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John Marshall Law School Dean Robert J. D’Agostino resigned Wednesday amid continuing problems in the Atlanta school’s battle for American Bar Association provisional accreditation. He says he’s tired of the battle, and believes someone better connected with the ABA may have more success in gaining accreditation. He says he’ll take a sabbatical to rest and do legal research and writing, then will return to the school as a faculty member, teaching classes in bankruptcy law, his area of expertise. The announcement comes days after the publication of the school’s poor performance on the Georgia bar examination. Only 20 percent of the school’s first-time test-takers passed. The ABA, which rejected John Marshall’s latest accreditation bid in June, has said the school’s low first-timer pass rate is a factor hindering accreditation. D’Agostino and board members Kirk J. Post of Post & McDaniel and former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Harold R. Banke say the departure isn’t prompted by the low bar pass rate, and that D’Agostino wasn’t asked to step down. Both credit him with saving the long-troubled school from almost certain death. CRITICAL JUNCTURE D’Agostino’s departure, slated for December, comes at a critical juncture for John Marshall. The school has appealed the denial of its third request for provisional accreditation, and the ABA’s House of Delegates meets in February to review that appeal. If the House sides with John Marshall, the matter will be remanded to the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education for a final decision in April. If the House votes against the school, D’Agostino says it will have to either go through the process again or sue the ABA. Between December and at least the start of the ABA review process, John Marshall will be left with only an interim dean. D’Agostino says he believes Chicago’s Argosy Education Group Inc., a private, for-profit provider of graduate-level education that has invested about $2 million in the school, will appoint one of its own people as acting dean while a search for a new leader takes place. It’s unclear what effect his departure will have on the school’s struggle for accreditation. Barry Currier, the ABA’s deputy consultant on legal education, says it should have no effect. ABA rules simply require that a school have a full-time dean who is, generally, a tenured member of the faculty. An interim dean is fine, he says, so long as the school is seeking a permanent dean. D’Agostino, Post and Banke say the dean’s departure may help the school in its quest for accreditation. Banke, a John Marshall alumnus, calls D’Agostino, “sort of confrontational and I think some members of the ABA thought he was too confrontational and too conservative to be a law school dean.” Post, head of the law school’s alumni association, says “I think there’s been some clashes with Bob and the ABA. … There’s been some animosity. I think that will evaporate and I’m not saying who’s right or who’s wrong.” Says D’Agostino, “I think I’m a marginal problem. I am a problem … because I’m not an insider … because I’ve been feisty and I’ve stood up to them. But I think it’d be a matter of ego to say I’m the sole reason for the problem.” Currier says getting ABA accreditation isn’t a matter of being an insider — it’s a matter of meeting ABA standards. Over the course of its accreditation attempts, he says John Marshall has probably been reviewed by 50 people, among them lawyers, judges and law professors. “Is it good to know people? Of course it’s good,” he says. “But this is about standards.” PARALLEL SITUATION IN FLORIDA Donald E. Lively is president and dean of Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. His school earned ABA provisional accreditation last year after three years of trying and one denial. Lively says he didn’t know anyone at the ABA. “I was about as disconnected as you can imagine.” Florida Coastal has faculty members who are well-known and active in ABA circles, but that didn’t seem to help, he says. He was told, more or less, ‘We know your people, but you must meet these quantifiable goals,’ he says. During his school’s accreditation process, he recalls, a member of the ABA’s site inspection team told him, “We count the widgets.” Those widgets include money, effective leadership, and students likely to pass the bar and succeed when they graduate. Lively, who founded Florida Coastal in part to remedy what he sees as a misdirected focus in legal education that puts students as the lowest priority, says the accreditation process makes clear the ABA’s focus is on quantitative factors, not a school’s mission. Mission is something D’Agostino has brought up repeatedly in arguing that the school has a place in the Atlanta community and deserves accreditation. John Marshall serves part-time and night law students, and he has pointed out that the ABA often encourages schools to reach out to minorities. About 40 percent of its students are African-American, he says. Ten percent are Hispanic or Asian. The school also fights to keep its tuition relatively low — about $11,000 for full-time study — compared with the $20,000-plus tuition at Atlanta’s Emory and Mercer universities’ law schools. But Lively says he can understand D’Agostino’s desire to step down because he’s tired. “It is a demanding process,” he says. “To put it mildly, grueling.” D’AGOSTINO’S IMPRINT In nearly six years at the school, D’Agostino has made many changes. He stepped into leadership when the school was on a collision course with a Georgia Supreme Court decision that would deny students the right to take the bar exam if their school was not at least provisionally accredited by the ABA. Also, the school was strapped for cash, operating out of rented quarters. It had bar pass rates as low as 11 percent. D’Agostino, whom Post describes as being made up of “pure willpower,” got the Supreme Court deadline extended three times — the school now has until August 2003 to gain provisional accreditation. D’Agostino also began raising money through a series of financial machinations, including real estate deals, bank loans and gifts from private donors. The latest of his deals may prove the school’s financial savior. Last September, John Marshall found for-profit corporate investor, Argosy Education Group Inc., which owns graduate schools around the country. Argosy invested $500,000 in the school last year and offered an unlimited line of credit in exchange for an option to assume ownership and take over the school’s business and financial management. With D’Agostino at the helm, the school purchased and renovated its own building. It has spent more than $1 million on its library, and has a library plan developed by Yale University’s chief librarian. The library has grown from 7,000 volumes to more than 100,000. The school’s full-time, tenure-track faculty has grown from four to 14 during D’Agostino’s six-year term, and the school has added a legal services clinic and created an academic support program. Still, D’Agostino has taken the school through the ABA accreditation process three times and failed. The most recent attempt in June 1999 resulted in a tie vote by the ABA. Under ABA rules, a tie means a denial of accreditation. An appeal is pending. D’Agostino says the ABA acknowledged five errors in its evaluation of the school. He also insists that his school’s first-time bar pass rate since 1995 has been higher than other provisionally accredited schools. He frequently has criticized the ABA as being an insider organization more concerned about money than mission. He’s filed — and withdrawn — a complaint against the accrediting committee with the U.S. Department of Education. Now, he says, Argosy has retained Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and is considering challenging the ABA’s continued denials. The school’s lawyer, he says, would be Richard Godfrey, who successfully represented Oral Roberts University’s law school when the ABA denied it accreditation because of its official Christian mission. Though D’Agostino hasn’t hesitated to fight the ABA, Post says Argosy’s leader, Michael Markowitz, likely will work within the system. “Taking on the ABA is like taking on General Motors,” he says. “You’d better have a lot of time and a lot of money.” Markowitz could not be reached for comment. D’Agostino says he’s been discussing his resignation with Argosy for about a year. The school has granted him a nine-month sabbatical. Though D’Agostino didn’t get John Marshall accredited, he does have a track record. He helped Delaware Law School, now Widener University School of Law, get accredited in 1974. Both Banke and Post praise D’Agostino’s accomplishments and his perseverance with the ABA. Both also praise his dedication to preserving the school’s mission of serving minorities and working students with families. “With the struggles of dealing with the ABA, they ought to pin a medal on him like they do a retiring general,” Post says. “If it wasn’t for him, the school would have been dead a long time ago.”

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