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When John E. Ryan talks about the task ahead of him, he steals a line from Mark Twain. “Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. He’s not talking about himself. He’s talking about Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where he was recently appointed dean. One of Ryan’s goals for John Marshall, a school that has spent the last few years struggling to stay alive, is to increase enrollment. To accomplish this, he asked the school’s recruiters to visit every pre-law adviser at every college in a 50-mile radius of Atlanta. At one school inside the city, he says, the pre-law adviser reacted with surprise, saying, “I thought you went out of business.” Ryan sighs. “Imagine what they’re saying outside Atlanta.” John Marshall, which has no affiliation with The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, was founded in 1933 as a night school for working and part-time students. In recent years, it perhaps has been best known for its struggles to survive: three failed attempts at American Bar Association accreditation; continuing financial woes; contentious real estate deals; and abysmal bar pass rates, most recently 20 percent for first-time test-takers. It also has a looming deadline from the Georgia Supreme Court. If it doesn’t get at least provisional ABA accreditation by Aug. 31, 2003, those who graduate after that date can’t take the Georgia Bar exam. But earlier this month, the school was purchased by Argosy Education Group Inc. of Chicago. Argosy is a NASDAQ-traded, for-profit provider of graduate education that under a pre-existing management agreement already had invested about $3.5 million in the school. Ryan’s qualifications as a turnaround artist include deanships at two law schools, one of which — Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. — he guided to ABA accreditation in three and a half years. He also spent about 12 years on the ABA committee that oversees law school accreditation, serving twice as its chairman. Currently, Ryan is a visiting law professor at the University of LaVerne in Ontario, Calif. He was named to John Marshall’s deanship in January and is scheduled to start there in May or June. In the meantime, he’s been visiting the school periodically to get his plans underway. He says he knows what he’s getting into with John Marshall, because in 1998, he was on the ABA site inspection team that visited the school during one of its accreditation bids. Ryan isn’t the only new administrator at John Marshall; Avarita L. Hanson was appointed academic dean last month. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s law school, a longtime sole practitioner and a former president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys. CREATING A PROFESSIONAL CULTURE The school also has petitioned the state supreme court to extend its accreditation deadline until 2008. But none of that means Ryan’s job will be easy. “I cannot describe for you, I cannot tell you how much has to change,” he says. High on his list of changes are moving the school’s administrative culture from laissez-faire to rigorous and professional, improving and restructuring the school’s academic program, and getting ABA accreditation. Then there’s recruiting. To some extent, everything turns on that, because without students, nothing else matters. Ryan says that when the school graduates its class of 2001 in May, the remaining student body will number just 100. “This place has been in a survivor’s mode for the last five years, and by survivor’s mode I mean sheer, utter desperation,” he says. “What do we have to do or what do we think we have to do to stay open? That culture is going to change.” One aspect of changing the culture is remaking the school as a professional institution. “We don’t have the luxury of treating it like an undergraduate school,” Ryan says. “Going to law school doesn’t take a rocket scientist. What it does take is the same thing it takes in private practice: discipline, diligence and hard work.” If students won’t live up to those standards, Ryan says: “Academic disqualification is a fact of life.” Academic change also will be a fact of life, starting from the first year of law school. Now, John Marshall allows students to take basic first-year courses such as contracts and civil procedure anytime before graduation. That buffet-table approach is just another aspect of the school’s survivorship mode, a ‘whatever it takes to get you here, we’ll do’ attitude, according to Ryan. He says he’s not judging the survivor methods, but that they make for “very bad pedagogy.” This fall, he plans to establish an ordered, mandatory first-year curriculum for all full- and part-time students. Excellence in teaching and a focus on knowledge and skills needed to pass the bar exam will be instituted from the first day of a student’s first class, he says. Ryan has abolished the school’s liberal leave policy, by which students could withdraw at random, then come back to class when they chose. Now they must get formal permission for leaves of absence. He wants to scrap the school’s current trimester program, which has some students carrying a full class load year round, and crams exams into as little as three days’ time. He says he’d like to institute a standard 14-week semester with a shorter summer semester. But that proposed schedule depends upon whether the Georgia Supreme Court grants the school’s request for more time to get ABA accreditation. The school’s motion has support — 148 members of the Georgia General Assembly signed a petition urging the court to grant the extension. In support of its own motion, the school argued that because it has so many part-timers, the 2003 deadline is causing “a recruitment crisis, resulting in a significantly smaller and less qualified student body.” RAISING THE BAR Admissions is another area slated for change. “I will not put myself or my institution in a position of being accused of taking money when there is little or no hope of success,” Ryan says. “Because to my mind, to do so is simply akin to stealing.” Ryan says the school’s past acceptance rate was very high: “My point is, they would take anyone and everyone who applied.” The average LSAT scores of the school’s entering class have been in the low 130s — that’s on a test scale that ranges from 120 to 180. Ryan says he plans to require a minimum LSAT score of 140 in the future. The GPA of entering students is between 2.6 and 2.7, or about a B-/C+ average. Ryan hasn’t set a minimum GPA, and says he thinks those numbers will rise on their own as the school’s applicant pool increases. ARGOSY’S EFFECT The impact that Argosy, as a for-profit company, may have on the admissions policy is something that in part influenced some John Marshall faculty to resign. The school’s former academic dean, Karen Miller-Gamble, and Associate Professor Jeffrey A. Van Detta both quit last fall. In a letter they posted on campus, they said the school’s new corporate focus was on money rather than on students from historically underrepresented communities. Prior to Ryan’s becoming dean, the school’s administrators often argued that part of John Marshall’s mission was serving minorities. The school’s student body is about 40 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic or Asian. But Ryan says the school’s mission statement is race-neutral. And it hasn’t changed, he says. It is to provide quality, part-time legal education. “Are we going to close our doors to racial and ethnic minorities? No,” Ryan says. But when asked if he sees the school’s ethnic makeup changing he says, “Perhaps.” Long pause. “Perhaps not.” Tuition costs were another concern Miller-Gamble and Van Detta raised. John Marshall now charges tuition of $480 per credit hour, according to Ryan. For a full-time load of 30 hours, that’s $14,400 per year. The school used to tout itself as the least expensive legal education in Georgia for out-of-state students. It still is, but only by $400 a year for full-timers. Of the state’s other law schools, all of which are ABA-accredited, Georgia State University is the least expensive. Full-time nonresident students pay $14,880 per year at Georgia State’s law school; in-state full-timers pay $3,520. Georgia State is the only law school in the state other than John Marshall to offer a part-time program. Its out-of-state part-timers pay $587 per credit hour, about $100 more than at John Marshall. In-state students pay $147. Tuition, of course, is an issue for a for-profit company like Argosy. Even if all of John Marshall’s current 100 students were paying full-time tuition — which they’re not — the school’s revenue would be just $1.4 million. Using that to pay for 14 full-time faculty, plus 12 adjunct professors, administrators, staff, information systems personnel, building upkeep, library acquisitions, utilities and the school’s other expenses is clearly a stretch. Ryan says Argosy hasn’t given him a time-limit on turning a profit. When Argosy entered its management agreement and bought the school, it did so “with the understanding that Argosy would have to commit substantial resources,” Ryan says. But he also says that odds look good for recruiting because for a metro area with more than 4 million residents, there aren’t that many part-time slots available. Says Ryan, “This can be a nice 500 to 600 student body.” Granted, that day may be awhile coming. But he says he’s sure the school can make it. “I didn’t come here to preside over a burial,” he says. “I’m serious. I’m going to resurrect this place. And I won’t do it alone.”

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