The American Bar Association is pulling no punches in its fight over Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s tenuous accreditation status.
The ABA’s newly filed motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit brought by the Michigan-based law school highlights a series of problems at the school, from falling Law School Admission Test scores among the students it enrolls to plummeting bar pass rates among its graduates.
“The record amply demonstrates that Cooley has done just that, admitting many students who do not appear capable of graduating and being admitted to the bar, implicating the [ABA standards’] purpose to protect students from investing in an education that does not deliver,” reads the motion, filed Jan. 8.
Cooley filed the lawsuit in November after the ABA’s accrediting body determined that it was out of compliance with rules pertaining to the admission of students and posted a letter detailing that decision on its website. (The school remains fully accredited for now.) Cooley sued, arguing that those identified shortcomings should not have been publicly disclosed because the ABA accrediting body, the Council of the Section of Legal Education, has not reached a final decision on the matter. Doing so violated common law due process, the school claimed. Disclosing the letter on its website prior to a final decision harms the school’s reputation in the thick of the current admissions cycle, according to the law school.
Cooley lost the first round of litigation in December when Judge Arthur Tarnow of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declined to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the ABA from posting the non-compliance letter. Tarnow reasoned that filing the lawsuit drew more attention to the school’s shortcomings than the ABA action had.
Now, the ABA wants the suit dismissed. It argues that the council had “substantial evidence” that Cooley was violating its admission rules and its decision was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. Moreover, the Higher Education Act requires the ABA to publish the Council’s letter detailing its findings, the motion reads.
Cooley General Counsel James Robb said in an email Tuesday that the school will respond to the motion for summary judgment and that the ABA’s admission standard is unlawfully vague. The ABA does not define which students “appear capable” of graduating and passing the bar, Robb said, and added that the school’s most recent full accreditation review found it to be in compliance with the rule.
“This leaves the law school to guess what it must do to comply with [the admissions standard],” Robb said. “The ABA’s approach is akin to ticketing the driver of a car for speeding when no speed limit is posted.”
Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, declined to comment Tuesday saying the organization does not weigh in on pending litigation.
The ABA’s motion for summary judgment recounts some of the factors that prompted its conclusion that Cooley was out of compliance with rules meant to ensure that law schools admit students who are likely to succeed on campus and pass the bar exam. Among them:
- Cooley’s first-time bar pass rate dropped from 76 percent to 48 percent over a seven-year period and hovered between 15 and 22 percent below the state average from 2012 to 2015.
- Many of the school’s students with low LSAT scores and grade-point averages were not even sitting for the bar.
- The percentage of students coming to Cooley with LSAT scores of 143 or lower more than doubled over six years, accounting for more than half of the class.
The ABA has requested more data from the law school by Feb. 1. If that information does not establish that the school is in compliance with admissions rules, administrators must appear before the accreditation committee later this year and the school may be formally sanctioned. The ABA has stepped up its oversight of law schools in the past two years, partly in response to criticism from the U.S. Department of Education that it had been too lax. The ABA has taken action against 10 different schools since 2016, with North Carolina Central University School of Law this month becoming to latest to be put on notice that it is out of compliance with admissions rules.
The ABA’s intense scrutiny comes at an inopportune time for Cooley. The school, which operates three campuses in Michigan and one in Florida, hopes to open a fifth location in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Western Michigan University is located. Cooley is a private, for-profit school, but it affiliated with the public university in 2014 and changed its name from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
But the ABA has halted opening the new branch campus until it is satisfied that the law school is operating within its standards.