Optimism for FAMU law school fades amid problems

Many law students wonder if the school can rally in time to earn full ABA accreditation.

Published August 22, 2007

Last summer, Vilma Martinez walked into the Florida A&M University law school with hundreds of other first-year students and began to dream.

It was the first day of orientation, and Martinez was struck by the diversity of faces. Optimism coursed through the new, $30-million building on the edge of downtown Orlando.

She thought: This place will make America better.

"You feel that going in," said Martinez, a Tampa native with Cuban roots. "You become one of the faithful."

But the good vibes didn't last.

Echoing more than a dozen students who talked with the St. Petersburg Times in the past two months, Martinez said she became disillusioned as problems like late financial aid checks and insufficient academic support and career counseling festered. Instead of addressing student and faculty concerns, administrators put up a wall of silence, she said.

Meanwhile, many students wonder whether the law school, established with more the $40-million in taxpayer dollars, can rally in time to win full accreditation from the American Bar Association. Without the ABA's seal of approval, a law degree would mean little and the school's viability would be in question, because students could not take the bar exam.

A few weeks ago, Martinez concluded the uncertainty was too much. Monday, she began classes at Stetson law school in Gulfport near St. Petersburg.

"I'm heartbroken," she said. But staying at FAMU "is like staying in a dysfunctional family. At some point, you have to have tough love and cut your losses."

Accreditation fears

As fall classes resume in Orlando, and as an ABA site visit looms, the future of FAMU's 5-year-old law school has never been more in doubt.

Some of the about 530 students are frustrated at least two are consulting attorneys because of grade disputes and other concerns. Faculty members are growing restless (one resigned last week). And two years after the school's first dean was fired in connection with a ghost-employee scandal, it still lacks a permanent leader.

Meanwhile, ABA officials are scheduled to visit in October to consider FAMU's bid for full accreditation. Enrollment figures for the semester that began Monday are not yet available, FAMU officials said this week. But students like Martinez aren't willing to wait and hope for the best. Some are leaving, and many others have considered it.

"I wanted to stay," said Torrie Orton, who decided to transfer to the University of Missouri. But "I felt like my degree was jeopardized because of the inner workings of Florida A&M."

The state of affairs marks a dramatic reversal from the hopes expressed in 2000, when lawmakers voted to re-establish FAMU's law college.

Their decision was a politically charged attempt to right a past wrong against the state's only historically black public college, which lost its law school in 1968. Soon after, neighboring Florida State University opened its new college of law, heightening FAMU supporters' long-running fears about being shut down or folded into FSU.

After lawmakers voted to re-open the law school, then-Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan invoked the civil rights era: "It's a law school at least, it's a law school at last. Thank God Almighty, it's a law school at last."

Indeed, lawmakers hoped new law schools at FAMU and at primarily Hispanic Florida International University would produce more minority attorneys.

FIU is already fully accredited and on the bar exam early this year had the highest passage rate in the state, 94.4 percent. FAMU, meanwhile, has the lowest bar passage rate, with a little more than half of the students passing. The national pass rate in 2006 for first-time test takers was 79 percent, according to the ABA.

To be fully accredited, a law school must "maintain an educational program that prepares students for admission to the bar," according to ABA standards.

'A critical time'

Neither interim law dean Ruth Witherspoon nor FAMU spokeswoman LaNedra Carroll responded to requests for comment last week. But FAMU officials are clearly counting on the man who's likely to be the new dean, LeRoy Pernell.

"This is such an important appointment at a critical time in our law school's development," FAMU president James Ammons said in a written statement two weeks ago. "This choice represents the desire to skillfully chart a path for our student body and navigate our efforts to seek full accreditation."

Pernell, now law dean at Northern Illinois University, recently accepted FAMU's offer. But his hiring is contingent on approval from the FAMU Board of Trustees, which doesn't meet until Sept. 13. And Pernell isn't expected to start until the end of the year, if not early next year.

Said one FAMU law professor: "January will be too late."

The law school is in its third year of provisional accreditation, and under ABA guidelines FAMU has five years to win full accreditation. Nancy Slonim of the ABA said FAMU's first chance to apply for full accreditation will come at the end of this academic year.

Students and professors say they have seen little evidence that FAMU is seriously addressing ABA concerns, including faculty quality and low bar passage rates. Instead, they say, the college is marred by administrative blunders and faculty infighting. Several professors described fierce battles over tenure and promotion.

One junior faculty member, professor James Smith, resigned last week to take a job as a criminal defense attorney in Tampa.

Smith said he left for "professional, personal and financial reasons." He declined to be more specific.

But students said the departure of a popular, highly regarded professor should send red flags to FAMU administrators and to supporters outside the law school.

Smith is a graduate of Duke law school and left his position as a senior prosecutor with the U.S. Army to join FAMU.

"It's just indicative of the situation at the school," student Robert Grimaldi said in an e-mail. "Faculty members are apparently being treated poorly by the administration. ... I am disappointed he would leave, but I can't blame him either."

Feeling ignored

Turmoil is not what students expected when they enrolled.

Several told the Times they remain grateful that FAMU accepted them when, because of low GPAs or standardized test scores, other law schools would not. Besides being racially diverse -- roughly half the students are black, and 1 in 5 is Hispanic -- FAMU has many older, nontraditional students. Many are married. Some have children. Some commute from Tampa and Lakeland.

"I'm not a student Harvard would have considered for admission, or UF, or FSU," said Martinez, 37, who worked as a paralegal for four years before deciding on a law career. "FAMU gave me an opportunity."

But she and other students said once they arrived, the college offered little academic support. Martinez said she was mailed the name of her academic adviser and given contact information to set up an appointment. But the adviser never responded to an e-mail, she said.

The ABA requires that an accredited college provide "basic student services, including academic advising and counseling, financial aid counseling, and an active career counseling service."

Last spring, a number of students told the Times that Witherspoon never responded to their written complaints about legal writing professor Victoria Dawson, criticizing her teaching style and writing ability.

The caliber of faculty also is a key accreditation factor, according to the ABA.

In June, student Paula Post sent several e-mails to Witherspoon, wanting to know why grades for one of her classes had not been posted, and why her grade in that class was changed from an A- to a B+. Again, she said, Witherspoon did not respond.

This month, Post transferred to Florida Coastal law school in Jacksonville.

She said she wrestled with the decision for a week, at first deciding to stay at FAMU. But when she called a FAMU law staffer to announce what she thought would be welcome news, the staffer's response shocked her.

"Paula, don't," the woman said, according to Post. "Things are getting bad here."

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

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