With the recent hiring of a new dean for the College of Law, University of La Verne administrators are once again forming new strategies with the hope of finally receiving full accreditation from the American Bar Association.
It is a project that has cost more than $32 million since 2001, and to this point ABA accreditation has remained just out of reach.
Gilbert Holmes will become the College of Law’s fourth dean in 10 years when he takes office July 1.
“The thing that most intrigued me was the opportunity to develop a new model of education, which in this case is the development of the law school,” Holmes said. “I’d like to see La Verne recognized as a distinctive place and a recognized institution.”
Holmes, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who served as dean from 2001-2007, will succeed Phil Hawkey, the University’s Execuitve Vice President, who began serving as interim dean in January 2012.
“The new dean has tremendous experience in dealing with students and with working on curriculum so that students are prepared to pass the Bar exam,” ULV President Devorah Lieberman said. “I believe he has a personal mission. He feels he has a calling to this University, and I expect he will do even more at the University of La Verne,” she said.
Given the law school’s track record and the tough job market for lawyers, he’ll need it.
Though the College of Law’s website reports a 95 percent job placement rate for La Verne’s law school graduates in 2009, only 32.8 percent of graduates had full-time jobs in the field of law, according to the ABA.
The “provisional accreditation” it earned in March 2011 is to be reviewed by 2017 in hopes that the law school may one day be profitable.
Across campus there is little optimism for College of Law’s future success. Still the University continues to fund its struggle to gain national credibility.
“We don’t want to keep pouring into a money pit, but closing it can bring a whole new set of complexities,” said Sharon Davis, chairwoman of the faculty assembly and professor of sociology.
“I do think the potential for lawsuits is very great and I think it may have led to the decisions that were being made, even though it is costing us a tremendous amount of money.”
Holmes hopes to introduce a new curriculum, which involves the implementation of a new department called the Center for Academic and Bar Readiness led by Assistant Dean Jendayi Saada, to help students pass the Bar exam on the first try.
Last year the ABA’s Council of Legal Education and Admissions had decided that ULV’s law students needed more preparation before taking the Bar exam, with its average first-time pass rate falling to 54 percent, 17 percent below the California average.
“Our weakness has been in the area of not passing the academic Bar and building a program of academic Bar support,” Hawkey said. “Our primary task is to build up that program.”
The Center for Academic and Bar Readiness will provide preparation in transitioning to law school, such as critical reading, outlining theses and issue spotting, from the first day students enter the law school, Hawkey said. All students are required to take part in the new student orientation under the program.
The general framework is to develop and implement a different model for the legal institution and place an emphasis on hands-on learning, Holmes said.
“Unlike a lot of newer law schools, it already has a solid foundation. It has a library, it has an administration that makes good decisions,” Holmes said. “When you try to do something new, it’s an opportunity, so I just thought it was great. It is valuable to legal education.”
While details on planning the new curriculum are still in the works, the changes will take place beginning in the fall semester, according to professor of law and dean emeritus Charles Doskow.
“The other part is the emphasis we put on the upper classes and how we can contribute to them,” Doskow said. “It really comes down to two things because there will be two curriculums for separate classes.”
“The second year involves a more radical change of integrating learning and experience, which still needs to be worked out,” Holmes said.
In addition to a new curriculum being introduced, administrators have begun to list additional strategies to help rehabilitate the struggling law school.
“They’re trying to recruit students who are likely to have a good shot at passing the Bar exam,” Davis said. The law school is more inclined to accept students that had an undergraduate grade point average of 3.8 versus, say, a 2.5 grade point average, she said.
“You would think they’d be more likely to be more successful,” Davis said.
Despite optimism from administrators, money continues to be poured in toward receiving accreditation from the ABA.
Between 2001 and 2011, the University spent approximately $21 million on its ultimately unsuccessful attempt at earning accreditation, Davis said.
About $5 million has been spent in each of the last two years, making the total approximately $32 million spent on the law school, she said.
The University budget continues to assign funds to the law school from revenues by the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business and Education, resulting in budget cuts, increased class sizes and general overcrowding of facilities, Davis said.
“Thirty-two million goes a long way. Think of all the underpaid instructors, especially adjuncts, the parking problem, lab space,” Davis said. “It’s like dumping it all into a well.”
The College of Law is also continuing its offer to grant incoming students an 85 percent tuition discount, an attempt to draw in students and increase enrollment until it receives full accreditation.
In 2010, enrollment at the law school reached a peak of 425 students. But after losing provisional accreditation in 2011, enrollments declined the following year to 274 students, vice president of finance and treasurer Avo Kechichian said.
The 85 percent discount allows administrators to be more selective of who is accepted into the College of Law, Davis said.
“In a time where law school attendance is on the decline, our law school applications are on the increase, as well as the quality of our applicants,” Lieberman said about the upcoming year.
Yet the law school only had a student enrollment figure of 188 students for the 2012-2013 academic year according to its website- a figure far below the reported 425 it had in 2010.
Once the school receives full accreditation, the pricing will all change, Davis said.
“Tuition will definitely go up, or at least the discounting will no longer be so deep once accreditation is received and more students attend the law school,” Davis said.
Should the law school not be able to attain full accreditation by 2017, however, a new slew of problems may be in store for the University.
Students currently enrolled in the law school program may not be receiving the education or prestige they were originally promised, and the exodus of students following the loss of provisional accreditation in 2011 could happen again. There is also the possibility of lawsuits against the University, similar to the class action suits that have been filed against other law schools around the country because students may feel they are being lied to upon attendance.
Despite these possibilities, administrators are reluctant to say that the College of Law could face closure if provisional accreditation eventually lead to no accreditation upon review in 2017.
“I think it’s been discussed behind closed doors a lot, but it’s a complicated issue, in which case lawsuits may follow against the University,” Davis said.
“I suppose there are a lot of alternatives, and (closing the law school) could be one of them,” Doskow said. “It would ultimately be up to the Board of Trustees. We spend a lot of time speculating, but it’s really no good.”
Others refute the notion of closing the law school.
“There’s a huge cost once you plan on closing a program, in this case a school,” Kechichian said. “It’s very costly, but the University’s plan for the law school is to continue the track it is on. We feel we have all the pieces in place to gain full accreditation in the next couple of years.
For now, however, the focus is on reshaping the strategies in the law school’s effort to gain accreditation.
“If we don’t get accreditation the next time, I would hope at that point administrators would consider the only other option,” Davis said. “But I have hope. If we could get accreditation it would be an honor, we would move up in national rankings. We’re doing far more than most universities, and we’re doing wonders on a shoestring budget.”
The long-term goal for the College of Law, in addition to receiving full accreditation, is to be a nationally acclaimed top school, Holmes said.
“Since I (came) here in 1981, we have been trying to go for ABA accreditation,” Davis said. “A lot of us on the main campus are tired of supporting the law school, so the sooner that can happen, the better. It could bring an amount of recognition for us.”
The law school is one of four colleges that make up the University of La Verne, which all contribute to the University’s mission. Earning accreditation would bring back the prestige to the law school with national acclaim in the Inland Empire, Lieberman said.
“We spend a lot of time on our students, we don’t want to worry about accreditation because it’s a distraction from what we can really do,” Doskow said.
For now, the College of Law will continue with its efforts under new leadership.
“La Verne should have accreditation and I plan to give it to them,” Holmes said.
Robert Penalber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.