Charleston School of Law (ProfReader via Wikimedia Commons)
As the proposed sale of Charleston School of Law to the for-profit InfiLaw Holding LLC chain of law schools nears its final stages, faculty members have appealed to South Carolina education officials to block the transfer.
The professors have sent letters to the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education raising concerns over InfiLaw’s record and what they view as its “culture of intimidation and fear.” The commission and the American Bar Association both must sign off on a sale. The commission’s Academic Affairs and Advisory Panel is scheduled to meet on Monday to discuss the sale and issue a recommendation to the full commission. The commission could make a final decision during its next meeting in early June.
“The faculty were afraid to say anything at first,” said Randall Bridwell, one of the professors who wrote to the commission. “They said, ‘We see in the blogs and in the lawsuits that InfiLaw has fired people for not going along with the regime.’ They were worried, but it got to the point where they realized they had to say something.”
InfiLaw announced plans to purchase the stand-alone, for-profit law school in August. Student and alumni groups immediately spoke out against the sale, citing the reputation and employment outcomes for students at InfiLaw’s other law schools: Arizona Summit School of Law; Charlotte School of Law; and Florida Coastal School of Law. But the faculty remained relatively quiet until last week, when two groups of professors wrote to the commission.
Eleven professors put their names to a letter declaring that the faculty’s silence had mistakenly been interpreted as approval, when in fact they oppose the sale. “Given the events of late, we can no longer sit by and remain silent,” the letter reads. “Simply put, we do not wish to see the Charleston School of Law mirror the admissions practices, attrition rates, transfer rates or education programs at the InfiLaw consortium schools.”
A local attorney sent the second letter on behalf of a group of professors who wished to remain anonymous because they fear losing their jobs. “These letters represent a supermajority of the faulty opposed to the proposed transaction, who do not believe that granting InfiLaw a license to operate the Charleston School of Law is in the best interest of the students, the faculty, the bench, the bar or the public of South Carolina,” it reads.
InfiLaw believes a sale will benefit the school, according to a statement issued by a spokeswoman.
“Along with the dean, we believe that the acquisition by InfiLaw is in the best interests of the Charleston School of Law, given the additional resources and expertise we will provide in these challenging times,” she said in a written statement. “Moreover, as the commission staff concluded when it recommended approval of the license, we are confident that we have satisfied all of South Carolina’s regulatory requirements.”
She referred to Charleston dean Andrew Abrams, who in March wrote a letter to the law school community supporting the deal.
“After listening to all of the arguments and after extensive inquiry, dialogue and observation, I have concluded that we have before us what is not only an acceptable but an exciting option, and that is the proposed alignment with InfiLaw and its consortium of law schools,” Abrams wrote.
The changing economic picture for law schools nationwide and Charleston’s aging board of owners necessitate the change, and InfiLaw consortium schools and Charleston share a student-centric approach, Abrams wrote.
A report by the Education Commission’s staff recommended approval of the sale, but its Academic Affairs and Licensing Panel delayed a decision when it met on May 1. Panel members said they needed more time to evaluate more than 100 pages of documents submitted just days before the meeting. They scheduled two rounds of public hearings, one is which is scheduled for Monday. A final decision is expected on June 5, when the full commission meets.
The initial announcement of the sale prompted calls for the law school to be taken over by the public College of Charleston, but that idea never got off the ground.
Five attorneys founded Charleston School of Law in 2003. At the time, South Carolina’s oldest city had no law school. The American Bar Association granted provisional accreditation in 2006 and full accreditation in 2011.
InfiLaw is owned by private-equity firm Sterling Partners LLC, and has suffered amid plummeting law school applications nationwide. Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville has shed faculty, while Arizona Summit in Phoenix has seen larger numbers of students transfer away. Two tenured Arizona Summit professors sued last year, claiming they were unfairly fired for opposing changes meant to prevent students from transferring out.
The Charleston sale requires the “acquiescence” of the ABA, although details of that process are not made public until a decision is reached, which has yet to happen.