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Albany Law dean calls for lowering the school's enrollment
to raise its national reputation and visibility

By Richard A. D'Errico
The Business Review (Albany)
Updated: 7:00 p.m. ET Nov. 13, 2005

Thomas Guernsey is on a mission to make Albany Law School a more elite, national school with higher standards and fewer students.

"We want to be stronger, smaller and more selective," said Guernsey, the 54-year-old president and dean of the law school.

The goal is to drive down enrollment at Albany Law School but raise revenue, rankings--and visibility.

"The perspective is there is no perspective of Albany Law School outside the state," Guernsey said. "We've got to change that."

Gernsey had a challenging task: If he reduced the student body from 830 in 2002, when he took over, to 640 in 2006, Albany Law School would lose $4 million a year in much- needed revenue. Plans even were being made--but subsequently dropped--to use money from the school's $24 million endowment to pay for construction projects on campus.

But tuition and alumni giving have increased. Revenue rose to $25.5 million in 2005 from $20.4 million in 2001, and alumni giving to $900,000 from $650,000 in 2004.

"We were given more money in the last fiscal year than in the school's history," Guernsey said.

There also have been 15 jobs cut since 2002 through attrition and layoffs in non-academic areas, and budget cuts were made in all non-academic areas. "Anything that didn't affect the faculty and their teaching," Guernsey said.

And although the cost of a student's annual tuition will climb to $32,360 in the 2005-2006 school year, $10,000 more a year than in 2002, Albany Law will remain the second cheapest private law school in the state.

"I never went into academic administration thinking I'd turn into a businessperson," he said. "But part of it is just the reality of higher education today."

Call to action

Guernsey said an inventory he took of the school soon after taking the helm forced a call to action.

He found three major obstacles preventing Albany Law School from being all it could be.

"From a financial standpoint, the school wasn't strong, as we would like it to be," Guernsey said. And "the school wasn't attracting the number of highly qualified students that we wanted to attract."

He also felt Albany Law School could be providing a better program than it was offering students.

"The fact is, we see ourselves more as a smaller, liberal arts college than a large, comprehensive university," he said. "We're not going to provide every possible law-related program that we could. If we don't think we can be either the best at what we're doing in a particular area, or unique--and ultimately the best in that area--then we're not going to do it."

The heart of his mission is to make Albany Law School a national destination school rather than a respected regional law school.

Last year the entering class was capped at 250, the year before it was 304. Current enrollment stands at 780. The average class size is 28. The goal is to reduce the student-teacher to, at most, 17-to-1, the national law school average. Guernsey would like to see it as low as at 13-to-1.

Students said they support that mission.

"I think it's a great goal to get the law school where it used to be," said Courtney Merriman, 24. "It's promising for all current students and the alumni to give the school a better name, to come from a school with a great reputation."

Student Robert Boes, 23, said that while he's not thrilled with the tuition hike, "It's not hard to find loan companies ready to sign me up."

Guernsey said Albany Law isn't just being more selective about the students it enrolls, but the professors it hires. The school recently hired Sheldon Halpern, a law professor at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, where he had been for 21 years. His specialty is intellectual property law.

"I'm being treated very well," said Halpern, now the Tyler Chair in Law and Technology at Albany Law. "It was certainly flattering the way I was recruited. But that wouldn't have been enough. There is a real excitement about what Tom and the faculty are trying to do, to create a much greater presence for [Albany Law]."

Beginnings of a trend?

Guernsey may be ahead of the curve. According to the American Bar Association, in the early and mid-1990s, law schools saw a peak in enrollments and began cutting back. In recent years the number spiked again.

"We haven't seen schools cutting down yet," said John Sebert, the ABA's consultant on legal education. Whether there is a trend won't be known until January, when the ABA conducts an annual survey of law schools.

Guernsey said he has received some flack from alumni.

"I probably got 25 letters and 50 e-mails from alums," Guernsey said. "Except for two or three of them, they were all very positive."

Three of the letters opposing his plan stand out in his mind.

Guernsey said one of the alumni letters was clearly from someone whose son or daughter wasn't going to get into the law school because of the change.

"The direction you're going in is stupid," he wrote.

Another letter was more personal.

"I got a letter this past summer from an alum who told me I was basically the dumbest person ever to be dean," said Guernsey. "I wrote him back a nice long letter."

Two weeks later, the alumni sent a check for $5,000 to the law school.

"He understood," Guernsey said.

Christopher Lyons, a 1988 Albany Law School graduate, said he liked the changes the minute he heard them.

"My initial reaction was it's good to see the school grasp the realities of modern legal education," he said. "Let's face it, in a shrinking world of prospective students, they're going to have students with far more information about our competition than just what they get in the mail. Therefore, we've got to improve on those parameters that students rely on."

John Bagyi, a 1996 law school grad and a member of the alumni association's executive board, said he's glad to have a dean who's willing to take bold action.

"You can't get more bold than reducing the enrollment class size in a tuition-dependent institution like Albany Law School," he said.

Bagyi is glad the school's reputation will get beyond New York state's borders.

"Its reputation has always been good. If you want a job in Albany, Albany Law School is the place to go," he said. "The issue is trying to obtain a more regional and national reputation for recruiting students and placing graduates."

Rich Honen, a 1985 law grad and managing partner at the Albany firm Honen & Wood P.C., said the law school has a legitimate business and academic strategy.

"They're willing to absorb some short-term pain in furtherance of a long-term goal," he said.

But he raised one issue: Is there a place for the middle-of-the-road student?

"I would hope that they retain some metric for keeping some of the middle-of-the-class students interested in the school," Honen said. "I only say that because I was a middle-of-the-class student and would like to think there's a place for those of us whose skills aren't totally academic."