Albany Law School
Albany Law School (Wikipedia)

ALBANY – Several angry Albany Law School professors deny the faculty ever suggested the school should lower standards to boost enrollment and avert layoffs and accuse the administration of misrepresenting their position.

Outrage erupted this week in the wake of a New York Law Journal article on Tuesday in which a member of the faculty and the dean said there were discussions of relaxing admission standards, and the Board of Trustees issued a memorandum strongly rejecting the notion of lowering standards (NYLJ, Feb. 4). The memo noted that the school’s bar passage rate is second lowest in the state and said admitting students “to increase revenues … would be both unethical and in violation of [American Bar Association] standards.”

But numerous faculty members, in a flurry of emails and telephone calls, said they were stunned by the memo and insist there never a proposal that Albany Law School admit under-qualified or marginal applicants as a means of increasing tuition revenue and avoiding staff cutbacks. That assertion directly contradicts one of their colleagues and the school’s dean, Penelope Andrews, and belies the memorandum the Board of Trustees distributed on Monday.

“To say that the issue is decreasing standards is an out-and-out lie,” one long-tenured faculty member said in an interview. “If these discussions occurred outside of formal meetings, I wouldn’t know. But I do know that at the formal meetings I have been at we have not been talking about lowering standards. We have been talking about doing a better of job of figuring out our niche, our brand, in the new world.”

Professor Donna Young, president of the newly formed local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said that even with a 7 percent drop in enrollment for the last academic year, the caliber of the students is high.

According to statistics posted by the Law School Admissions Council, Albany Law School and the ABA, the median grade point average of the entering class has inched up steadily over the past five years, from 3.30 for the class that began in 2009 to 3.37 for the group that started last fall. However, the median LSAT score has declined from 155 for the class that entered in 2009 to 152 last year.

Young said she is “unaware that any faculty member has ever argued that the law school should lower its admissions standards.”

Those comments mirrored observations of numerous other professors who refused to speak on the record. Several professors said they are unwilling to comment publicly because they fear they will be targeted for a layoff.

“Given the arbitrary management that has occurred over the past year and a half, I am afraid to go on the record because of retaliation and possible firing,” one professor said, echoing several others.

Faculty members say the closest any of them came to discussing decreased standards was a suggestion that the school look to its wait list to fill open seats, something they said is routine at other institutions when seats become available. But the faculty members deny suggesting that the school lower its standards to admit students who, in more prosperous times, would have been rejected.

“At a time when we’ve been told for a year that there is a fiscal crisis because of enrollment, it doesn’t make sense to leave great candidates on a wait list,” said one faculty member in an interview. “It is not that they are the rejects. People on the wait list often have stellar credentials.”

Andrews, president and dean of Albany Law School, said in an emailed response to questions from the Law Journal that the institution is committed to raising, not lowering, the bar.

“Smaller enrollments are a key component of our strategic shift,” Andrews said. “We are competing for a smaller pool of qualified applicants, and we are realistic about what that means. We will not compromise our standards simply to enroll more students.”

The hostility between at least one segment of the faculty and the administration is rooted in the fact that Albany, like most law schools, is weathering a period of declining enrollment and struggling to figure out how to retool for what could be a permanent downturn in applications and admissions.

Buyouts Offered

Some faculty and the administration have been at odds for months over the future of the 163-year-old school, how it will adapt to the changing paradigm of legal education and how the institution will “right size.” The prospect of faculty layoffs has been, and apparently remains, on the table.

On Monday, the school offered a buy out to up to eight tenured and long-term contractual professors, offering them two years of pay in a lump sum.

Professors say that if eight take the buyout and three staff members follow through with planned retirements, the faculty for the next academic year will be down roughly 50 percent from what it was four years earlier. Since 2010, the student body has decreased 22 percent. There are currently 45 full-time and 41 part-time members of the faculty and 591 students, according to the school.

“The Board of Trustees and I have determined that we need to decrease costs,” Andrews said in her email. “Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve a cost-savings solution absent fewer personnel. We have offered generous buyouts—generous by anyone’s standards—and we are now waiting for volunteers.”

In its memo to the faculty, the Board of Trustees said it is working on a plan “to deal with sizeable projected operating deficits,” resulting from a “shrinking applicant pool, fewer employment opportunities for our graduates and increasing pressure” to provide tuition discounts.

“We continue to be concerned, based on overwhelming evidence, that these trends will be long lasting,” according to the memo circulated by board chairman Daniel Nolan. “The challenges are serious and the Board believes that in the exercise of prudent financial responsibility, changes must be made.”

Andrews, in her email, noted that in December, Standard & Poor’s issued a report on the credit worthiness of the five independent law schools it rates, including Albany. “Four of them have negative ratings,” Andrews said. “Only Albany Law School is rated as stable. We are taking proactive steps to avoid falling into the debt-ridden trap that has caught most other law schools.”

But the AAUP, in posts on its web site, and local members, question whether the school is on the brink of financial strife and whether it needs to reduce its workforce through layoffs and buyouts, or if it can deal with the issue gradually through normal attrition.

They also suggests that through layoffs, and the threat of layoffs, the administration could essentially reduce tenured faculty to the status of at-will employees. Professors express concerns over academic freedom if tenure protections are decimated.

“The law school, through the dean and the board, are using a manufactured financial crisis to target and get rid of tenure, not tenured faculty, but the institution of tenure,” a professor said in an interview. “The way they have done that is using the drop in enrollment to essentially justify firing tenured faculty members and other people with long term contracts. Over the last 18 months, the atmosphere is you can’t say or do anything because you might be the person targeted or fired.”

“We cannot disagree that we need to do long term planning,” a professor said in an interview. “We do disagree with the strong-arm, sledge-hammer tactics that are being used to manipulate an economic challenge for another agenda.”

Those tactics include what the professors characterize as a unilateral decision by the administration to effect a “head count reduction” without prior discussion with the faculty or the AAUP.

“The financial crisis that the Board mentions is really a crisis in management,” a professor said in an email. “We have a new, inexperienced dean and a new, very smug and arrogant executive committee of the board. Together, they have created an environment of low morale, fear and distrust.”

Andrews acknowledged the situation “is trying for everyone involved” and defended the board, which she said “consists of a group of professionals dedicated to Albany Law who love the school and are committed to its success.”

Nolan, the board chairman, did not respond to telephone inquiries.

Meanwhile, about 25 faculty members signed a complaint to the ABA and professors reached out to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS).

In a Jan. 13 letter to the AALS, the faculty said that “never before, in the memory of our senior faculty, has trust been at such a low point and have relationships between the faculty and the dean and between the faculty and the Board of Trustees been so impaired.” The letter was provided to the Law Journal without the names of the signatories.

Andrews, who became the school’s 17th dean less than two years ago, said her job and the board’s is to usher the law school into its next chapter.

“We are entering a renewed phase for law schools, and it behooves us to meet the challenges and to take advantage of the many opportunities,” she said. “As leaders of the school, it is our responsibility to serve the best interests of our students, and that is what we are doing.”