The leadership of Florida A&M University on Tuesday removed Angela Felecia Epps as dean of its law school—part of a larger purge that included the deans of its journalism, pharmaceutical and education programs.
Interim Provost Rodner Wright has not specified why Epps and the other deans were ousted from their positions, but he issued a statement Tuesday saying they will remain tenured faculty members of their respective schools. Epps had only led the law school for 16 months.
“This week, I will continue to meet with faculty as we review our academic programs,” Wright said. “Interim deans are also meeting with stakeholders and students to discuss next steps as the university works to ensure that all academic units are aligned with our strategic priorities.”
A university spokeswoman did not provide any clarification as to the reason for Epps’ removal. Epps also did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Wright named LeRoy Pernell interim law dean—a familiar role. Pernell was Epps’ predecessor from 2008 to 2015.
While Florida A&M leaders thus far remain mum on why Epps and the other deans were removed, the law school’s low bar-pass rates are likely a factor. Just 18 of the 39 Florida A&M graduates who sat for the February 2017 bar exam in Florida passed, according to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. That 46 percent pass rate was the third lowest among the state’s 11 American Bar Association-accredited law schools, and lower than the statewide average of 58 percent. It was the first time the school’s pass rate had ever fallen below 50 percent. The school’s results on the July 2016 exam weren’t much better, with 53 percent of its alumni passing.
This is the second time in as many months that a law dean was abruptly removed—a fairly unusual event within the legal academy. Law deans occasionally clash with their faculties, alumni, or central university administrators, but they typically orchestrate face-saving exits that cite personal reasons or a desire to return to teaching.
Former University of Cincinnati College of Law Dean Jennifer Bard was removed from her position in March after months of disagreements with some faculty members over proposed budgets cuts that were intended to close the school’s operating deficit. Bard last month sued the university for breach of contract violations and First Amendment violations, seeking a reinstatement as dean.
Cincinnati is ranked No. 72 by U.S. News & World Report, while Florida A&M is in its unranked second tier.
There are several similarities between Epps’ and Bard’s ousters. Both women had been in the dean position for less than two years, and both were external hires. Bard came from Texas Tech University School of Law, while Epps had been a longtime faculty member at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.
Both women were also removed by the interim provosts who replaced the central administrators who hired them. Bard’s lawsuit alleges that she received much more support from former Cincinnati Provost Beverly Davenport than from Interim Provost Peter Landgren, who dismissed her as dean on March 22 and placed her on administrative leave.
Epps was hired by former Florida A&M Provost Marcella David, who was dismissed herself in September and whom Wright replaced on an interim basis. David is now on the law school faculty.
Epps told the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper in March that that the school is taking “aggressive steps to improve our bar passage rate and turn things around.” The school this year convened a special work group to examine student learning and bar preparations, she said.
Bar exam struggles are not new for the law school, which is located in Orlando, apart from the main Florida A&M campus in Tallahassee. Low bar-pass rates were among the problems ABA accreditors identified in 2007 when it was considering the school’s application for full accreditation. (The law school reopened in 2002 after remaining closed for 34 years, and it secured full accreditation in 2009, after Pernell was brought in to turn it around.)
But low bar-pass rates again imperiled the law school’s accreditation status in 2013, although the organization reaccredited the school the following year. Florida A&M had the lowest pass rate in the state on the July 2012 exam, at 68 percent.
Enrollment has also declined steadily at the school over the past five years. First-year enrollment was 151 in 2016, down 46 percent from 2011.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ