Donica Thomas Varner appointed university counsel

Donica Thomas Varner, vice president, general counsel and secretary at Oberlin College, has been named vice president and general counsel at Cornell. Her appointment was approved April 8 by the Executive Committee of the Cornell University Board of Trustees.

She will begin serving as Cornell’s chief legal officer on July 25.

Donica Thomas Varner

Varner succeeds current university counsel Madelyn Wessel, who in September 2020 announced her retirement. Wessel’s last day will be June 4; Debbie Hodys, deputy general counsel and secretary of Weill Cornell Medicine, and Valerie Cross Dorn, senior associate general counsel, will serve as co-interim vice president and general counsel from June 5 to July 24.

“Donica’s many years of leadership in higher education, and her deep knowledge of the complex legal issues affecting academic institutions in the U.S. and internationally, make her a wonderful fit for Cornell,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “Her breadth of expertise in areas including student affairs, immigration, litigation and international engagement will serve her well as she oversees Cornell’s diverse legal landscape. She will be a tremendous asset to the university, and we look forward to having her join us.”

As university counsel, Varner will represent and advise all Cornell boards, senior officers and other officials and units. She will oversee offices in Ithaca and New York City, leading approximately 20 attorneys and other staff who provide in-house legal services, as well as selecting and overseeing all outside legal counsel retained to represent the university.

“Cornell’s extraordinary academics, combined with its vigorous commitment to supporting an open, diverse and inclusive community, have shaped an environment of so many exciting possibilities,” Varner said. “I’m deeply inspired by the vision and values of Cornell, and delighted to be joining its outstanding leadership team.”

Said Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Board of Trustees: “Donica is an impressive and immensely qualified choice for Cornell, and we will benefit from her expertise and guidance. Her years of experience at the University of Michigan and Oberlin College will greatly benefit our Ithaca and New York City campuses, and her advice, leadership and counsel will be appreciated by our many trustees, senior officers and university officials who typically have to navigate complex regulatory environments.”

Varner began her legal career with Detroit-based law firms representing public and private employers in the areas of employment and labor law. She left private practice in January 2000 to join the legal staff at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she represented the university in trial and appellate courts, and in regulatory and labor negotiations.

In 2002 she joined the legal staff at the University of Michigan, where she focused on issues from student affairs to employment and international engagement. She became part of the leadership team at Oberlin in June 2017 as interim vice president and university counsel, and was officially named to the post nine months later.

“Advocating for institutions that serve different student populations, and have different ranges of academic offerings, has been great preparation for Cornell and this community for ‘any person and any study,’” Varner said.

She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina State University in 1991, and her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1993.

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Rebecca Valli