Albany Law School
Albany Law School (Wikipedia)

ALBANY – Albany Law School and some of its professors are at odds over plans to reduce faculty size due to declining enrollment, giving rise to a broader question of whether the institution should lower its standards to save jobs.

The school on Monday offered buyouts to up to eight longer-tenured and higher-salaried professors. At the same time, the Board of Trustees, in a statement, and the law school’s dean, in an interview, flatly rejected an idea, apparently promoted by some faculty, to lower admissions standards.

“A review of our declining bar passage statistics (we are now the second lowest law school in New York State for bar passage), combined with the extremely difficult employment market for our graduates, compels us to believe that we must focus on quality of applicants, not quantity,” the board said in a memo Monday to faculty. “To admit students in order to increase revenues due to projected operating deficits would be both unethical and in violation of ABA standards.”

Penelope Andrews, dean and president of Albany Law School, said in an interview that any discussion of lowering standards is off the table.

“We have a commitment to the people who come into the building to prepare them to practice law,” Andrews said. “We have to ensure that they can succeed in our program and also pass the bar. We will not increase the number of people we admit just to fill our class. It is an ethical issue, and we will accept only students who can succeed in law school.”

Eighty percent of Albany Law School graduates who took the bar exam in July passed, giving the school the second lowest bar passage rate among the 15 law schools in the state. Only Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, with a passage rate of 68 percent, was lower (NYLJ, Nov. 25, 2013).

Andrews said the faculty and administration have engaged in discussions on how to reduce costs and increase revenues. She confirmed that one of the ideas floated was to admit more students, especially those on the “wait list” who are on the cusp of earning admission.

But Andrews said admitting students for financial gain would be “irresponsible.”

One Albany Law professor said a “small but vocal minority” of faculty want the school to lower its standards to boost its tuition revenues and lessen the chances of layoffs.

“It is a very selfish, selfish endeavor,” the professor said. “They are really trying to save their jobs, but they’ve ginned this up to make it look like we are denying academic rights.”

Albany Law School, like most law schools, is struggling through an era of enrollment declines, and the consequent drop in tuition revenues.

According to the American Bar Association, the Albany Law School class that began studies this school year is down 7 percent from a year earlier, and down 29 percent since the fall of 2008. The application pool was down 23 percent for this year’s class.

Statewide, the first-year law school classes at all 15 schools is down about 9 percent this year and about 19 percent since 2008, according to the ABA.

The statewide applicant pool declined even more dramatically— 20 percent since last year and 31 percent since 2008, according to data the New York Law Journal collected from the schools in the fall (NYLJ, Oct. 2). Of 202 ABA-approved law schools in the U.S., only 63 increased first-year enrollment from last year to this year, according to data released by the ABA on Jan. 17.

At least three law schools in New York—Brooklyn Law School, the Maurice A. Dean School of Law at Hofstra University and New York Law School—have cut non-faculty staff in the past year. Brooklyn Law, for instance, shed a dozen staff through a voluntary early retirement program, while about 20 staff left New York Law School through its voluntary early separation program. Hofstra Law’s cuts came in the form of layoffs to administrative staff.

For the past several months, the administration, faculty and Board of Trustees at Albany Law School have been discussing the prospect of layoffs, prompting professors to form a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)

The AAUP, both local and nationally, has questioned whether Albany Law School’s cash flow issue is anywhere near a “bona fide financial exigency” that would justify the layoff of tenured faculty. The AAUP, which promotes tenure and academic freedom, recognizes only three bases for terminating tenured professors, one of which is “genuine financial necessity.”

In a statement posted Monday, Albany Law School’s AAUP chapter said preliminary figures released by the Law School Admissions Council suggest the institution “is well positioned to address a potential decline without any adverse affect on the quality of the education we offer.” It follows a Dec. 24 letter from the national AAUP to Albany Law School arguing that, based on federal tax submissions for 2012, the institution has “solid reserves, low debt, and strong cash flows.”

The memo from the Board of Trustees, distributed by its chairman, Daniel Nolan, made clear that “the voluntary buy-out program announced today is but one step in a comprehensive strategy designed to bring operating costs in line with anticipated revenues.” It said the board “will continue to assess the school’s financial condition to determine what other measures might be appropriate as we move forward.”

Andrews said it is unclear how many faculty positions need to be cut, either through buyouts or layoffs, and depends on several factors, including admissions, the number of students who drop out after the first or second year and other variables.

“There is no fixed number that will fix the situation because it is so fluid,” Andrews said.

Nolan did not respond to calls seeking comment. Professor Donna Young, president of the Albany Law School chapter of the AAUP, declined comment.