Law and DisorderBy CHERYL NEDDERMAN
The University of Colorado law school is ranked as one of the top 50 in the nation; on some lists it's made the top 10. An exceptional 95 percent of its students pass the bar examination after graduation.
Academically, the school is top notch. But take a walk through the Fleming Law Building on the University of Colorado Boulder campus and you might get a different impression.
One-fourth of the school's teachers are adjunct professors, instructors who are practicing attorneys as opposed to full-time faculty.
The school ranks $1 million below the national average on annual expenditures for library materials.
The building, constructed in 1958 and last renovated in 1974, is antiquated and in disrepair. Lights buzz and flicker. Tiles are missing from the bathroom floors. The lecture halls have bad acoustics, are inaccessible to the disabled, and are not yet equipped to accommodate modern technology. In the basement, student lockers reside under pipes that read, "Warning: Contains Asbestos Fibers."
"I think the facilities here are awful and embarrassing," says second year law student Maggie Wetmore. "Especially when a Supreme Court justice comes to speak and you're afraid the chair they sit in is going to break."
Enter the American Bar Association
Earlier this year, the American Bar Association (ABA) threatened to take away accreditation from the law school if it didn't update its building and hire more tenured faculty to achieve compliance with the standards outlined by the organization.
In a letter to the law school, the ABA described the building as "woefully inadequate,' and claimed that existing facilities could have a "negative effect on the education students receive."
This is not the first warning for the school. In 1996, the ABA threatened its accreditation.
However, earlier this month, the ABA granted the school another six-month delay for its hearing, originally planned for January, to assess it progress. This means the hearing will occur sometime after the 2004 legislative session, giving the school another chance to request state funds.
"The ABA faces a conundrum here," says Law School Dean, David Getches. "It would be an odd turn of events for a law school of our stature to lose accreditation. But the ABA is under pressure to uphold its standards."
Roadblocks to building
The easiest remedy would be to construct a new facility. But the law school has been trying to do this without success for five years.
The new Leon and Dora Wolf Law Building, inspired by a $3 million donation from the Wolf family, has been in the planning stages since 1997. Its construction was set to begin in 2001. But recent state budget cuts and legislation have thrown up roadblocks, postponing construction indefinitely.
Two years ago, Gov. Bill Owens, in an attempt to address state revenue shortfalls, froze funding for all capital construction projects. Only those projects in their final stages of construction and those necessary to accommodate health and life/safety issues were granted funding.
As a result, the $20 million originally pledged by the state to construct the law building was frozen.
At its meeting early October, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) upheld this trend for fiscal year 2003-2004 when it created its wish list for construction projects to present to the legislature for the upcoming year.
Describing the funds for state capital construction as "bleak," (only $519,000 was allocated for capital construction for next year) the CCHE reviewed 44 construction requests and chose only eight projects for funding. The law school was not on its list.
Despite frustration with the facilities at the school and construction roadblocks, students and faculty have confidence that the newly appointed Getches will take the necessary steps to ensure that the new building will be completed.
"I am approaching this problem with great optimism, and I have enormous faith that the university provost, chancellor and president will help me get this project finished," says Getches.
Five years ago, students agreed to increase their tuition by $1,000 a year. The tuition differential has raised almost $7 million for the building fund. Moreover, the school has set a goal of raising $12 million from private donors. To date, it has secured $7.4 million in donations and continue to accept contributions.
That leaves $19 million to be acquired to successfully complete the project. Getches hopes that the money will be appropriated from the state general fund by the Colorado legislature when it reconvenes in January. Last August, CU's Board of Regents approved a plan to re-request a two-year funding plan from the state.
But budget cuts will make approval unlikely. Therefore, the school has developed alternative plans to raise the money.
Issuing bonds and certificates of participation to the public are two options. There are also plans to collect money from campus funds and student fees.
"We have construction-ready plans, and the site where we will build is under our control," says Getches, referring to the newly-acquired tennis courts located on the southern end of campus, the site for the proposed building. "Just as soon as we get the money we will break ground."
In the meantime...
Until the ground is broken, students and faculty must accept the possibility that their school might lose accreditation. And this might be hard to accept.
"I don't think it's right that we might lose accreditation because our building isn't fancy," says first year law student David McDivitt. Despite the facility, he thinks he's getting a good education and says his professors are "the best of the best."
Leslie Speer, a second year student agrees. "I think its time that this state makes a commitment to its students. Our building should be as nice as ones at law schools in neighboring states."