Tensions run through FAMU law faculty

As the law school strives for accreditation, signs of problems continue to surface.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 10, 2007

Last fall, with tensions running high at the Florida A&M University law school, a professional facilitator asked faculty what they must do to move the law school toward accreditation.

At the top of their list:

Stop unequal treatment.

Stop thinking the law school is going to fail.

Stop gossiping.

The response makes it clear that problems at the beleaguered law school, established in Orlando with more than $40-million in taxpayer money, go beyond poor bar passage rates and the departure of top-flight students.

Some faculty members have left. Others are rumored to be shopping their resumes. And at least a couple of highly regarded professors at other universities declined FAMU offers to join.

"I have never had a more traumatic and disheartening experience," writes former FAMU law professor Dale Rubin on a blog he started in August, referring to his term as a visiting professor at FAMU two years ago. Rubin cited late paychecks, phantom employees and "whimsical decrees by top administration officials."

Other sources close to the school say a key problem is faculty evaluation. In particular, they point to what they say are personally motivated decisions by the faculty committee that play a central role in retention, promotion and tenure.

In an interview this week, incoming Dean LeRoy Pernell, who'll be on campus full time in January, said he's not sure yet how deep the problems run or what exactly they're rooted in.

But the timing, he said, "makes it even more important that they be resolved and resolved now."

The law school is past the midpoint in a five-year process to gain full accreditation from the American Bar Association, a stamp of approval that is vital for the school's survival. The ABA's accreditation review team visited two weeks ago and is expected to issue an interim progress report in coming months.

Faculty members have been reluctant to talk to the media - some for fear of putting the school in a bad light, some because they fear retaliation. But plenty of clues suggest a strained atmosphere, with professors and administrators butting heads even as precious time has been running out on the ABA clock.

In August, popular professor James Smith abruptly resigned. A former Army prosecutor who earned his bachelor's degree from historically black Hampton University and his law degree from Duke, Smith declined to comment.

But students said his departure was the result of poor treatment by FAMU administrators.

Over the summer, another red flag went up when Tulane professor Robert Westley backed away from FAMU.

Westley, who earned his law degree from Berkeley, was close enough to being hired as a visiting professor that he was listed in FAMU's fall class schedule. He also declined to comment.

Two other professors who left in recent years also declined to comment in detail, as did Sandra Jordan, a former assistant U.S. attorney who interviewed at FAMU in 2005.

"I realize FAMU has had some problems," said Fred Jonassen, now at Barry University. "I'd just rather leave it at that."

"I don't think it'd be effective to get into the fray," said Dennis Greene, now at the University of Dayton.

Debi Rumph, an assistant law professor who left FAMU in 2005, said faculty infighting went "round and round" - in part because there didn't seem to be a mechanism in place for resolving conflict, and in part because leadership on the main campus in Tallahassee was too far away.

"Any type of academic setting is going be very political," Rumph said. "You have a runaway train if the leadership doesn't understand how a law school operates or isn't diligently leading."

"I miss the students. I love teaching," added Rumph, now in private practice. "But I don't miss the bureaucracy and the problems and the issues and the other stuff."

At last fall's faculty retreat, the fault lines ran between junior and senior faculty, said Wilhelmina Tribble, the professional facilitator who led efforts there. Through a public records request, the St. Petersburg Times obtained a three-page report Tribble compiled after the retreat and e-mailed to 30 professors and administrators.

These are the issues "you identified that could keep you from succeeding as a faculty and a law school," she wrote in an e-mail accompanying the report. "Working on the things you want to stop, start and continue doing in order to acquire accreditation requires a lot of patience, and in some cases, great effort and personal commitment."

Faculty members identified "unequal treatment" as a top issue. They listed a need for straightforward guidelines on retention, promotion and tenure as well as a need to "apply existing rules fairly and consistently."

Pernell said a review is in order.

"I have no indication that the promotion and tenure process is broken in any way," he said. "I do know that it needs to be reviewed and better communicated and improved, if necessary."

Many faculty members left the retreat "seeing on the same page," Tribble said - an assessment that other law school observers disputed. Regardless, she said, even some of those who found the retreat helpful told her things began to unravel again once they returned to the law school.

"Are they all right now? I don't know," said Tribble, who conducts diversity training for incoming students at the school and stays in contact with people there. "I suspect they have gone back a little bit to where they were before."

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