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Law deans linked to accrediting task

ABA executives hired by schools

By Ameet Sachdev
Chicago Tribune staff reporter

February 15, 2004

In December, Concord Law School, a 5-year-old online law school, hired Barry Currier as its new dean.

A senior official involved in accrediting law schools at the Chicago-based American Bar Association, Currier is among a number of ABA officials to become deans at fledgling, unaccredited law schools in recent years.

Officials at several law schools acknowledge that administrators like Currier provide credibility and help them meet the rigorous standards that are all important to a school's survival.

The coziness between the ABA and law schools, though, troubles some educators and others involved in accreditation. They question whether such hiring is at odds with the ABA's ethics policy and contend such arrangements raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"I think it's wrong that people in leadership in the accreditation process end up back at law schools doing business before the accreditation council," said Gary Palm, a Chicago lawyer who has served on the ABA's governing body overseeing law school accreditation. "Particularly where it's clear that they are there because of their special knowledge of the system."

The ABA, a national society of lawyers, denies that schools with deans who have worked in the accreditation area receive special treatment.

"I think allegations that there are insiders that can influence the outcome of accreditation decisions are just plain wrong," said John Sebert, who heads the ABA accreditation staff and is a former law school dean.

The ABA's ethics policy specifically prohibits anyone who has "significant responsibility" in the accreditation process from serving as a "consultant" to a law school in any matter relating to accreditation for a period of two years.

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the ABA as the only accrediting agency for law schools. Getting ABA accreditation is critical to a law school's reputation and vitally important to attracting students and faculty. It is especially important for for-profit institutions that depend on tuition for a large part of revenues.

In most states, including Illinois, students must graduate from an ABA-approved law school before they can take the bar examination.

Several schools that received either full or partial ABA approval in the past five years did so with deans that have insider connections.

Bernard Dobranski served on the ABA's accreditation committee, the panel evaluating individual schools, for two years just before becoming the founding dean at Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan in 1999. Three years later the school received provisional accreditation, the first step toward full approval.

Dobranski, who was dean at two other law schools before going to Ave Maria, said many administrators have experience in the ABA accreditation process because they are asked to serve on site-inspection teams or committees. "I do understand people who say this can be an old boy network, but I never saw myself as being part of an insider network," he said.

The law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island attained provisional accreditation in 1995 under John Ryan, who has served as chairman of the accreditation committee.

In 2001, Ryan was hired as dean at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, which had failed to win ABA approval for four years. The head of the school made no secret about why Ryan was hired.

"With his long and distinguished career as a law school dean and professor, as well as a past American Bar Association committee member, John Ryan carries with him the wealth of experience that will continue to strengthen John Marshall as it moves toward ABA accreditation," Michael C. Markovitz, chairman of the school's board of trustees, said in a prepared statement at the time.

Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville received full accreditation in 2002, just a year after it hired J. Richard Hurt as dean. Hurt had been the No. 2 official in the ABA's accreditation office and had reviewed the school's successful application for provisional accreditation.

"You definitely want someone in that position who is accreditation savvy," said Donald Lively, who helped found the law school in 1996. "If you don't have it, you'll suffer as an institution."

Still, Hurt's move to Florida Coastal appears inconsistent with the ABA's ethics guidelines. But Sebert said Hurt did not violate the ABA's ethics rules because the organization's interpretation of "consultant" is someone who specifically sells accreditation-process expertise to schools.

"There's nothing in the guidelines that prohibits anyone from taking full-time positions with law schools," he said.

"Deans at law schools do a lot more than just comply with ABA standards," Sebert added. "It would be silly to disable them from providing those leadership talents to an ABA law school or any law school."

School doesn't see conflict

Concord Law School does not see a conflict in hiring Currier, Hurt's successor at the ABA, because the school is not seeking accreditation, said Jack Goetz, current dean. The school, part of Kaplan Higher Education, currently is not eligible for accreditation because the ABA requires classroom time for students. All of Concord's classes are offered over the Internet.

"Barry has years of legal education expertise," Goetz said. "He brings a lot of respect in the community."

Before working for the ABA, Currier was the dean of the law school at Samford University in Alabama. He also was an associate dean at the University of Florida College of Law.

But some legal educators say the distinction that the ABA makes between consultants and full-time employees does not resolve the issue of a potential conflict.

"It's unseemly," said Robert Scott, former dean of the law school at the University of Virginia and past president of the American Law Deans Association. "One would like to think that the accreditation issues were totally divorced from any consideration that might influence the outcome."

Hurt, who was the dean at Mississippi College School of Law from 1991 to 1998 before working for the ABA, did not return calls seeking comment.

He's now dean at the law school at Barry University in Orlando, which struggled for years to gain full accreditation. When the ABA denied the school accreditation in 2001, the dean at the time, Stanley Talcott, offered to resign so the school could hire someone with better connections to the ABA, according to published reports. Barry, a Catholic institution, won provisional accreditation in 2002, and under Hurt's guidance has five years to gain full approval.

"We were looking for someone who could move us forward," said Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, Barry president. "We look first to our missions before we look to anything else. The fact that he had experience didn't hurt."

On the other hand, Sebert said such experience is not necessary. At least four schools that have received ABA approval in the past five years, including University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia, did not have deans with ABA backgrounds.

Moreover, Ryan's appointment at John Marshall Law School has not helped the school win accreditation. The school has another ABA site visit scheduled for March.

Accreditation can enhance the value of a law school. Last month, a private equity firm completed its purchase of Florida Coastal. Without accreditation, the deal would not have been possible, Lively said.

"If you don't get accreditation in a timely fashion, the institution is punched into a downward spiral," Lively said. "Who wants to take a chance on a school that has struggled to get accreditation?"

ABA accreditation also helped make Florida Coastal more attractive to would-be lawyers. In 2000, the year after Florida Coastal received provisional accreditation, the number of applications more than doubled, to 1,647 from 676 the year before.

Since it assumed the role of an accrediting agency in 1921, the ABA has approved only two commercial law schools out of 187 accredited institutions: Western State in 1998 and Florida Coastal a year later. (Thomas Jefferson School of Law was a for-profit school when it received provisional accreditation in 1996, but now is a not-for-profit.)

Spurred by a complaint by another law school in Massachusetts, the Department of Justice in 1995 launched an inquiry into possible antitrust violations by the ABA's accreditation process. The small school outside of Boston, which was denied accreditation, accused the ABA of operating a "cartel" that limited competition by mandating specific faculty salary levels and requiring that accredited law schools be organized as not-for-profit institutions.

Standards overhauled

The ABA settled the federal lawsuit a year later, which led to an overhaul of its standards. Under the agreement, the ABA agreed not to fix teachers' salaries and to open up the accreditation process so it no longer is dominated by law faculty members. About 90 percent of the accreditation section personnel are law school faculty members, who "captured and ran" the process to protect the economic interests of their profession, the Justice Department said.

The ABA also agreed to make it easier for students to get credit for classes taken at non-accredited law schools.

Following the consent decree, the Department of Education threatened to withdraw the ABA's accrediting privilege unless it curtailed the authority of its House of Delegates, the group's governing body, in having the final say over a school's accreditation. The DOE wanted accreditation decisions to be independent of a political body.

The ABA revised its rules once again in 1999 to give the House only an advisory role in the evaluation process. The accreditation council, composed of 21 members, has final say on accreditation decisions.

But only last month, Western State University College of Law in Southern California, sued the ABA, alleging that the organization is unfairly seeking to strip the school of its accreditation because it has a "historic hostility" toward for-profit law schools.

The ABA denies the charge. Sebert said the council decided in December to rescind the school's provisional accreditation, won in 1998, because it was not meeting several standards, including bar-passage rates. But last week, the council reconsidered and gave the school one more chance to gain full approval.