TROUBLE IN ALBANY

Recently, Albany Law School has attracted some unwanted publicity, but many other schools should be paying close attention. On February 3, the school offered buyouts to as many as eight tenured professors. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s almost 20 percent of the school’s full-time faculty.

Reversal of Fortune

Notwithstanding its relatively low position in the law school universe (U.S. News rank: #132), Albany Law School enjoyed a nice run from 2005 to 2011 — as did most of its peers. During that period, the school enrolled around 240 first-year students annually. Tuition rose steadily from $30,000 in 2005 to its current $42,000. During the period, student-faculty ratios dropped from 16:1 to 13:1.

But the last few years have been a different story. Even as it accepts almost 70 percent of all applicants, enrollment for the class of 2016 has plummeted to 182 — a 25 percent drop from 2005. The school placed a little more than half of its 2012 graduates in full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. (As with many schools, the decline in first-year enrollment accelerated after detailed ABA-mandated employment outcomes first appeared in 2012 for the class of 2011.)

Tough Choices

Albany’s new dean, Penelope Andrews, began her tenure on July 1, 2012. Even a thorough understanding of the school’s problematic trend lines could not have prepared her for the challenges she soon confronted.

On December 16, 2013, Daniel Nolan, chair of the Albany board of trustees, circulated an email stating that “relevant financial circumstances facing the School require a headcount reduction, including faculty.”

A week later, at the request of a newly formed (in November 2013) Albany Law School chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Gregory F. Schultz, associate secretary and director of the national AAUP, wrote a lengthy letter to Dean Andrews. Schultz expressed concern that the law school’s claims about economic circumstances didn’t rise to the level of “financial exigency” required to justify terminating tenured faculty. Instead, he wrote, Albany’s threatened action appeared to be a pretext for steps that “would eviscerate tenure at the Albany Law School and, with it, the protections for academic freedom.”

He said, She said

According to JDJournal, “one of the professors at the school said that there is a ‘small but vocal minority’ of faculty at the school who want standards lowered in an effort to increase enrollment. This would then prevent layoffs…. It’s a very selfish, selfish endeavor. They are really trying to save their jobs, but they’ve ginned this up to make it look like we are denying academic rights.”

The New York Law Journal reported that “several angry Albany Law School professors deny the faculty ever suggested the school should lower standards to boost enrollment and avert layoffs.” On February 3, 2014, the board of trustees reportedly quashed the idea anyway:

“A review of our declining bar passage statistics (we are now the second lowest law school in New York State for bar passage), combined with the extremely difficult employment market for our graduates, compels us to believe that we must focus on quality of applicants, not quantity. To admit students in order to increase revenues due to projected operating deficits would be both unethical and in violation of ABA standards.”

A Way Out?

Presumably, offering voluntary buyouts to tenured professors could solve the problem for now. If a sufficient number of faculty members accept, layoffs won’t happen. That would defer for another day the fight over whether the school truly faces “financial exigency” justifying involuntary terminations of tenured faculty.

Others can debate whether Albany is operating at a loss and/or should draw down it’s endowment to cover shortfalls. More interesting questions relate to any law school’s possible responses to the larger phenomenon of declining applicant pools.

Some Albany Law School professors reacted with indignant outrage at the suggestion that a colleague might have urged the school to counter declining applications with lower admission standards. But the fact is that many schools have responded in exactly that way. Overall acceptance rates have risen from 50 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in 2012. It’s a cynical strategy, but it keeps seats filled with tuition-paying student dollars from federally-backed loans.

Other schools are cutting costs and economizing where possible. Those efforts are laudable, but they are short-term fixes. Any long run solution requires the involvement of tenured faculty who now have a choice: be part of the solution or become a growing part of the problem. Tenure is an important and valuable aspect of higher education. But it won’t be worth much to those whose institutions disappear.

In the end, the question is whose interests matter most. Dean Andrews deserves praise for confirming what sometimes gets lost in the noise as various stakeholders scramble to preserve their positions in the legal academy:

“Cutbacks are very, very hard. But what is motivating everything about what I’m doing is my student-centric approach,” Dean Andrews said. “Albany Law School and law schools exist to train students and it’s all about the students.”

Indeed it is.

COMMENDABLE CONDUCT AWARD

Regular readers know that I’m often critical of many law school deans. But when one of them gets it right, let’s give credit where it’s due. As the glut of new attorneys persists, the University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza became the latest dean to announce significant reductions in incoming class size. With that action, he has earned a “Commendable Conduct Award.”

Not the first

The University of Kansas isn’t the first to implement such cuts. Last year, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law announced a 20 percent reduction in class size for the fall of 2012.

“The critics of legal education are right,” Wu said. “There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”

George Washington University, Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law have reduced entering class size, too. In March, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his school would reduce the fall 2013 class by 10 percent. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” he said.

KU deserves special praise

All of these efforts to reduce the size of entering classes are commendable. But there are several unique aspects to the University of Kansas announcement that make it especially noteworthy.

First, the reduction as a percentage of enrollment in prior years is large: from 175 students graduating this year to a target of 120 students for the 2013 entering class and for the foreseeable future.

Equally significant, it appears that KU didn’t have to take its laudable step. The dean said that applications were down only about 10 percent — far less than many other schools. Moreover, an impressive 82 percent of 2012 graduates secured long-term jobs where a JD was required or preferred — far above the national average.

As an added bonus, a KU legal education is a relative bargain compared to many other schools: $18,600 tuition for full-time students who are state residents; $31,500 for out-of-state.

Motivations matter; outcomes matter more

Everyone expects that the decline in the number of law school applicants will produce lower average LSATs and GPAs for the entering 1L class. That, in turn, would hit the selectivity component of a school’s overall U.S. News ranking. It’s possible that some deans have reduced entering class size as part of a strategy to protect their rankings. But if the overall net outcome is that law schools as a group produce fewer lawyers three years from now, then the rankings may have helped to mitigate damage that they have caused since their first appearance in 1987.

Ay, there’s the rub. Will there be fewer total law graduates, or will other schools (and new ones in the pipeline) enroll the students that KU and others don’t accept? Indeed, will some schools expand enrollments solely to increase their tuition revenues? Asking those institutions to consider the long-term well being of the marginal students they recruit, or the sad state of the profession itself, would be asking too much, I guess.

One way to counteract the agendas of deans who refuse to do the right thing is to recognize those who do. Even more important is the task of helping prospective law students make informed decisions before they apply to law school. Over time, perhaps more of them will take advantage of increased transparency to assess realistically their own suitability for a satisfying and successful legal career. But at any age, encounters with confirmation bias are never easy.

Meanwhile, kudos to Dean Stephen Mazza and the University of Kansas School of Law. He’s been dean only since April 2011, but he’s already making a profound difference in the way that matters most — one person at a time. (And thanks to one of my regular readers who brought Dean Mazza’s announcement to my attention.)

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION — PART III

Money talks, especially to prospective law students concerned about educational debt. Tuition reduction programs promise some relief. Surely, scholarships conditioned on minimum GPAs are better.

Recently, the NY Times profiled a Golden Gate University School of Law student needing a 3.0 to keep her scholarship. By the end of her first year, she’d “curved out” at 2.967. Her Teamsters dad drove a tractor before he was laid off, but she and her parents came up with $60,000 in tuition to complete her degree.

Maybe that’s reasonable. A “B” average doesn’t seem difficult. Is this just whining from what some article comments called “the gimme generation”?

Only if the victims knew the truth. She has no paying job, legal or otherwise. That’s her true victimization, along with many others.

– Statistically possible v. doesn’t happen v. fully disclosed

Golden Gate imposes mandatory first-year curves limiting the number of As and Bs. In second and third year courses, the curves loosen or disappear. The profiled student graduated with a 3.14 GPA — a nice recovery, but too late for the lost scholarship.

According to the article, more than half of the current GGU first-year class has merit scholarships and Dean Drucilla Stender Ramey said it’s statistically possible for 70 percent of one Ls to maintain a 3.0 GPA — also the threshold for the Dean’s List. Even if she meant “theoretically” rather than “statistically” possible, I’m skeptical. The school’s handbook reports the mandatory range for those receiving a “B- and above” in first-year required courses: 45 percent (minimum) to 70 percent (maximum). And a B- is 2.67.

“[I]n recent years,” the article continued, “only the top third of students at Golden Gate wound up with a 3.0 or better, according to the dean…. She also maintains that Golden Gate 1Ls’s are well-informed about the odds they face in keeping scholarships.”

This sounds like the lawyer who tells the jury: 1) my client was out of town at the time of the murder; 2) if he was in town, he didn’t do it; and 3) whatever he did was in self-defense.

– Playing with fire

Why offer merit scholarships? U.S. News‘s rankings, says University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Jerry Organ:

“Law schools are buying…higher GPAs and LSATs.”

Albany Law School Dean Thomas F. Guernsey notes that such catering to the rankings has “strange and unintended consequences,” such as reducing need-based financial aid by redirecting it to those who otherwise “will go somewhere else.”

U.S. News doesn’t collect merit scholarship retention data because, according to rankings guru Robert Morse, “[W]e haven’t thought about it…[T]hese students are going to law school and they need to learn to read the fine print.”

That’s among the least of many profound flaws in the U.S. News methodology. Law school deans know them all, yet pandering to the rankings persists while students and the profession pay the price.

Somewhere in the cumulative behavior of certain schools lies an interesting class action. Particularly vulnerable are recruiters operating at the outer limits of candor to attract students who accumulate staggering loans and no jobs.

Imagine forcing some deans to answer these questions — under oath:

– Where did you go to law school? (That’s foundational — to show they’re smart; for example, GGU’s Dean Ramey graduated from Yale.)

– How many graduates did you put on your school’s temporary payroll solely to boost your U.S. News “nine months after graduation” employment rate? (I don’t know about GGU, but others have.)

– How many have full-time paying jobs requiring a JD? (GGU’s nine-month employment rate is 87.2% of 143 “reporting” 2009 graduates, but the “number with salary” is only 41 (or 29%). Two-thirds of “reporting graduates” had jobs requiring bar passage; only half held permanent positions. And who’s not “reporting”?)

– How many merit recipients lose scholarships? What did you tell those hot prospects when you enticed them with first-year money? Ultimately, how much did they pay for their degrees?

Ironically, even bold typeface disclosure might not change some prospective students’ minds because facts yield to confirmation bias. Convinced that they’ll overcome daunting odds to become winners, they can’t all be right.

Still, the potential class of law student plaintiffs grows by the thousands every year. If they ever file their lawsuit, the defendant(s) better get good lawyers.