In Focus: Northwestern Law employees, students allege toxic environment under Dean Osofsky

In Focus: Northwestern Law employees, students allege toxic environment under Dean Osofsky

In June 2022, Northwestern Law student Alicia Crawford took over as president of the Pritzker School of Law’s Student Bar Association — the organization that serves as a liaison between the student body and administration.

But just nine months later, Crawford resigned. 

“While in the navy, I made a promise to myself, that I would never advocate for something I did not believe in, nor would I remain silent and complicit in things I believe to be fundamentally harmful,” Crawford wrote in her Feb. 28, 2023, resignation letter.

Crawford’s complaint would be followed by several more from other community members raising concerns about turmoil at Pritzker since Dean Hari Osofsky joined the law school in August 2021.

Nearly two dozen current and former students, staff and faculty members told The Daily that the law school has been plagued by mismanagement, a toxic work environment and a lack of transparency since Osofsky stepped in, leading many longtime employees to flee the school. 

Despite several formal complaints lodged with human resources, the Office of the Provost and other University officials, members of the Northwestern Law community say their frustrations remain unaddressed.

A veiled search process

In July 2020, then-Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty announced that Pritzker Prof. James Speta would take over as interim dean of the law school the following month.

That would make Pritzker’s next permanent dean the fourth person in three years to lead the law school. 

After Speta took over as interim dean in August, though, faculty said they received few updates from the Provost’s Office on the dean search process — one that, in the past, had involved more faculty input.

Seven months later, the chair of the 10-person search committee informed faculty that they would not learn the identity of any potential finalists nor have the opportunity to comment on them, several faculty members told The Daily. 

The following week, six tenured faculty members wrote an email to Hagerty expressing their frustrations about the lack of transparency. In particular, they said, they were concerned that the process had not met requirements set by the American Bar Association.

ABA Standard 203(c) requires law schools to have a process “that assures meaningful involvement by the faculty or a representative body of the faculty in the selection of a dean.”

Faculty said in the message that they did not have any role in electing committee members.

“That body cannot be deemed ‘representative,’ especially as no effort was made to have it reflect the faculty or its preferences,” they wrote.

Two days later, Hagerty responded that the search process did satisfy ABA requirements, as faculty constituted six of the 10-member search committee. She said the committee had conducted outreach to the broader faculty to receive input.

Hagerty noted that several other highly ranked law schools also use closed searches.

“The decision to conduct a confidential search was made after engaging with multiple stakeholders to ensure that, at all times, we remain in compliance with relevant accreditation standards,” she wrote in an email on March 19, 2021.

University spokesperson Jon Yates told The Daily in a statement that the search process satisfied ABA Standard 203(c) and was consistent with dean searches at other NU schools and other similarly ranked private law schools.

“Such strategies help to ensure all potential candidates — including sitting deans or others in leadership positions — feel comfortable progressing in the search and allow Northwestern the best chances of attracting a robust pool of competitive candidates,” he said in the statement.

On Friday, May 7, 2021, Speta announced via email that the provost had named Osofsky — then-Dean of Penn State Law — as her selection for the new dean and asked tenure-line faculty to meet the coming Monday to vote on Osofsky’s tenure. The names of other potential candidates in the search process were never shared.

“This unusually expedited procedure is necessary, given the continuing nonpublic nature of the search,” Speta wrote in the email.

The University did not comment on why faculty were not given the opportunity to elect members of the search committee or learn the identity of the finalist more than three days before voting on Osofsky’s tenure.

Several faculty members later told The Daily they didn’t feel they had sufficient opportunity to give input on Osofsky’s selection or to voice concerns during the subsequent tenure vote. 

They also noted that Osofsky did not meet with faculty before the vote, a traditional step in dean search processes.

“My understanding was that we were told, essentially, we had to go ahead with this because the University had already decided, and that if we didn’t, it would be done anyway,” one faculty member familiar with the process told The Daily.

Another faculty member pushed back on the notion that tenured faculty were pressured to vote a certain way.

“My view is a committee of my colleagues looked at all the candidates and picked a slate and passed them to the provost, who is someone I think very highly of,” they said.

Some faculty members told The Daily they didn’t feel comfortable voting against Osofsky since their vote would be widely known among their peers. 

“Realistically, it’s very hard to vote no on an incoming dean candidate knowing that the University is going to put that person in no matter what,” one faculty member said. 

‘The first demoralizing piece of the puzzle’

Shortly after Osofsky joined the law school, many faculty and staff quickly became frustrated with her leadership style, several sources told The Daily. 

One faculty member said, despite being “very happy” when Osofsky was selected, their view toward the dean shifted rapidly.

Several current and former staff members told The Daily a major turning point came at a February 2022 town hall where Osofsky announced that three senior members of the law school’s human resources team would be departing. 

The three employees — Executive Director of HR, Planning, and Administration Melissa Durst; Associate Dean of People, Planning, and Infrastructure Rita Winters; and Senior Associate Director of HR and Administration Molly Heiler — had all worked at Pritzker for over a decade.

Illustration by Shveta Shah

“The law school never felt like a place where you were worried about your job, but suddenly it started to feel like that environment where you had to know the right people and fall in line,” one former staff member who worked closely with HR told The Daily. 

The decision stemmed from a review of the law school’s HR practices that Osofsky had requested, sources said. The former staff member described it as a “bureaucratic smear campaign.”

“Getting rid of HR was the first demoralizing piece of the puzzle,” one senior administrator told The Daily.

The results of the review were never shared with staff, sources familiar with the situation told The Daily.

Winters did not respond to several requests for comment, and Durst and Heiler declined to comment. The University and Osofsky did not comment on changes made to the HR team under Osofsky’s tenure, nor the results of any review into the department. 

Three former staff members said it felt evident that the dean only intended to collaborate closely with a select group of people. 

“It was very clear there were people she had no interest in hearing from,” one former employee said. “It was like she picked a team of disciples to treat well.”

Osofsky told The Daily in a statement that she has worked collaboratively with the law school community from her first day “to move forward ambitiously and to improve our culture,” leading to progress in employment, admissions, diversity, fundraising and operations.

“As new leaders often do, I made some important organizational changes,” she wrote in the statement. “I am proud of the progress we have made together and am excited for all we are currently building.”

‘Like having your worst nightmare boss’

Several former staff members told The Daily they left the law school because the work environment became unbearable for their physical and mental health. 

Four current and former staff members told The Daily it was not uncommon to see people crying at work after Osofsky took over.

“It’s like having your worst nightmare boss,” one current employee said.

Current and former staff and faculty members said it was well-known that the marketing department faced particular challenges with the dean’s leadership. 

“She came in right away and decided, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, that she didn’t like our team,” one former marketing employee said. 

The former member of the team said Osofsky’s alleged lack of respect toward the marketing employees “felt like hazing.”

Four former members of the marketing team said the workplace environment immediately took a toll on the law school’s former associate dean of marketing, who declined to comment for this article due to an agreement she signed with the University.

“The dean was just hammering (the former associate dean), and we saw the deterioration of her mental health in this time,” one former member of the marketing team said. “She was definitely anxious, upset, stressed all the time.”

Since Osofsky joined the law school, the marketing team has lost at least five longtime employees — several of whom have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements upon their departure, according to former team members.

The University did not respond to a question about how many employees or faculty members at the law school have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements upon their departure from Pritzker since Osofsky joined NU.

Illustration by Shveta Shah

“The dean was just picking us off one by one and really with no rhyme or reason,” the former member of the marketing team said.

Following the former associate dean’s departure, Osofsky hired a part-time, remote consultant to lead the marketing team. A permanent replacement did not take over until October 2023, despite complaints to human resources. 

Records obtained by The Daily show the consultant was paid nearly $75,000 between December 2022 and August 2023.

In a March 2023 message to a representative from NU HR, the former social media director expressed frustrations with what they saw as general dismissiveness and a lack of respect for the organizational structure of the marketing team from the consultant. 

“I had a terrible migraine and also extreme anxiety and stress … to the point my family and friends were very worried about me,” they wrote. “I was extremely confused about what was going on — why was I repeatedly being stripped of my job responsibilities?”

The consultant declined to comment for this article.

Current and former employees said frustrations were not isolated to the HR and marketing departments. 

Several pointed to a high turnover rate for the position of executive assistant in the office of the dean. At least five different people have occupied the role since Osofsky joined NU.

Two former assistants to the dean told The Daily they left due to external factors, while another said they left because they were “unhappy with pretty much every part of her leadership style.”

“Unfortunately, it has been a year and a half of extreme therapy on my end,” the latter assistant said.

Three current and former staff members who have worked closely with Osofsky said they have not experienced a toxic work environment, with one noting that “she’s very policy-driven and process-driven.” Osofsky’s current assistant said he has found the work environment warm and inclusive.

Another senior administrator said, however, that many current employees have accepted that morale is not improving any time soon. 

“It’s absolutely horrible,” one current employee of the law school said. “Everyone’s just praying that she’ll leave or that she’ll get ousted.”

‘Unlike anything I’ve ever seen’

Several staff and faculty members said unclear strategy, micromanagement and a lack of trust have also hindered the law school’s ability to function effectively.

“People are always going to be unhappy with the dean,” one longtime faculty member said. “But this is a situation where everyone (is) unhappy, and I think that’s about general incompetence.”

Four former members of the marketing team said micromanagement by Osofsky made it nearly “impossible” to do their jobs. Several of them pointed to the collapse of the law school’s alumni magazine — previously published in print each spring and fall — as an example.

According to one former member of the marketing department, work on the Fall 2021 issue of the magazine began before Osofsky joined Pritzker. However, several former members of the team said that, while previous deans had a minimal role in the editorial process, Osofsky insisted on being heavily involved.

Emails obtained by The Daily show Osofsky sent the team several requests for changes to a draft of the magazine submitted to her in August 2021. One included a request that quotes from Speta be replaced with her own quotes ― even though she had not been at the law school when events featured in the magazine took place.

“I kept saying, ‘This is never gonna happen,’” one person who worked on the magazine said. “‘This woman’s never going to OK this and she’s never going to kill it. It’s just laying on her desk.’”

The team went back and forth with Osofsky over the changes for several months, emails show. 

However, the magazine was never published, despite several prominent alumni and faculty expecting their accomplishments to be featured.

Illustration by Shveta Shah

“The sense of micromanaging goes all the way down to the basement,” one Pritzker staff member said. “(It’s) unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

According to the Pritzker website, production of the alumni magazine has been put on hold as of January 2024. The last issue available is Fall 2020.

The University did not respond to questions about the discontinuation of the print magazine.

Some other staff members said they feel confident in Osofsky’s leadership, though.

Hagerty told The Daily in a statement that she and University President Michael Schill support Osofsky, adding that her accomplishments have advanced Pritzker’s priorities and bolstered its reputation. 

“Northwestern’s deans, like leaders of any major organization, make difficult decisions about the directions of their schools,” Hagerty wrote in the statement. “Every choice — no matter how big or small it may seem — always will have its critics. That is the nature of leadership in a community where diversity of thought is promoted and celebrated.”

Associate Dean of Admissions and Career Services Donald Rebstock, who has worked at the law school for 27 years, said he attributes the recent success of his team to Osofsky’s leadership.

“When there’s a dean transition, you’re kind of starting all over again,” he said. “That can be hard, especially for people who have been here for a long time — and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t challenging for me as well. But presently, I think we’re moving past that.”

‘When students need somebody, they don’t have them’ 

Several faculty members pointed to the dean’s delay in appointing and announcing faculty committees as another failure that has impacted students. 

Osofsky has yet to appoint a clerkship committee, which is crucial in helping law students apply for federal clerkships, students and faculty members told The Daily.

Another faculty member noted that the law school’s website for faculty-administered committees has not been updated since before Osofsky joined NU, posing a critical barrier for students seeking faculty support.

The website currently reads: “Committee information will be posted once available.”

The University did not respond to a question about why faculty committees have not yet been announced publicly.

Three faculty members also alleged that Osofsky’s over-involved style of management has impacted the faculty recruitment process.

“She’s very frustrating, because she insists on micromanaging a lot of aspects of the process,” one faculty member said. 

They pointed to two incidents from 2022, one of which involved the dean allegedly rescinding an offer sent to a candidate — a move several faculty members described as highly unusual. In a February 2022 meeting with faculty, Osofsky shared that the offer had been revoked but did not offer an explanation, according to sources present at the meeting.

The University did not respond to a question about the incident.

Another incident occurred several months later, when the dean inadvertently attached an offer letter with confidential salary information to an email sent to faculty about a different new hire. One faculty member described the incident as a “catastrophic blunder” which raised concerns about pay equity.

Osofsky acknowledged the incident in a Nov. 15, 2022 message to faculty, apologizing for her error.

“I think that’s just a perfect example of how her micromanagement leads to mistakes,” one faculty member told The Daily. “It leads to sloppiness.”

Yates told The Daily that Osofsky has positively impacted recruitment by helping bring 19 new faculty members to the law school, including six tenured or tenure-track hires.

Crawford, the former Student Bar Association president, said Osofsky’s lack of administrative support has also impacted her life and career. 

Crawford found an off-campus apartment in 2021 through StudentSpace, a service that NU uses to recommend off-campus housing for graduate students. She quickly noticed that the building’s elevator had several city code violations. 

Crawford’s apartment and others on her floor were forcibly broken into in January, after which it took three weeks for her to get a face-to-face meeting with administrators to address the situation. For several weeks, she was left without permanent housing.

“I’m running out of options to live, and I am reaching a breaking point,” Crawford wrote in a Jan. 29 email to a Pritzker administrator. “I need help figuring out a solution.”

Crawford said she appreciated the help she received from faculty and administrators who she had built close relationships with in her former position as SBA president but expressed concern for other students who might not have those support systems.

“I think the only reason I was able to (seek out help) is because I created that access,” Crawford said. “But, do we expect every student — specifically every student that is a first-generation law student or from a diverse, underrepresented community — to be able to create that access? Because if that’s the answer, then I can’t say that certain people should come to Northwestern.”

Crawford said while she’s not sure if Osofsky knew about her situation, she attributes the institutional failure to Osofsky’s role as the “captain of the ship.”

“It just always goes back to the dean — when students need somebody, they don’t have them,” Crawford said. “There’s less availability and less bandwidth to take care of marginalized students like myself.”

Professed priorities neglected, employees say 

Several current and former staff and faculty members told The Daily that Osofsky has publicly articulated priorities of transparency and diversity. However, her actions have consistently contradicted that messaging, they said.

Five faculty members told The Daily that concerns over administrative transparency have persisted throughout Osofsky’s tenure. They said Osofsky shares few details about budgetary information with faculty — a change from previous deans.

At a Jan. 30 meeting, a faculty member asked the dean why she could not provide more budgetary details. Osofsky cited confidentiality concerns, according to sources present.

“It was the most insulting PowerPoint presentation I think I’d ever seen,” one faculty member who was at the meeting told The Daily. “It could not have been more of a show trial version of giving us budgetary information. Past deans nonetheless would consistently give detailed numbers.”

Yates told The Daily that Osofsky has presented on the law school’s budget on three separate occasions this academic year, “providing the same level of detail on salary information that is consistent with the University’s practice.”

Several current and former staff and faculty members also labeled Osofsky’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy as inconsistent and unclear.

One former employee told The Daily that Osofsky directed them and other administrators to write and sign statements about diversity, equity and inclusion. The former employee said, while they and others felt the statements were “performative,” employees did not feel comfortable raising concerns.

“There was one time that I spoke up, and I said something,” they said. “(Osofsky) called me privately and was like, ‘Tell me why you’re not supportive.’ And when the dean of the law school does that, obviously I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

One senior administrator pushed back on the notion that Osofsky’s DEI work lacks substance or strategy, noting that, in their view, “there’s been significant progress” since Osofsky joined the law school.

The former social media director at Pritzker described Osofsky’s understanding of diversity as “very literal,” saying there was an emphasis on bringing in people of color but not on committing resources to marginalized students, staff and faculty.

“We bring in all these students of color who we’ve actively recruited and told them they’re going to have such a lovely educational time here, and then they find a hostile environment,” the former social media director said.

Yates told The Daily that “the Law School has developed and implemented concrete action to advance DEI that is grounded in listening” since Osofsky joined the law school. Initiatives have included establishing alumni affinity groups, an LGBTQIA+ Rights Clinic and a new working group to combat hate and increase understanding, he wrote.

While concerns about the substance of DEI work at the law school have long persisted, staff and faculty said they feel the situation has been distinct under Osofsky.

“Many people on the faculty care very much about equity issues, and we have been frustrated and offended to see the dean use them in such a self-serving way that we think makes a mockery of those issues,” one faculty member told The Daily. 

Complaints pile up

After several months of corresponding with HR and other University officials, the former social media director decided to elevate their concerns to higher leadership.

In March 2023, they emailed officials from the Office of the Provost and the Office of General Counsel to make a formal complaint about Osofsky’s administration and to request an investigation into her alleged misconduct.

“Since her arrival in August 2021, Dean Osofsky’s toxic leadership has had a widespread negative impact on the students, faculty, and staff of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law,” the former social media director wrote in the letter. “My colleagues are stressed, frustrated, demoralized, and truly unable to do their jobs.”

Three days later, another former member of the marketing team sent a letter of support, corroborating the allegations in the initial letter and expanding on their experience.

The letters alleged that the marketing team had been subject to rude and denigrating feedback, a lack of respect for regular working hours, unrealistic expectations and alleged “gaslighting” by Osofsky in response to concerns raised by staff.

A representative of the Provost’s Office redirected concerns to HR, according to emails obtained by The Daily.   

The colleague followed up with the representative from NU HR and the Provost’s Office on April 17, 2023, to inquire about the response to her complaint and ask about another circulating among students.

Earlier that month, over 70 law students signed a draft titled “Statement of No Confidence in Dean Hari Osofsky,” which requested the immediate removal of Osofsky from her position, sources familiar with the matter told The Daily. 

The letter was addressed to representatives from the Office of the Provost, the Office of General Counsel and the Office of the Ombudsperson but ultimately never submitted, sources said.

Yates confirmed that no “Statement of No Confidence” in Osofsky has been submitted to the University or the provost. 

Illustration by Shveta Shah

“While some of us will graduate this year, we cannot sit silent while Dean Osofsky demolishes Northwestern’s community and culture, the very attributes that drew us to Northwestern,” a draft obtained by The Daily reads. 

The students raised several complaints in the draft statement — including Osofsky’s alleged tendency to seek out photo opportunities with students and professors of color — an allegation the University did not respond to.

The second former marketing employee said they were ultimately told HR determined that, since Osofsky had not violated NU’s code of conduct, nothing could be done. 

Yates confirmed that the University reviewed the concerns and found no policy violations. 

“We have worked with very difficult deans,” the former social media director said. “Deans can be unpopular, they make unpopular decisions, but for this many people to come forward and keep pushing it up to the leadership of the University — it means there’s a serious issue here.”

Calls for institutional change 

Several current and former staffers said, while many of their concerns stem directly from Osofsky’s leadership, the law school must implement reforms to protect employees in the future.

One of Osofsky’s former executive assistants said they would have reported their experience to HR but did not feel it would be helpful after most of the team was let go. 

“A lot of the things I experienced could’ve been avoided not just with a different dean, but with some kind of protection for administrators,” the former assistant said.

Staff and faculty also alleged that Osofsky is aware of frustrations with her leadership and said they believe she is worried about Schill finding out about discontent at the law school.

One current staff member alleged staff have been instructed by Osofsky to avoid interacting with Schill when he visits Pritzker, where he is a professor of law. 

“When he comes in, (Osofsky) tells us we’re not allowed to look at him, talk to him, nothing,” the employee said. “I don’t know what she’s worried about, but trust me, people want to talk to him.”

A faculty member also alleged that Osofsky is known to ask faculty members to observe who meets with Schill when he’s at Pritzker and report back to her — something they perceive as intimidation.

Osofsky did not comment on the allegation.

One current employee said they were “shocked at the arrogance of the Provost’s Office” not to take any significant measures after students, faculty and staff have raised concerns, noting that, in their view, it will likely take years to repair the damage done.

“I don’t know who can fix this,” they said. “Let’s say she leaves. Who’s gonna come in and fix this mess?”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jacob_wendler

Related Stories: 

Debaters square off over the impact of Citizens United at Pritzker 

Pritzker Prof. Philip Postlewaite sues NU for age discrimination

Northwestern deans issue statements on Israel-Hamas war

More to Discover