The U-M's general counsel is home again.
by Jan Schlain
Suellyn Scarnecchia may never be more famous than she was on August 3, 1993, when a photograph of her carrying "Baby Jessica" appeared in newspapers around the world. Today the U-M's general counsel and vice-president, Scarnecchia was then working in the university's child advocacy law clinic. She represented the preschooler in a legal tug-of-war between Ann Arborites Jan and Robby DeBoer, who'd sought to adopt her, and her biological parents in Iowa, Dan and Cara Schmidt. The Schmidts won, and, with cameras whirring, Scarnecchia, grim-faced, carried the crying child to a waiting van.
"It was so emotional," Scarnecchia, fifty-two, recalls. "It was just a tiny little story when we decided to take the case...and then it spread. It was on the cover of everything."
Scarnecchia, described by a former colleague as shy but tough, never wanted the attention. Yet these days her $295,000-a-year job is one of the most visible at the U-M. Although things have been relatively calm since she was hired in June 2008, the U-M's lawyer-in-chief has often been in the hot seat. Her predecessor, Marvin Krislov, spearheaded the fight to use racial diversity as a factor for admission to the U-M--a battle the university won at the Supreme Court then lost at the ballot box when Michigan voters passed an initiative banning affirmative action at state-supported schools.
Scarnecchia says she's fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of experienced people. But you get the sense she'd be coping just fine even if she weren't. She's warm and down-to-earth but says, "I have very strong self-confidence."
She traces that confidence to her family. Scarnecchia was born in steel country near Youngstown, Ohio--both her grandfathers worked in the mills. So did her father--until she was in third grade, when he quit to enroll at the U-M. The first of his large, immigrant Italian family to go to college, Lou Scarnecchia worked his way through school as a U-M custodian. "He would bring us to work when my
mom was working sometimes, and we would go out with him to the Diag and take the flag down." Scarnecchia remembers. "And it was this big huge thing that we got so excited about."
Lou Scarnecchia got a degree in industrial design and landed a job at General Motors. His wife, Sally, worked her way up from an entry-level job at University Microfilms to a management position in rare books and collections. Suellyn's sister, Kathy, is now principal of Mitchell Elementary School; her brother, Tim, is a professor of African history at Kent State University.
Scarnecchia herself zipped through Northwestern in three years then returned to Ann Arbor for law school. She worked at a small firm in Battle Creek for six years before taking the job at the U-M child advocacy clinic. She was coordinating all the law school's clinics when, in 2003, the University of New Mexico hired her as its first female law dean.
It was, she recalls, "like going to another country." She loved Albuquerque and New Mexico's diverse student body. But ultimately, family called her back to Ann Arbor. "I just got more and more homesick," she confesses. So when Krislov left to become president of Oberlin, she applied for the general counsel's job.
Scarnecchia, who has graying hair and a dimpled smile, works literally in the corridor of power: her office is on the fifth floor of the administration building, down the hall from President Mary Sue Coleman. In addition to providing counsel to Coleman and the U-M regents, she and her associate VPs, Ed Goldman and Gloria Hage, manage a staff of twenty lawyers who handle the university's in-house legal work.
Soon after she was hired, her office represented football coach Rich Rodriguez when he tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of paying $4 million for breaking his contract at West Virginia. Other issues have ranged from the Google Books copyright agreement to the purchase of the Pfizer property. Her office also recently clarified the university's intellectual property rules to encourage student entrepreneurs. "We want to start promoting that thinking among our students," says Scarnecchia. "President Coleman is very enthusiastic about this whole push."
As intense as the Baby Jessica case was, Scarnecchia is no longer in touch with the DeBoers, now divorced. She says she learned much from that case, both about dealing with the media and about human nature. Though many people were judgmental about the conflict, villifying the DeBoers or the Schmidts, "the biological parents were not evil, and the adoptive parents were not evil," she says. "The four adults were acting as normal human beings would act under the circumstances."
That's something she tries to remember in her current job. An institution, she reflects, "is better off if it can understand why people are acting the way they are... In my early twenties, I used to see the world as more black and white....An advantage to being experienced at this job is being able to see the gray."
Scarnecchia is married to Steve Hartwell, a retired teacher who served on the Ann Arbor school board and city council. She describes her husband and their son, Robert, as the "anchors" of her life. Robert started law school at the U-M in September. And Lou and Sally Scarnecchia, long retired, love returning to campus to visit their daughter.
This article has been revised since it appeared in the October 2009 Ann Arbor Observer; the year Scarnecchia became dean at the University of New Mexico has been corrected.
[Originally published in October, 2009.]