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Colleges Name New Top Lawyers While Considering Fall Reopening

June 1, 2020, 9:38 PM

The University of Colorado’s new legal chief José Padilla has decades of experience as a lawyer, including 15 years at DePaul University. But nothing could have prepared him for dealing with Covid 19’s impact.

Padilla, who begins his new job next month in a four-campus system that has roughly 67,000 students, will face two class actions by students seeking tuition refunds. Then there’s making sure furloughs are structured correctly, and handling new accreditation concerns related to moving classes online.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Padilla. He served as general counsel at DePaul during the 2008 recession, but that economic downturn “didn’t force the kind of pain and disruption that this has.”

Padilla will move to Colorado from DePaul, the nation’s largest Catholic university in Chicago, where he practiced law early in his career. In between, he served in the Clinton administration as a Treasury Department political appointee, then joined the Illinois Institute of Technology as an attorney and lobbyist.

Padilla said the role at CU, a public university with a $5 billion budget, was “too good of an opportunity not to pursue.”

Padilla is already confronting the challenges of shifting jobs in the middle of the pandemic, having only met his future colleagues via Zoom. This summer, he will have to find an apartment and navigate a 1,000 mile move across the U.S.

“It’s a little challenging in the era of Covid,” Padilla said.

Padilla will soon join the discussions on what Colorado’s campuses may look like in the fall.

CU Boulder plans to offer both in-person and remote instruction this fall, according to a May 26 letter from the chancellor. Each of CU’s four campuses will make its own decision, and Padilla expects the other campuses to announce “relatively soon” about fall plans.

Most universities, “if they could, ideally, they would love to return to the prior model of primarily in person classes and to some degree online classes,” he said.

Both DePaul and CU are currently facing class actions, which he said are “ seeking to punish us for doing what was in the best interest of our students and what was being forced upon us in any event by local, state, and federal government.”

Many universities, including DePaul, will argue that students’ circumstances at each school are not similar enough to certify a class, Padilla said.

Padilla replaces former general counsel Patrick O’Rourke, who was named interim executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer of the CU Boulder campus in January. O’Rourke served as the university’s general counsel for almost eight years.

DePaul hasn’t named its incoming top lawyer.

Other recent changes among university lawyers include:

  • The University of Pittsburgh named Laurel Gift assistant vice chancellor for compliance, investigations, and ethics. The former law firm partner at Leech Tishman joins the university months after the NCAA placed it on probation for compliance violations. Gift leads the university’s new Office of Compliance, Investigation and Ethics. In her new role, she hopes to create a handbook detailing conduct for the university’s internal investigations, and supervise an ethics program.

  • University of Alaska’s president, Jim Johnsen, appointed Matthew Cooper as the college’s next general counsel. Cooper will begin his tenure in June, taking over for the university’s current general counsel, Michael Hostina. Cooper has served in the general counsel’s office as an associate since December 2011.

  • Western Kentucky University’s Deborah Wilkins will step down from her role effective July 1, ending her decades-long term as general counsel. Wilkins will remain at the university as senior adviser to the president and interim Title IX coordinator. Andrea Anderson, WKU’s assistant general counsel, is set to take over Wilkins’ role. Anderson also served as the university’s Title IX coordinator, as well as its faculty and staff immigration services coordinator.

  • Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia named Tracey Pachman as the university’s general counsel. Prior to beginning the role April 14, Pachman served as deputy general counsel at Villanova University. Pachman replaced Marianne Schimelfenig, who served as general counsel for over a decade.

To contact the reporter on this story: Allie Reed in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at, Seth Stern at