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Kurt Schmoke — the former mayor of Baltimore who last week was named the new dean of the Howard University School of Law — will head a proud school facing real problems when he takes the helm on the first of the year. Among the school’s woes: bar passage rates that dropped by nearly 25 percent between 1991 and 1997, complaints of inferior career services facilities, lower-than-desired first-time donor rates, and a current reputation that many believe doesn’t match its history. During his three terms as Baltimore’s mayor from 1987 to 1999, Schmoke managed to turn some of the city’s problems around, including crime-plagued high-rise public housing developments, which he razed and replaced with low-rise, mixed-income housing. President Bill Clinton named Baltimore as one of six “Empowerment Zones” in 1994, due to its revitalization plans. Schmoke also attacked adult illiteracy, declaring in his first inaugural speech that Baltimore would become “The City That Reads.” President George Bush gave him a national literacy award in 1992. But Schmoke has only limited experience in academia, having lectured on occasion at law and medical schools. A Yale University and Harvard Law School graduate, and a Rhodes scholar, Schmoke has worked on state and local government matters since joining the Baltimore office of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in 1999. Whether he can can successfully attack Howard’s concerns is an open question for some. On a recent campus visit, recalls Schmoke, a student, while calling his r�sum� “distinguished,” asserted that Schmoke could be considered “unqualified for the job.” At an Oct. 15 public event announcing his hire, Schmoke said, “I hope to prove that student wrong.” Indeed, Schmoke met the approval of a 13-member search committee, led by Orlando Taylor, dean of graduate education, that consisted of seven professors. For a chunk of the law school’s top scholars and administrators, there is a perception that the school does not get its just dues — and there is hope that Schmoke, called the “first of a new generation of African-American leaders” by Howard President H. Patrick Swygert, can change that. The historically black law school, which opened its doors in 1869, has produced the likes of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Lazard Freres & Co. Senior Managing Director Vernon Jordan, former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and the District’s first female mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly. The school’s moot court and trial advocacy teams regularly win accolades, with two moot court members, for example, being named in February the Best Overall Team at the Juvenile Law National Moot Court Competition for the second year in a row. But in the recent past, Howard has gone through some difficult times. It has remained mired in the bottom tiers of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. In 1997, bar passage rates overall dropped to 47 percent, according to a December 2000 memo by then-Dean Alice Gresham Bullock. Overall passage rates climbed to 75 percent in this year’s U.S. News rankings. But, according to Bullock’s memo, passage rates for Howard’s first-time test-takers in Maryland — where more of the school’s students take the bar than in any other state — stalled at 41 percent and 51 percent for the classes of 1999 and 2000. Bullock, who resigned this year to resume teaching duties, called the rankings “inherently flawed” in an April 2002 memo to students and faculty. “The idea that all law schools can be measured by the same yardstick ignores all of the qualities that make the law school, the applicants and students unique,” she wrote. “We are the only law school in the country that is 80 percent African American and we are a national law school.” However, accreditation problems were harder to explain. Over a decade ago, the ABA and the Association of American Law Schools criticized Howard, pointing to things like low bar passage rates and shaky finances. The association even threatened Howard’s accreditation. But conditions at the school have begun to change for the better. The law school broke into the third tier in U.S. News‘ rankings this year, with a 15 percent increase in employment rates nine months after graduation — up to 90 percent. When up for reaccreditation in 2001, the school passed quickly and with flying colors. Howard’s state of the art law library opened last year — and was cited by the ABA in the reaccreditation process. Continued construction on the campus located in Northwest D.C. is expected. Bar passage rates in Maryland are increasing, though they still are lower than the overall passage rate for the jurisdiction. Applications were up as well, and the school extended the same number of offers, with many more students than expected accepting; 236 started this fall — Howard’s largest law school class ever. Although his appointment as dean does not officially begin until Jan. 1, Schmoke intends to start visiting the campus beforehand in order to quickly build on some of Howard’s successes and get to work on its deficits. “I have to wind down some of the work” at Wilmer, he says. “I’m also a trustee at Tuskegee [University in Alabama] and have work to do.” After that, Schmoke says he “will start a process” of meeting with faculty and student leaders in November. For the moment, he is leaving curriculum changes up to the faculty, but says he will “talk to individual members of the faculty.” Says Schmoke of the deanship: “It’s really an opportunity to serve. The bulk of my career has been in public service.”

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