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FAMU law students: Sorry, but good-bye



Famulogo LeRoy Pernell, recently tapped to be FAMU's next law school dean (see previous posts here), will have his hands full when he assumes the job in January. Growing frustration has led many students to apply to other law schools. Some of the best students have transferred. Others are thinking about it. Two told the Gradebook this week that their decision to leave wasn't an easy one.

When I started at FAMU, I was gung ho," said Torie Orton, 26, who transferred the University of Missouri last spring after completing her first year at FAMU. Orton said the new building in Orlando dripped with excitement and potential. Her classmates elected her to be their student representative. But problems mounted, she said: A dysfunctional financial aid system. Little academic support. Faculty turnover and infighting. Poor communication between students and administrators. And looming over everything: Anxiety over whether the law school would win full accreditation from the American Bar Association.

Orton said she concluded, sadly, that FAMU wasn't fixing things fast enough. "I wanted to stay," said Orton, who is married and has a young son. But "I was nervous for my degree. I felt like my degree was jeopardized because of the inner workings of Florida A&M."

Like Orton, Tampa native Vilma Martinez had glowing praise for many of her professors and fellow students. And like Orton, she offered unqualified thanks to FAMU for accepting her and other students when other law schools might not have given them a shot. "I'm not a student Harvard would have considered for admission, or UF, or FSU," said Martinez, 37, who saved up enough money at her former job as a paralegal to attend law school full time. "FAMU gave me an opportunity."

But Martinez said she too became disillusioned when problems festered. Student concerns were often met with silence from the law school administration, she said. "I'm heartbroken," said Martinez, who will attend Stetson law school this fall. "I want to help, but I don't know how. And staying there, at the risk of my career, is like staying in a dysfunctional family. At some point, you have to have tough love and cut your losses." Martinez said other FAMU law students want to transfer but can't because their GPA's aren't high enough. She said one told her, "Run as fast as you can."

FAMU sent out a press release last night about Pernell, with President James Ammons saying, "This choice represents the desire to skillfully chart a path for our student body and navigate our efforts to seek full accreditation." But not everyone is happy with the dean-to-be's January start date. One FAMU law prof told The Gradebook that with ABA accreditors making a visit in October, "January will be too late."

- Ron Matus, state education reporter

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:20am]


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