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Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School has a new dean, one who already has acted to calm the school’s contentious relations with the American Bar Association. John E. Ryan, who has served as dean at two other law schools, has taken the helm at John Marshall, a school that has three times failed in its attempts to gain ABA accreditation. His first act as dean was to withdraw the school’s appeal of its most recent accreditation denial. That appeal would have been heard in February. “That decision, I will tell you, was very well received by the ABA,” says Ryan, reached at his office at the University of LaVerne in Ontario, Calif., where he is a visiting law professor. As for the appeal, he says, “It was foolish to go forward with it.” Ryan explains that under revised ABA rules, accreditation appeals are heard by the House of Delegates. The House of Delegates, however, has no decision-making authority in that context. It may only recommend that the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education — which denied accreditation to begin with — reconsider its position. That, according to Ryan, likely would result in yet another denial. “The worst thing that could happen to that institution is to get turned down again,” he says. “Let’s start clean.” Barry Currier, the ABA’s deputy consultant on legal education, could not be reached for comment by press time. The search for John Marshall’s new dean was handled by Argosy Education Group Inc., a corporate investor in the school since August 1999 and the owner of for-profit professional schools around the country. Argosy doesn’t own John Marshall, but has a long-term management agreement with it. Argosy President James P. Otten says his group looked at three candidates but chose Ryan because he had extensive experience in academic leadership, extensive ABA experience, and already had guided one law school successfully through the accreditation process. Ryan has served as dean and vice president of the law school at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., where he directed all phases of its start-up operations and guided it to ABA accreditation in three and a half years. He also was executive vice president of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and acting dean and professor of law at the university’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif. Now teaching Contracts at the University of LaVerne, Ryan says he’ll finish his commitment there in May. In the meantime, he plans to visit John Marshall frequently. Ryan, 63, earned his law degree at McGeorge, and his L.L.M. at the University of Illinois College of Law. He says he had planned to slow down a bit and play golf, but was attracted to John Marshall because of “the opportunities, the potential, and, strange as it may sound, the recent history of the people there. … There’s a number of people over the past five or six years who’ve done a heroic job to keep that institution up and going and they have done so against all odds that would defy or deter most normal individuals.” One of John Marshall’s champions is its prior dean, Robert J. D’Agostino. D’Agostino spent six years at the school. In his time there, he saved the 67-year-old school more than once from financial failure, attempted ABA accreditation three times, increased the library’s collection from 7,000 volumes to more than 100,000, and increased tenure-track faculty from four to 14. But he also had a less than rosy relationship with the ABA. He filed, then withdrew, a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the ABA’s accrediting committee. He also discussed suing the ABA over its continued denials. Ryan, by contrast, spent about a dozen years on the ABA committee that oversees law school accreditation, serving twice as its chairman. He also spent the last three years as a legal consultant to the ABA, helping them examine law schools in the accreditation process. D’Agostino, who stepped down in December and will be on sabbatical before returning to the school to teach, made no secret of his us vs. them relationship with the ABA, and even attributed some of John Marshall’s accreditation woes to his not being an ABA insider. Says Ryan, “I have been on the other side of the fence. I spent 12 or 13 years as one of them.” As for the school’s past, contentious relationship with the ABA, “That ended when I took this job,” Ryan says. Argosy’s Otten uses a sports metaphor when acknowledging that Ryan’s approach will differ from D’Agostino’s attitude that the ABA was sometimes unfair. “When you’re telling yourself the referee is unfair, you get distracted from what the real issues are,” Otten says. “It’s kind of like when you have an athletic contest, it is not appropriate to be charging that the referees are unfair. … So we’re going to assume that the ABA is fair.” Otten says he does not know when John Marshall will next seek ABA accreditation. The Georgia Supreme Court has given the school until August 2003 to gain provisional accreditation. If it doesn’t meet that deadline or get an extension, its students would no longer be able to sit for the Georgia bar exam. According to Otten, some of the school’s biggest hurdles with the ABA are likely to be improving its library and its bar pass rates. While money can buy library materials, he acknowledges it can’t buy bar scores. John Marshall’s first-time bar pass rate was just 20 percent on the most recently graded exam, the results of which were released in October. Georgia’s three other law schools, all of which are ABA-approved, had pass rates above 85 percent. Boosting bar pass rates may require raising admissions standards, Otten says. Beyond accreditation, Ryan says his focus will be on creating an institution that isn’t scrambling for day-to-day survival. He says he wants to give the school a “rock-solid” basis of stability, credibility, good faith and openness that will outlast his deanship. Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School is not associated with The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

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