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FAMU law school awaits vital verdict

by Luis Zaragoza

Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

March 10, 2009


Florida A&M University's College of Law in downtown Orlando was described in a report last year as "stuck in a rut" and facing a "steep mountain to climb" in its quest for full accreditation.

The school's new dean responded by rallying faculty, staff and students to help push ambitious improvements that included adding new courses, hiring additional faculty and creating a campus culture he describes as demanding but supportive.

Now everyone is waiting to hear whether all that effort was enough.

If the school fails to win full accreditation by August, its future would be thrown into doubt. It would have to start the process all over again or be reconfigured as a different institution, since only students attending accredited law schools qualify to the Bar exam.

While declining to predict how things will go, law-school Dean LeRoy Pernell said "we all feel good at this point" following the American Bar Association's final inspection of the school recently.

Inspectors interviewed students, faculty and administrators, observed classes in session and examined operations such as the law library.

"The impression I have is that they were very impressed with the progress we've made in a relatively short period of time," Pernell said.

Vote this summer?

The inspectors won't be the ones deciding the school's fate. That's up to the council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which is expected to vote this summer. Before that happens, the section's accreditation committee will review the inspectors' report and determine whether the school meets the ABA's standards for accreditation.

The ABA does not disclose anything about the inspections or the deliberations of the accreditation committee and council, according to ABA spokeswoman Nancy Slonim. However, schools are free to discuss specifics as long as they do so completely and accurately, she added.

FAMU President James Ammons recruited Pernell from Northern Illinois University College of Law to stabilize FAMU law and win full accreditation. Pernell previously served on ABA committees that review law-school education programs.

On the job full time just over a year after serving as a consultant for several months, Pernell has hired more faculty and created new programs with the potential to raise the school's profile. One of his hires is Jeremy Levitt, who was named associate dean for international programs and created the Center for International Law and Justice at the school.

Pernell also has pushed for services aimed at improving students' quality of life. For the first time, meals are sold on campus through a small cafe. Previously, only snacks were available from a few lonely vending machines.

That's a marked change from the way things were in October 2007, when inspectors paid a visit. Months later they filed a report saying that the law school, after opening amid hope and optimism, "now finds itself stuck in a rut" caused by faculty dissent, lack of leadership continuity, and lawsuits from students dismissed for academic reasons. The 49-page report noted FAMU law had a "steep mountain to climb."

The accreditation of the Tallahassee university itself was put in jeopardy by business-side problems that included late paychecks for employees. Since the law school in Orlando used some university systems, it suffered from similar problems. The university's massive effort to fix those problems succeeded, with the effects trickling down to its law school.

Students, who in the past have not held back from being openly critical of problems at the school, are pleased by the changes they've seen and the promise of more improvements to come.

"Any fledgling school is going to have issues," said Ashley Mitchell, 25, a second-year student. "There's optimism here because we are seeing real results."

Students stoke hopes

On a recent weekday, students many pulling wheeled cases to manage their heavy law books were seen wearing T-shirts provided by the school and bearing the motto "Destination: Accreditation."

Gordon Fletcher, 24, a second-year student, is pinning his hopes for the beginning of a successful law career on FAMU law.

The Kingston, Jamaica, native knew the school was facing a variety of struggles before he enrolled. Yet the American University graduate signed up for a three-year course toward a law degree anyway, because he thinks the school is on an upswing.

He says the changes during the past year have raised morale campuswide and stoked hopes that the school can continue its mission to provide more opportunities for minorities to get a law education.

Pernell has consistently kept his word about campus improvements, Fletcher said, and his open-door policy has created a more relaxed and open atmosphere on campus.

"He said a new Web site would be set up, and it was done. He said we'd have a bookstore, and here it is. Same with the cafe. It's things like that that make us believe in him," Fletcher said.

"It's a whole new day at the school I hope people understand that," Fletcher said.