Madelyn F. Wessel will take over as university counsel at Cornell on May 8

February 5, 2017

Cornell Hires University’s Top Lawyer, First Woman to Hold Post

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Madelyn F. Wessel will become the first woman to assume the role of Cornell’s top lawyer this spring, succeeding James Mingle, who worked with the University for more than 20 years.

Wessel, currently the university counsel at Virginia Commonwealth University, will take on the post at Cornell on May 8, the University announced this week. She will also assume the position of secretary of the corporation, serving as the secretary of Cornell’s Board of Trustees.

Wessel previously served as associate general counsel at University of Virginia and, from 1989 to 2001, worked as deputy and chief deputy city attorney in Portland, Ore. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1976 and her J.D. at Boston University in 1982.

Mingle, whom Wessel is replacing, also has connections to UVA. Prior to starting at Cornell in 1995, he served as university general counsel at Virginia’s flagship university.

“I want to thank Jim Mingle for his long, dedicated and excellent service to Cornell for so many years — even staying on this past year at the university’s request,” Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III told the Cornell Chronicle. “Madelyn Wessel is a fitting choice to become Cornell’s next chief legal officer. I am confident that she will serve Cornell’s many diverse legal interests extremely well.”

Wessel declined an interview request, but welcomed an interview when she arrives on campus in May.

“I am excited and eager to join what is obviously an incredibly strong team at the University Counsel’s Office at Cornell,” Wessel told the Cornell Chronicle, which is managed by Cornell University Relations. “I am looking forward to working with the president and board of trustees and representing Cornell’s legal interests across its numerous campuses and advancing its academic and public missions, and truly honored to have been selected for this role.”

After VCU agreed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to settle two Title IX complaints, Wessel and others worked to bring the University into compliance.

VCU instituted new procedures to investigate sexual assault complaints in 2015. At the time, Wessel said bringing VCU into compliance took “an extraordinary amount of time and institutional resources,” and estimated the cost at $1 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Office of Civil Rights currently has more active investigations into Cornell’s Title IX practices — six — than any other college in the country, The Sun reported last week. Investigations do not necessarily imply wrongdoing, and Wessel said in 2015 that the Office of Civil Rights opens investigations based on “just a single complaint,” without letting a university respond first.

In 2012, when Wessel was at UVA, she argued for the University that an exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Act protecting proprietary data, records and information collected or produced by faculty “had no time limit,” according to The Washington Post.

“[T]hus our position that we can protect this material permanently was, I believe, validated,” Wessel said at the time, when a Circuit Court judge ruled that a professor’s emails were exempt from disclosure under the public records law.

When the case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, Wessel and another university lawyer argued that proprietary data or records collected by faculty or staff should be defined simply as, “a thing or property owned or in the possession of one who manages and controls them,” and thus the professor’s emails should be exempt, according to the Post.

The Virginia Supreme Court defined the term similarly in its decision affirming the lower court’s ruling in favor of UVA and its professor, a prominent climate change researcher.

“Unpublished research by university scientists is exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled […], rejecting an attempt by skeptics of global warming to view the work of a prominent climate researcher during his years at the University of Virginia,” the Post reported in 2014.