Former dean left his mark on law school


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

In 2007, shortly after joining The Legal News, I had the privilege of interviewing Frank Wu, the then dean of Wayne State University Law School. Three years earlier, at the age of 36, Wu had become the youngest dean in the history of the law school and the first Asian American at its helm.

Within a year of his appointment, Wu also gained a reputation as the dean who never sleeps.

At times, the belief approached mythical proportions among those in academia, where Wu had carved a well-documented reputation as one of the brightest, most energetic, and compelling figures in the law school world.

But he does sleep.

“Soundly, most of the time,” he confessed.

Still, he had a wee hours habit of dashing off e-mails to staff and faculty members at 2 a.m. each day. Like clockwork.

His late night signals to colleagues would range from friendly reminders, to timely responses, to requests for help with an ambitious capital campaign at the law school.

Rest assuredly, however, he enjoys a good night’s sleep.

It was the call of an 85-pound dog that helped spawn the myth that Wu was a combination Energizer Bunny, insomniac, and incorrigible workaholic.

“The truth of the matter is that my dog has a small bladder,” Wu said at the time, bluntly ending speculation that the Johns Hopkins alum tackled his professional responsibilities 24/7.

“He wakes me up around 2 o’clock each night,” Wu said of his canine. “So, when I let him outside to take care of matters, I pass the time by checking my e-mail, responding to a few and sending some others.”

The Wu era at Wayne State ran from 2004-08 and came to an abbreviated end when he resigned to spend more time with his wife, who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect skin, joints, blood, and kidneys.

Several years later, Wu was appointed dean of the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He led the school for five years, earning plaudits from The National Jurist in 2013 when it ranked Wu as the “most influential dean in legal education.” Despite his success as dean, Wu elected in 2015 to return to his teaching roots and now serves as a Distinguished Professor at the law school.

During his time at Wayne State, Wu helped spearhead fund-raising efforts for the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The capital campaign was highlighted by a $3 million gift from philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman in April 2006.

A year later, Wu presided over another monumental donation to WSU Law School, this time from an unexpected source.

The donor was a Wayne Law School alum from the Class of 1948, renowned appellate attorney Carl Ziemba.

As an octogenarian, Ziemba was a frequent visitor to the Wayne law library, regularly conducting research.

“He was often seen in the law library doing research, but he never identified himself and gave no indication he was a man of means or a leading appellate lawyer,” Wu related during our 2007 interview. “He was just another member of the public who was a regular patron.”

Or so it was thought.

Then Ziemba made it known that he wanted to donate his law books to the law library, Wu indicated.

“He also said that he was considering a monetary gift, but the books were his real prized possession that he wanted to give away,” Wu said. “We thanked him very much for the gift of the books and after his initial reluctance to discuss a monetary gift didn't pursue it aggressively, but instead let him take his time to make up his mind.”

And then, less than a year after the 84-year-old Ziemba passed away, officials from his legal alma mater received word that Wayne State Law School would be receiving a $3.1 million bequest from his estate. The money was earmarked for a scholarship fund to help deserving students.

“When one of our development officials found out about the size of the gift, she nearly fell out of her chair,” Wu said with a laugh. “Obviously, we learned that it pays to be nice to everyone. We saw the value and the importance of the books to him, which led to the eventual gift of his estate. In this case, it was an important lesson for me in terms of leadership. Sometimes it is restraint that really matters.”