25.8.07

GENERATING EXCESS CAPACITY. University Diaries has a long post detailing assorted troubles with Florida A&M University's law school. Her conclusion:
The contemptible indifference that put a functional illiterate at the head of a law school's writing program is only one instance of a larger institutional indifference that takes money from struggling students and offers them in return cynicism and silence.
The articles she links to provide some context. First, some background, in the middle of St. Petersburg (Florida) Times coverage.

The state of affairs marks a dramatic reversal from the hopes expressed in 2000, when lawmakers voted to re-establish FAMU's law college.

Their decision was a politically charged attempt to right a past wrong against the state's only historically black public college, which lost its law school in 1968. Soon after, neighboring Florida State University opened its new college of law, heightening FAMU supporters' long-running fears about being shut down or folded into FSU.

After lawmakers voted to re-open the law school, then-Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan invoked the civil rights era: "It's a law school at least, it's a law school at last. Thank God Almighty, it's a law school at last."

Indeed, lawmakers hoped new law schools at FAMU and at primarily Hispanic Florida International University would produce more minority attorneys.

The problem, as is depressingly common with such efforts, is that nobody bothers to spell out precisely the trade-off between "diversity," using the usual ascriptive categories, and preparation. (There's also food for thought in that "folded into [Florida State]." Florida A&M is a legacy of Plessy-style "separate but equal": perhaps someone can explain to me why that legacy deserves to continue as an institution. By default, isn't the creation of an "African-American" law program at A&M and a "Hispanic" law program at International the essence of separate, and, as the story is unfolding, unequal?) The editors at the Times identify the consequences of failure to address the tradeoff.

Florida A&M University's College of Law is failing. When lawmakers re-established the school in 2000, they hoped it would help substantially increase the number of black lawyers in the state. They hoped it would be a place where nontraditional students would be nurtured and groomed to pass the bar examination.

Today, however, the school is in a crisis, and some powerful legislators are questioning whether the $40-million to build the Orlando campus has been a good investment after all.

Many students are failing their courses and the bar exam. Others are transferring because, among other reasons, the school is at risk of not being fully accredited by the American Bar Association, which would devalue the students' degrees.

The major causes of the crisis are well-documented: ineffective leadership, administrative incompetence, low morale among faculty, inadequate student counseling and questionable student recruitment.

Since its inception, the school has had one dean, who was fired for his role in a ghost-employee scandal, an interim dean, and a current nominee for dean who awaits board of trustees approval. This leadership vacuum has led to the resignations of several popular professors who will be hard to replace any time soon.

Yes, create a monument to access-assessment-remediation-retention and watch anybody who aspires to more get out. Put another way, don't be surprised if an obscure program dedicated to the latest academic fads attracts less competent faddists. (That's why Dilbert's Scott Adams never lacks for material.)

The editors fail, however, to address another dimension of the problem.

Students are the biggest losers as the problems worsen at FAMU. One student, Vilma Martinez, told the St. Petersburg Times that she was "heartbroken" to leave FAMU, but remaining there would be "like staying in dysfunctional family. At some point, you have to have tough love and cut your losses." She transferred to Stetson Law School in Gulfport. Another student, Torrie Orton, who left for the University of Missouri, told the Times: "I wanted to stay, but I felt like my degree was jeopardized because of the inner workings of Florida A&M."

This state of affairs is unfortunate because many otherwise deserving students, with subpar grade point averages and standardized test scores, would have been rejected by more elite schools. FAMU is their only chance for a career in law.

As. If. More. Subliterate. Lawyers. Are. Useful.

Had the editors made a case for Florida A&M serving students who earned high grades at obscure institutions not well known to the admissions committees at Florida State let alone Duke (hey, Richard Nixon got in) or Tulane, the problems confronting the law school might merit something other than a turf 'em out from me. Perhaps "standardized test" is not a misnomer after all.

There's a local angle to the story, as the Orlando Sentinel reports.
James Ammons, who took over as FAMU president in July, let the man whom he picked to be the law school's new dean do most of the talking."I can't promise every problem will be resolved immediately," LeRoy Pernell, currently dean of the law school at Northern Illinois University, told students. "But I can promise every problem will be reviewed."
Professor Pernell has been dean at Northern Illinois for ten years, after a long hitch at Ohio State, not exactly the track record of a professional job-hopper.

The Northern Illinois public affairs office puts a brave face on the dean's move.

As dean at FAMU College of Law, Pernell will continue efforts aimed at re-establishment and full accreditation of the law school, which reopened in 2002. In the troubled civil rights history of the United States, the loss of the previous Florida A&M College in Tallahassee (established in 1949) occurred in 1968. According to Pernell, the law school’s closing “represented a severe blow to legal education opportunity for African Americans in particular.”

The deanship at FAMU will offer Pernell a unique opportunity of national historic significance. Although he realizes the successful journey to full American Bar Association accreditation will not be easy, Pernell is convinced that he can provide positive leadership in an enterprise that is “emotionally close to my heart and symbolic of the very reason why I have dedicated my professional life to legal education.”

Pernell assumed the deanship of NIU Law in 1997. He came to NIU after serving as vice provost of the Office of Minority Affairs at The Ohio State University since 1994, where he also was a professor since 1975. As only one of two African-American deans at an Illinois law school and only one of a handful across the country, Pernell has long been recognized as a leader in diversity. It is at the core of his educational philosophy, and that focus is expressed throughout NIU Law.

Under Pernell’s leadership, NIU Law has been nationally recognized for its diversity efforts. The Princeton Review has ranked NIU Law among the Top 10 law schools in the nation as having the most diverse faculty for three straight years in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In its 2007 lists of America’s Best Graduate Schools, U.S. News and World Report ranked NIU Law among the top law schools for having a diverse student body. Furthermore, NIU Law has been honored to receive the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) Diversity Award in 2002, 2003 and 2006 in recognition of the school’s continuing commitment to diversifying the legal profession.

That might have been the hopes of Florida A&M, as the Times article notes.

Last summer, Vilma Martinez walked into the Florida A&M University law school with hundreds of other first-year students and began to dream.

It was the first day of orientation, and Martinez was struck by the diversity of faces. Optimism coursed through the new, $30-million building on the edge of downtown Orlando.

She thought: This place will make America better.

"You feel that going in," said Martinez, a Tampa native with Cuban roots. "You become one of the faithful."

It takes more than the melange of faces, though, to make a law school, or a university.Closer to home, the problem of putting diversity ahead of, oh, legal training manifests itself in the college's "Serving the Needs of the Community" page.

A primary emphasis at NIU College of Law is to build upon our emerging reputation as a law school that embraces multu-cultural awareness as well as service in the public sector. At the College of Law we believe that today's complex and multi-cultural world offers greater opportunity for diversity in the legal profession. At the College of Law we celebrate our commitment to diversity, as reflected by the students, faculty, and alumni. We are dedicated to not only providing quality legal education for the benefit of all, but also to fostering a sense of life-long responsibility towards public service and awareness.

Although a majority of our graduates enter private practice, we also continue to rank near the top among law schools in placing students in public service and public interest jobs. We continue to facilitate such public service /public interest placement for interested students through specialized curricular offerings, focused externship opportunities and the development of a JD/MPA joint degree option. The College seeks to instill a commitment to public service in all students during law school, beginning a lifetime evolving commitment to use their legal education for public interest, no matter what the particular practice setting. Thus, all students are encouraged to engage regularly in pro bono activities, and the College of Law provides a number of "public interest stipends" each summer to support students in full-time public interest work.

Somehow, the central administration was able to stave off elimination of a number of graduate programs during the worst of the early-1990s downsizing fad by selling a number of Sixties-type missions, including an Economics Ph.D. limited to urban and regional, human resource, and public sector economics, and a law school concentrating on this community-activism stuff rather than divorces or mergers. The Economics Department has scrapped and scrapped for the past eight years or so to bring its course offerings into line with student demand and recent developments in the field. The College of Law bears watching, particularly if Dean Parnell's appointment in Florida goes through. (It sounds like he's genuinely interested in the task facing him there.)

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