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University General Counsel Peter McDonough announces retirement

Peter McDonough, who has served as general counsel for the University since 2002 and provided legal advice to the University since 1990, intends to step down at the end of the academic year. He will be on sabbatical during the 2014-15 academic year, during which he will be available to assist his successor.

As general counsel for the University, McDonough represents the University in connection with matters such as affirmative action, disabilities and accommodations, faculty and student affairs and academic and research misconduct. He also heads the Office of the General Counsel, the body responsible for legal issues arising out of the University’s activities.

McDonough said that after serving as general counsel for 12 years, he is at a stage in his professional life where he wants to think about the next step in his career path.

“I’m in this great place where I have time to think about doing something that might be similar or might be very different,” McDonough said. “I’ve been in this role for a dozen years, and that’s probably enough.”

McDonough said he might apply the skills he gained through his time at the University to a different kind of institution or to a role as counselor or adviser in education more broadly. While he described his experience as tremendously rewarding and enjoyable, McDonough said he would like to reflect and speak to his colleagues about his next steps.

McDonough said that the Robertson Foundation lawsuit, the most expensive legal case in University history, was the most memorable case of his University career. The Robertson Foundation was established in 1961 and contributed $35 million to the Wilson School, the largest gift in University history at the time, in order to support its graduate programs and prepare graduate students for careers in government.

The Robertson family filed a complaint in 2002 against the University alleging that it had misspent its gift.

“It was quite all-consuming for 78 months,” McDonough said of the lawsuit. “It had the coincidence of essentially beginning at the front end of both President Tilghman’s office as president and the beginning of my tenure as general counsel.”

Under the terms of the eventual agreement, the Robertson Foundation was dissolved and its assets transferred to the University to fund the Wilson School’s graduate program. The University, in turn, paid $90 million in settlements, including paying legal fees and funding a new charity.

McDonough was also involved with lawsuits over the creation of the new Arts and Transit neighborhood, which was resisted by local residents who opposed the University’s plans to move the Dinky train station. The Arts and Transit neighborhood is now under construction, and the Dinky has been relocated to a temporary station.

The Appellate Court of New Jersey affirmed the University’s decision to relocate the Dinky on March 18.

In addition to having the opportunity to focus his time on high-priority lawsuits such as the Robertson settlement, McDonough said he gained the greatest satisfaction from his ability to focus on a variety of more mundane matters that allow faculty and students to continue their work, from giving advice regarding student trips to the renovation of campus buildings.

“It’s a great role as a lawyer to be at a university that has so many things that require a lawyer’s input,” McDonough said. “Universities offer a sophisticated opportunity to be a generalist. It’s a real gift as a lawyer.”

McDonough noted that his having served on the legal staff at the University since 1990 gave him an advantage as general counsel, since the position of general counsel complemented his skill set as a lawyer.

“It made me a better manager and made me a better lawyer,” McDonough said about his role as general counsel. “I had the opportunity to see things from a certain vantage point that I do believe helped in both the role of the office as we serve the University and our colleagues and the role that I evolved into as I moved through my years here as general counsel.”

McDonough said he would not be involved in the search process to find his replacement. University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 was unavailable for comment at press time. Former University President Shirley Tilghman did not respond to a request for comment.

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