take your entire third year with us by working internships, or you can take doctrinal courses or a mix of the two.
We’re also very different in who we’re looking for as our faculty. At most law schools, you don’t have a chance to be hired unless you went to one of five law schools – Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, or Chicago. We’re looking to hire people who have an accomplished resume.
I’m not afraid of the Delaware Bar. In these past two deanships, I took two law schools to a 30% improvement in first-year Bar passage rate. We’re going to test people the way the Bar tests them so they get used to the format. That’s a big factor in success.
We have three general categories of students: full-time day, part-time day, and part-time evening. We can be flexible about specific people’s needs. Maybe somebody wants to take 16 credits one semester and eight the next. We can work with almost anybody.
Our costs are $24,000 for full-time and $18,000 for part-time, so we guarantee people they can get a degree for $72,000. We also guarantee everybody that there will be no increase while they’re in school, so when they start, they can know for sure what it’s going to cost. We think we’re priced very competitively, but we don’t tell anybody to come for the price. Come because you like the mission, what we’re doing, what you want to do, and you think this is the best place for you to be. Let our cost be a side benefit.
What do you do with all your free time, Phil?
Well, obsessing over Notre Dame football takes up a lot of time. I also have a 16-year-old son, so he keeps me busy. He likes theater and being a part of the stage crew, so I go to his plays.
Do you read much?
I’m always reading something. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald – I still go back and reread his stuff. I read “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot every year when winter comes, and I want to feel melancholy.
For reasons unclear to me, I developed a mild interest in quantum physics. I can’t understand anything by a real scientist. Still, many guys are quantum physicists and are writing things that are easier to comprehend if you don’t have an extensive math background.
What is something big that you’ve changed your mind about recently?
This goes back to my interest in quantum physics. Reading all this stuff about how the big and the small work has influenced my perspective on what we’re doing, what life is like, and what really matters and what doesn’t. I don’t think time is necessarily real. I think time is like a hammer – it’s a tool we’ve invented. But I’m not sure that things happen one after another – in reality, they may all be happening at the same time.
I started off as a young Catholic, believing in heaven. Then I tended more toward being an atheist. But I’ve had enough experiences where I thought, that’s a little strange. Something’s going on that is not what we think it is with our normal senses of sight and sound. As I look at this quantum physics stuff, it shows there is a realm out there that we can’t understand.
In this crazy, chaotic world, Phil, what keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
Everything! I have never been a pessimistic person. One of my pet statements is, “Humans exaggerate the bad consequences of everything.” When I think about the things that bothered me when I was 25, I think I must have been an idiot.
I’ve been through enough now with people where a big disaster happens in their lives – they get fired, or they’re in a car accident, or they get divorced – and almost always, six months or a year later, they think it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
I’m not minimizing that there are horrible diseases. I’m not saying there are no bad things in life. But I’ve found that most things are about how you react to them. I believe in what Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The arc of history turns toward justice.”
Finally, Phil, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had a lot of people, from my dad to teachers in high school and college, who encouraged me to be me. Part of that advice was, “Tell the truth. Speak truth to power. Be faithful to yourself. Don’t get caught up in wanting titles and wanting money.”
When I decided to leave the big firm and go into teaching, my mother had a heart attack, but my dad said, “This is the best thing for you.” He was right.
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