The University of North Texas Dallas College of Law this summer will welcome Felecia Epps as the new leader at a critical time for the law school as it seeks full accreditation.
After a national search that drew applications from 30 aspiring deans, Epps will take over from founding dean Royal Furgeson, who is retiring as dean but continuing to work in a development role to keep advancing the law school.
Epps said she’s honored at her appointment and excited to start working, noting that North Texas’s accreditation will be her major, primary focus.
“I know already: The bar pass rate is an issue we will be working on,” she said. “Our goal, or course, we want a 100 percent pass rate–it can be an ultimate goal–but we want to at least put it up to that 75 percent.”
UNT Dallas Provost Betty Stewart said in a statement, “Her commitment to academic innovation and community-connectedness resonates with our university mission of empowering students, transforming lives and strengthening the community.”
According to her profile on Florida A&M’s website, Epps earned her law degree from Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1983. She became a commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving as a judge advocate for 10 years and leaving the service as a major in 1992. In 1999, Epps entered legal academia as a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. Most recently, Epps, who has focused her scholarship on social and criminal justice, was a professor and dean at Florida A&M University College of Law from January 2016 to May 2017.
Epps is still a tenured professor at Florida A&M, however, the university removed her as dean last May, simultaneously removing the deans of its journalism, pharmaceutical and education programs, according to law.com. University officials didn’t disclose why they removed her from the job she held only 16 months. Around the time that the university removed her as dean, the law school did suffer from poor bar passage rates: a 46 percent pass rate on the February 2017 bar exam, and a 53 percent pass rate on the July 2016 exam. Before Epps was dean, Florida A&M had already been struggling with its bar pass rate the previous nine to 10 years. Epps had said previously that the law school convened a special work group and was taking “aggressive steps to improve our bar passage rate and turn things around.”
Epps said her removal had nothing to do with the school’s bar pass rate. She was making plans to improve it, but didn’t have time to implement her changes. The university was undergoing leadership changes from the board of trustees down to the president and provost. The leaders who hired Epps transitioned out, and shortly afterwards, the new leadership told her they had “decided to go another direction.”
“In terms of any kinds of issues with my performance, anything specific they said I was doing wrong—there was nothing,” Epps said. “I take them at their words: they decided to take it another direction.”
The major focus for Epps will be keeping North Texas on track to win full accreditation from the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The school won provisional accreditation last summer, and now has three to five years to earn full accreditation—but it must boost its bar pass rate.
“Our real emphasis right now is getting the final ABA accreditation, and she is just almost a perfect fit for that,” Furgeson said. “She has the understanding of the ABA process and the connections with the ABA accreditors that will really serve us a good stead.”
For the July 2017 test, North Texas grads had a 59 percent pass rate, the lowest among Texas law schools. Furgeson said the school has put a lot of staff and effort into beefing up its academic support program, hoping to boost its bar pass rate. A status update will come next month when the February 2018 bar exam results come out.
Epps said she was attracted to work at North Texas because it’s already been implementing steps to improve its bar pass rates, including requiring students to take multiple assessments through the school year rather than just one final exam. She’s confident the school will meet the ABA’s accreditation standard.
For accreditation, a law school must either have at least 75 percent of graduates from the five most recent calendar years pass a bar exam, or a 75 percent pass rate for at least three of those five years.
It was a long, hard slog for the law school to win provisional accreditation. The ABA’s accreditation committee in July 2016 recommended against accreditation and raised concerns with the North Texas students’ low LSAT scores, and the school’s finances. The law school worked to address the committee’s concerns by tightening its admission standards, which raised its LSAT scores and scrutinizing its finances. The committee approved in April 2017, and the education section granted provisional accreditation a couple of months later.
North Texas’s law school was founded in 2013, with a mission to diversify the legal profession. PreLaw Magazine has recognized the school as being the third most diverse law school in the country.
Furgeson said the first question for Epps was whether she supported the school’s mission to keep tuition affordable, open access to diverse students and innovate academically.
“Her answer to all of it was 100 percent—I want to be part of a law school that has those objectives,” he said.
Epps said she wanted to be North Texas’s dean because of its mission to make a legal education available to students who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity. Florida A&M, a historically black college or university, had a similar mission. Likewise, North Texas won’t be searching for high-credential students just to boost its own rankings.
“We’re interested in diversifying the legal profession,” she said.
Epps’ appointment as dean helps to diversify the ranks of law deans in Texas. She becomes the second current female dean, along with Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law Dean Jennifer Collins. She becomes the third current African-American dean, along with University of Houston Law Center Dean Leonard Baynes and Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law Interim Dean Gary Bledsoe.
Epps said that she’s made similar strides throughout her career. She was among the very few black women Marine officers, for example.
“I’m in favor of diversity in all its aspects,” she said. “It’s got to be a good thing.”
Angela Morris is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @AMorrisReports