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Widener University Celebrates the Legacy of Former Law Dean


Staff and faculty from across Widener University paused this week to remember Tony Santoro, a former law dean whose vision shaped Widener’s unique dual structure of legal education. 

Santoro, 77, died Monday, September 9 after a brief illness.  

“Tony Santoro had a profound impact on legal education,” said Widener Provost Andrew Workman. “His vision and knack for hiring and inspiring exceptional faculty created law schools that not only provided top notch legal education, but also improved the skill and ethics of the bench and bar of the states in which they are located.  His influence will be felt by the legal community for many years to come.” 

Santoro arrived at Widener in 1983 at what was then known as Widener University School of Law. There was one campus in Wilmington, Del., and under his leadership that expanded to include a second campus in Harrisburg, Pa. He oversaw both campuses, which became separately accredited in 2015 and now operate as Widener University Delaware Law School and Widener University Commonwealth Law School under the leadership of separate deans. 

“Tony was an entrepreneur,” said Eugene D. McGurk, a member of the Widener Board of Trustees and 1978 graduate of the law school in Delaware. “He really had a vision for going to Harrisburg because he saw a need there for legal education.”  

McGurk began a friendship with Santoro as an alumnus that only strengthened over time. Even after Santoro relocated to New England in the 1990s, where he helped establish Rhode Island’s first law school at Roger Williams University, McGurk said they remained in touch with visits and phone calls. 

Emeritus Professor Thomas J. Reed, who served as Santoro’s associate dean all but one year of Santoro’s nine-year Widener tenure, said Santoro had the ability to talk with people at their level. He could speak legal education with law school academics and business with developers. He would listen to alumni reminisce. 

“He had a number of ways of connecting with people,” Reed said. “And he brought the bar and bench into our school in a way his predecessors weren’t able to do.” 

Santoro’s ability to win the support of then-Widener President Robert Bruce, and then-Board Chairman Leslie C. Quick, for his idea of expanding the law school to the Pennsylvania capitol was a testimony to his skill and influence. Santoro hired Professor Robyn Meadows to teach in Harrisburg, and it was his vision for the school’s role in the commonwealth’s capital city that convinced her it was a wise career move. 

“I was enthusiastic about joining the faculty in Harrisburg because Tony was enthusiastic about Harrisburg. That’s why so many of us came. He infused the campus with his excitement for the school and the role it would play for legal education in Pennsylvania,” Meadows said. 

While Santoro expanded the law school into Harrisburg, he also made his mark on the Delaware campus. He grew the institution into one of the country’s largest law schools in an era marked by national enrollment surges, and expanded facilities in Delaware’s Main Law Building to accommodate the flourishing operation. 

Santoro left Widener in 1992 for Rhode Island and was appointed founding dean of the law school at Roger Williams University in 1993. He was named president of the university shortly before the law school opened, and went on to serve as chancellor. He returned to the law school there as a faculty member in 2000 and retired last year. 

“We are deeply grateful for all of Tony Santoro’s contributions to legal education at Widener,” said Delaware Law School Dean Rodney A. Smolla. “The relationships he built with our alumni, the bench, bar, and business community significantly strengthened the law school’s position in Delaware and we are better for his leadership.”  

“As dean of Commonwealth Law School I have great respect and admiration for Tony Santoro,” Dean Christian Johnson added. “His vision for a vibrant, successful law school serving the Pennsylvania capital has come to fruition. Without Tony there would be no Commonwealth Law School, and we are proud to play such a significant role in his legacy.”