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FAMU law school running against clock, internal problem

Florida A&M University's law school is in deep trouble, representatives of the American Bar Association suggest in a scathing new report.

Even as time is running out on its bid for full accreditation, the 6-year-old school continues to be racked by faculty infighting, low bar passage rates and dwindling trust between students and administration, says the report, which was based on conditions at the school this fall.

Reaching that goal by the August 2009 deadline, it concludes, "appears to be a very steep mountain to climb in a very short period of time."

The 48-page report was put together by a seven-member association team that visited the Orlando campus in October. Released in March, it was obtained by the St. Petersburg Times through a public records request.

To some extent, the report is old news: It echoes concerns raised last year in a series of Times stories. And since arriving in January, the school's new dean, LeRoy Pernell, has made a number of changes, including hiring new professors and administrators.

And yet the report sheds fresh light on the depths to which the law school has sunk since it was established with more than $40-million in tax money. And in this case, it's not students or faculty members expressing frustration through media reports, it's representatives of the organization that makes the decision on accreditation.

"The bottom line is, it's a significant challenge," Pernell said. But "as I read the report, it says you have a tough road, but not an impassable one."

The bar association gives law schools five years to obtain full accreditation, a stamp of approval that is vital to a school's survival. FAMU was awarded provisional accreditation in August 2004.

The report offers a few bright spots: It chides the faculty for publishing "less than expected," but says teaching quality ranges from "satisfactory to exemplary." It says communication between the law school and the main campus in Tallahassee has improved. And it says leadership under president James Ammons, who took over in July and hired Pernell, is "among the most positive developments of the past year."

But the bulk of the report is critical, particularly with the faculty.

Professors have complained about everything from workloads and teaching assignments to hiring and promotion. The report says most team members could not think of worse examples of faculty tension, which has "come to permeate all aspects of the law school's operations."

More specifically, it noted junior and senior faculty members were so at odds they could not put aside differences long enough to smoothly work together on a study — key to the accreditation process — that assesses the school's strengths and weaknesses.

The report comes just as the university as a whole has turned a corner with financial control problems. It is also an inconvenient reminder that some of the school's problems extend beyond the financial realm and have in some cases undermined its academic mission.

Among other examples, the report repeats a complaint law school students made last year about the lack of academic support. It takes the self-study to task for not giving more attention to the fact that the academic support program went without a director for nearly 18 months after one of the weakest classes in the school's history had been admitted.

"There seems to be little understanding that a student who is dismissed for academic reasons bears a stigma of failure and generally has a debt burden and may have limited means to repay," it says.

In an interview, Pernell said FAMU is addressing the site team's concerns.

It has hired a new academic support director and registrar. And it won a victory in March when a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a FAMU student who claimed the law school skirted its own rules when it academically dismissed him. The suit, which drew support from many current and former students, is given prominent mention in the site team report.

More recently, FAMU announced the hiring of seven new professors, including one who will replace Victoria Dawson as director of legal writing. Dawson, who will remain a professor, was harshly criticized by students for publishing an online working paper that was riddled with grammatical errors.

Pernell said FAMU plans to apply for full accreditation this fall. But he also said he spoke with the bar association about options, including the possibility of an extension for FAMU's provisional status.

"Whether there are options … and whether we want to seek those, that's to be determined," he said.

Bar association spokeswoman Nancy Slonim said by e-mail that extensions can be granted in extraordinary circumstances, but are rare.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

FAMU law school running against clock, internal problem 05/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 1:32pm]

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