Indiana Tech Law School
Indiana Tech Law School (Indiana Tech Law School)

I’ll have more to say about the election, but not today. Instead, let’s take a closer look at a story that got lost in the shuffle of presidential politics. It deserves more attention than it received.

Back in 2013, when Indiana Tech opened the state’s fifth law school, I wrote that the decision was the latest example of pervasive legal market dysfunction. As the number of applicants declined, marginal schools increasingly were admitting students who wouldn’t be able to pass the bar, much less get decent jobs requiring a JD. Schools such as Indiana Tech were continuing to inflate the growing lawyer bubble, which was also the title of my 2013 book. (Proving that some things never change, it came out in paperback earlier this year.)

The central contributor to that bubble remains in place. Specifically, the federal student loan program absolves marginal law schools of accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes, while encouraging administrators to fill classrooms with tuition-paying bodies. The results are predictable: lower admission standards, lower bar passage rates, and burgeoning law student debt for degrees of dubious value from marginal schools.

Victims of a Doomed Experiment

Indiana Tech’s inaugural class of first-year students began their studies in August 2013. Two years later, the school failed in its first attempt to get American Bar Association accreditation. Further proving the ABA’s failure to address the continuing crisis in legal education, it granted Indiana Tech provisional accreditation earlier this year. The school graduated its first 12 students in 2016; only one passed the bar exam. Another passed on appeal, and a third passed the bar in another state.

On Oct. 31, the school’s 71 students received an unwelcome Halloween surprise. The board of trustees announced its unanimous vote to close forever on June 30, 2017.

Indiana Tech President Arthur Snyder’s statement said, “[F]or the foreseeable future, the law school will not be able to attract students in sufficient numbers for the school to remain viable.”

Here’s the thing. Snyder’s observation was equally true in 2011 when the school completed its feasibility study and announced the decision to move forward. But rather than confront obvious facts about the demand for legal education that were apparent to everyone else, Snyder insisted in 2013:

“We have given this decision careful research and consideration, and we believe we can develop a school that will attract and retain talented individuals who will contribute to our region’s economic development.”

Thanks to Snyder and Indiana Tech’s board of trustees, those individuals—students and faculty—now face a tough and uncertain road.

Seeking Answers

What could have motivated such an obviously bad decision to open a new law school in the teeth of a lawyer glut? The answer is pretty simple. Snyder is a business guy. He has an MBA in strategic management and a doctorate in education (innovation and leadership) from Wilmington University. Before joining the academic world, he spent more than 20 years in the telecommunications industry, rising to the position of vice president for the Data Systems Division of AT&T.

For someone focused on a bottom-line approach to running higher education, adding a law school probably seemed like a no-brainer. In a 2011 interview with the National Law Journal, Snyder explained his strategy. Noting that about half of Indiana residents who attended ABA-approved law schools were doing so out of state, he said, ”There are potential students who desire a law school education who cannot get that education in this area.”

Capturing that segment of the market was a strange premise on which to build the case for a new law school. Which Indiana students admitted to established out-of-state schools did he expect to jump to an unaccredited newcomer?

The Real Play for Dollars

Like most law schools that should have closed their doors long ago, Indiana Tech’s business strategy sought to exploit market dysfunction. If the school could attract a sufficient number of aspiring attorneys to Fort Wayne, student loan dollars for tuition would take care of everything else, including a spiffy new building:

“The Indiana Tech Law School contains eight state-of-the-art classrooms, a courtroom, several learning and relaxation spaces for students including lounges and an outdoors patio, a three-story library, and everything else our students need to make their time here a successful and rewarding experience.”

Would graduates obtain decent full-time, long-term jobs requiring the Indiana Tech JD degrees costing them close to $100,000? That would never become Snyder’s problem.

The Opposite of Leadership

After the ABA denied Indiana Tech provisional accreditation in 2015, the handwriting was on the wall. But Snyder doubled down on a bad bet. The school tried to bolster admissions with a loss leader: a one-year tuition scholarship to students who enrolled in the fall of 2015. Anyone who took that deal is now twisting in the wind.

Indiana Tech reportedly lost $20 million. But its failed business strategy, followed by gimmicks that could never save it, produced dozens of real-life human victims whose damage is immeasurable. Those people don’t count in calculating Indiana Tech’s profit-and-loss statement. Except as conduits for federal student loan dollars, it’s fair to ask if they ever counted at all.

In his 2011 interview about the then-planned new law school, Snyder suggested that Indiana Tech law school could be the first to offer a joint JD and master in science degree in leadership. He thought it would be an especially good fit because the university already has several programs in leadership.

Sometimes the most important learning in life comes from careful observation of negative role models. Speaking of negative role models, as I said at the beginning, I’ll have more to say about the election results in the days and weeks to come.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” (Basic Books, April 2013; paperback with new AFTERWORD, March 2016), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008 after 30 years in private practice. He blogs about the legal profession at The Belly of the Beast, and a version of the column above was first published on that website.