FAMU leaders promise changes

The president and incoming law dean meet two hours with worried students.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

ORLANDO - Florida A&M University president James Ammons and the dean-to-be of the beleaguered law school met with students Thursday, promising better communication, a better response to festering problems and better days ahead.

"You're going to see changes, and they're going to be positive changes," Ammons told them after the pending dean, LeRoy Pernell, answered questions in front of 60 students for nearly two hours.

Ammons and Pernell also sought to allay concerns that the law school might not get American Bar Association approval for full accreditation.

"There are some unacceptable things that have happened here, and that will change," said Pernell. He's now dean at Northern Illinois University but is slated to take the top spot at FAMU in January. "I would not come to this school after 30 years in legal education if I did not believe in this school."

Clock is ticking

Thursday's high-profile visit, during the first week of the fall semester, comes after law students complained for months about what they call administrative blunders on everything from financial aid to academic support. With the clock ticking on the law school's accreditation status, students and faculty members also have raised concerns about whether the school's problems can be fixed fast enough.

As the St. Petersburg Times chronicled in a story Wednesday, some students grew frustrated enough to transfer to other law schools in recent months. Many others considered it. Some pointed to the recent departure of a popular professor, James Smith, as an ominous sign that the faculty may be reaching a breaking point, too.

"We lost him not because of a decision he wanted to make, but a decision he was forced to make," one of his former students, Yolanda Bruce, told Ammons Thursday, her voice cracking with emotion. "He's not alone."

"I'm a FAMU Rattler through and through," said law student Ashley Ridgeway, who also attended FAMU as an undergraduate.

"But at this point, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

"As students, we don't want to keep talking about the problems," she continued. "We have told you. We want resolution."

With that, the room erupted with applause.

Also at the meeting was an attorney who said he represents some of the two dozen or so students who were recently dismissed for academic reasons but feel they were not give the opportunity to appeal.

High hopes in 2002

Established with more than $40-million in taxpayer money, the law school opened its doors in 2002 with high hopes of enhancing FAMU's academic reputation and creating a pipeline for black lawyers in Florida. But those hopes will be dashed if the school does not get the ABA stamp of approval. Without ABA accreditation, students can't take the bar, a must to practice law.

The school is in its third year of provisional accreditation, an ABA category that gives it five years to win full accreditation. Some students and faculty members fear that with a critical ABA visit slated for October, the school still hasn't done enough to meet the association's concerns on a host of issues, including faculty quality and low bar passage rates.

FAMU's average LSAT scores are 10 points below the state average of 154, and it has the lowest passage rate of any law school in the state, with a little more than half of its student passing. The national pass rate is nearly 80 percent.

Revolving door

Some observers say the law school has been hamstrung by problems on the main campus in Tallahassee, including a revolving door of key administrators. They also say it has leadership issues of its own, with the school's first and only permanent dean fired two years ago, and two interim deans since.

Earlier this month, Ammons announced Pernell had accepted an offer to become dean, pending approval by FAMU trustees. On Thursday, he said Pernell will serve as a consultant to FAMU until he assumes the office full time.

When the ABA visits in October, "I'll be here," Pernell said. "I've told folks at Northern Illinois, jokingly, that I'm glad my chair swivels."

Center of attention

Pernell was the center of attention Thursday, standing before a nearly full classroom and listening patiently as students raised their concerns - both respectfully and passionately.

The first student who spoke said the recent "mass exodus" of top students could have been avoided. "Why didn't the administration reach out to them?" he asked. "They would have considered staying or stayed."

Pernell said he couldn't answer that. But over and over, he promised a different approach.

"Some (issues) can be fixed easier than others ... but they can all be addressed," he said. "You will never not have a chance to raise those issues directly with me."

Both he and Ammons also said, several times, that it's not unusual for law school students with high grades to transfer to higher-tier law schools.

"I'm not denying some students left because of problems," Ammons said after the meeting. "We're going to work on that end. We're going to take that one off the table."

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com