Florida A&M University's College of Law has little more than a year to prove itself worthy of full accreditation. That's not much time, particularly since there is so much to do. The re-established law school at FAMU has been a disappointment since opening six years ago, and a new report from the American Bar Association suggests that the school's ongoing problems are serious and abiding.
The state invested $40-million to establish a FAMU law school in Orlando and tens of millions of dollars more since then. But it doesn't look like taxpayers are getting much for their money. The school's provisional accreditation runs out in August 2009. If the law school isn't able to meet full accreditation standards by then, it should be shuttered and the state should cut its losses. We don't need more lawyers educated in Florida, and we certainly don't need to continue propping up a failing law school on the basis of racial sensitivity and good intentions.
The initial hope was that a law school associated with the state's historically black university would attract top minority students and a high-caliber law professor corps interested in teaching a diverse and nontraditional student population. Instead, we have a school that has been poorly run with persistent problems of questionable administration, unsatisfactory rates of faculty scholarship and students who tend to do abysmally on the bar exam.
The report by an ABA site evaluation team was withering in its criticism. The team spent time on the FAMU law school campus in October and submitted its report in March, and while there has been a new dean appointed since the visit, not many of the deficiencies have been addressed.
The report discusses a range of challenges but highlights particularly the dysfunction and rancor of the faculty. It says that the "negative dynamic" within the faculty is "extraordinary."
Attracting high quality professors who publish regularly in prestigious law reviews and write books within their fields of expertise has been a serious problem for the school. The report notes a "continuing concern" about "the lack of scholarly productivity by the faculty." And, astoundingly, the report finds that some current faculty members question the need for scholarship.
Dean LeRoy Pernell, who arrived in January, must know this is an issue and has recently announced that seven new professors have been hired. Still, the faculty includes people whose qualifications and abilities are less than stellar.
The report also expresses concern about the bar passage rate of the student body, which is far below statewide averages. In July 2007, only 60 percent of FAMU graduates passed the bar exam on their first try, compared with an 80 percent passage rate in the state.
One reason for this, as the report details, is FAMU's admission of students with deficient grades and LSAT scores. The ABA team suggests that the school has not provided these students a full range of academic support programs. But the team also points out that it is the school's obligation "not to admit students who are not capable of succeeding in law school."
Simply put, not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer. Students with low grades and standardized test scores are not helped by being admitted to an expensive and time consuming course of study when they are not up to the academic demands of the school or the profession.
The school's self-study suggests its low admissions standards are partly a function of the requirement that it matriculate 750 students. The school believes that is too many and it would function better at 650, which may be true.
Even so, having 100 fewer students isn't likely to cure what ails the school. Students who invest in learning a profession need to know that the school they pick is up to the task of training them. So far, FAMU's law school is not.