Yes, it is true. As the recent story in the Atlantic by Paul Campos accurately reports, I was the dean candidate who was asked to leave Florida Coastal School of Law by school President Dennis Stone in the middle of my presentation to the faculty. Since the story came out, I’ve been contacted by many law faculty members wanting to know the whole story. I’ve also seen a fair amount of uninformed speculation on the topic floating around the blogosphere. So, I have decided to write about what happened in the hopes that I can put all the speculation to rest and move on.
Let me start by saying that just because I appear in Paul Campos’ article does not mean that I endorse Paul Campos’ point of view about Florida Coastal School of Law, InfiLaw, for-profit law schools, or the “law school scam” theory in general. I believe Paul raises a lot of serious and important issues, and makes several valid points, but the views expressed in the article are his, not mine. Dan Filler has graciously offered me the opportunity to expand on my own views on legal education here at The Faculty Lounge, and I will do so in future posts. (And thank you for the kind introduction, Dan.)
I also want to make it clear at the outset that I do not agree with the view expressed by some commentators that Florida Coastal School of Law, Charlotte Law, or Arizona Summit School of Law are “diploma mills.” I believe that each of these schools provides a solid legal education, on par with many of their peer schools. The truth is that the faculty hiring market has become so competitive that all three of these schools have been able to hire many highly qualified and distinguished lawyers and scholars as faculty members. I have friends on the faculty of all three schools whom I know to be fine teachers and scholars who would be a credit to any law school faculty in the country. I have seen no evidence that the educational program at InfiLaw is any less rigorous than the typical J.D. program. There is no question that all three InfiLaw schools have produced many fine attorneys, a substantial majority of whom passed the bar on the first attempt. My concern about InfiLaw has primarily to do with its admissions policies over the last four years. During this time, InfiLaw schools have admitted hundreds of students with extremely low LSAT scores and mediocre GPAs. This clearly appears to be an administrative policy as the admission numbers look very similar at all three of their schools. I do not believe that InfiLaw has any special insight that would enable them to identify students with extremely low LSAT scores who have much greater aptitude for the study of law than their test scores and GPAs would indicate. Nor do I believe that InfiLaw schools have any magic formula for getting students of marginal aptitude to outperform their indicators. InfiLaw schools are not notably better or worse or different than the many other unranked law schools around the country, aside from their for-profit status.
As to their for-profit status, I don’t believe there is an inherent, unresolvable conflict between for-profit education and quality education. Certainly, the pressure to generate profits can create a tension, but as long as the profit demands are not unreasonable or unrealistic under current market conditions, then the tension is manageable. A number of traditional colleges and universities have created law schools over the past several decades motivated at least in part by the hope that law school income would alleviate financial pressures in other programs. There is no reason why a law school providing a quality education shouldn’t be able to provide a reasonable return on investment both to its students and its owners. I was on the faculty at another for-profit law school, Western State University College of Law, (now part of Argosy University) and I believe we managed to provide a very good legal education. While I was there, the school earned full ABA accreditation, and I don’t believe the ABA simply gave us a pass. To the contrary, the inspection process was very rigorous and thorough. In fact, the ABA had previously revoked Western State’s provisional accreditation because of unacceptably low bar pass rates. The administration and the faculty instituted a rigorous and comprehensive program to improve the bar pass rate which resulted in highly competitive statistical success even with the demanding California bar standards. I don’t believe that the ABA accreditation process for any of the InfiLaw schools was a simple rubber stamp either. But if the ABA is not vigilant, a school can very easily backslide on the promises it has made regarding admissions during the accreditation process. Due to the three to four year delay from the time of admissions until bar results are reported, it can be quite a while before anyone from the ABA takes notice that something is amiss. I believe this is precisely what has happened at InfiLaw.
Despite my misgivings, I would not have interviewed for the Deanship at Florida Coastal School of Law if I didn’t believe that, with the right leadership, the school could provide a quality, good-value education and make a positive contribution to the Jacksonville community. The Chair of the Dean Search committee was MaryAnn Jones, my former Dean at Western State, whom I admire and respect. I considered her involvement in the process as a positive sign that InfiLaw was looking for a Dean who could help Florida Coastal get on a sustainable footing and improve the quality and reputation of the school. I was also impressed to find that InfiLaw had recently hired Kenneth Randall, the long-time Dean of the University of Alabama Law School, as the President of the InfiLaw consortium of law schools. I took this as another sign that InfiLaw was seriously committed to quality legal education.
My father, Arthur Frakt, had a lengthy career as a law professor and dean and my mother was also a law school teacher, so it was only natural that I have had a long term interest in both law teaching and administration. When I was informed that I was a finalist at FCSL, I was excited and took the opportunity quite seriously. I prepared very diligently, reading everything available on the school’s website, including all the mandatory ABA disclosures. I requested additional materials including the school’s most recent ABA self-study. The self-study referenced annual employee satisfaction surveys, and I requested copies of those as well.
As I reviewed the materials about FCSL, I became very concerned about the downward trend of the entrance credentials of their students. As everyone in legal academia knows, law school applications have been in a tailspin since 2010. This has required virtually every law school in the country, other than perhaps the top few schools, to make a choice: either lower the entrance credentials for admission or shrink the class, or some combination of the two. The problem of the shrinking applicant pool has been particularly acute for schools at the bottom of the law school hierarchy. These law schools have finely calibrated their admission policies to provide an opportunity for students of modest ability while still ensuring that the schools’ ultimate bar passage rate would still be at an acceptable level. Such law schools understood that they had little room to lower their admission standards if they were to comply in good faith with ABA Standard 501(b) “A law school shall not admit applicants who do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its educational program and being admitted to the bar.”
In addition to the self-serving concern about keeping their accreditation, I believe most law schools are deeply concerned about being fair to their applicants, and not admitting a student who is likely to fail law school or the bar after incurring significant debt. I believe most “opportunity” law schools strive to find an appropriate ethical balance between giving students a chance to pursue their dream of becoming an attorney and having sufficiently selective admission standards to ensure that those who matriculate have a legitimate chance of succeeding. As I looked at the entrance credentials for FCSL, I became convinced that the school was not striking the proper balance, and that the admission standards had become too lax. One statistic that particularly struck me is that FCSL had continued to grow the entering class even after applications started to drop off. For example, in 2010, FCSL enrolled an entering class of 755 (!) students, up 33 from the year before, while their entering LSAT scores dropped across the board at the 75th, 50th and 25th percentiles. This suggested to me that growth (i.e. profits) was driving admission strategies. Not surprisingly, the bar results for the summer of 2013, when most of those who entered in the fall of 2010 sat for the test, dropped significantly, falling below 70% for the first time in several years, to 67%. This rate was 10% below the state average and 12% below the average for Florida schools.
Unfortunately, in each of the next three years, Florida Coastal further dropped its admission standards to the point that the entering class of 2013 had perhaps unprecedentedly low scores. According to Florida Coastal’s mandatory ABA disclosures, the LSAT breakdown of their 2013 entering class was as follows: 148/144/141 25%/50%/75%. To place these scores in context, a 148 is at the 36th percentile of test takers. A 144 is at the 23rd percentile and a 141 is at the 15th percentile. Shockingly, Florida Coastal actually admitted and matriculated several students with scores in the 130s. When I visited FCSL in the spring, they were projecting that the fall 2014 entering class would have similar credentials.
In my presentation, I compared Florida Coastal’s LSAT numbers to several peer schools in the region. While all of these schools had lowered their admission standards slightly in response to the decrease in applications, none of them had dropped their standards nearly as dramatically as Florida Coastal. I noted that none of these schools were taking significant numbers of students with LSATs at 144 and below.
I fully understand the limitations of LSAT scores as predictors of ultimate success. That being said, LSAT scores are the best predictors available, especially when combined with UGPA, and are relied upon heavily by virtually every law school admissions office in the country. While applicants with modest test scores often excel both in law school and in practice, there is a point below which the lack of aptitude for legal studies and legal reasoning are highly predictive of failure. Individuals with very low scores are well advised to consider careers better suited to their abilities and talents. I believe in the “whole person” concept and think it is perfectly fine to admit some exceptional applicants with less than stellar test scores. But while it may be reasonable to admit a few students with low LSAT scores who have other qualities that suggest a likelihood of success, such as cultural or language barriers or other personal challenges that have been overcome, it is a legitimate cause for concern when a school admits hundreds of students with extremely low entrance credentials.
I have spent several years studying the correlation between LSAT scores, undergraduate grades, and law school success and bar passage. Of course there are exceptional individuals who outperform their predictors, just as there are those who underperform their predictors. And, certainly, law schools have an obligation to take somewhat greater risks with students who belong to underrepresented communities. Based on my experience teaching at a wide range of schools, and my study of LSAC publications and other scholarship in the area, I have determined the following rough breakdown of LSAT scores in relation to chances of success in law school and on the bar:
156+ High Aptitude/Minimal Risk
153-5 Solid Aptitude/Low Risk
150-152 (44-52%) Reasonable Aptitude/Modest Risk
147-149 (33-40%) Modest Aptitude/High Risk
145-146 (26-30%) Marginal Aptitude/Very High Risk
144 and below (>23%) Poor Aptitude/Extreme Risk
I presented this table at Florida Coastal during my discussion with the faculty. I explained that, according to my interpretation of LSAT scores, this placed over half of the students in the 2013 entering class at FCSL in the “extreme risk” of failure category. Even the top quartile of students were, in my view, at high risk of failure. In my talk, I suggested that it was unfair, ethically questionable, and a potential violation of ABA standards to admit students with such poor aptitude for the study of law. Furthermore, a policy that resulted in the matriculation of a class made up almost entirely of high to extremely high risk students was a recipe for disaster for the school’s bar passage rates. Another concern that I raised was that the mandatory grading curve put in place when the entering classes had much stronger credentials might be unsuitable for students with far lower predictors, and might have the unintended effect of forcing grade inflation. Based upon long-standing ABA accreditation practices, I predicted that to continue the current admission practices, exacerbated by substantial transfer attrition from the top of the class, would lead to bar passage rates that might result in being placed on probation by the ABA. I further predicted that if FCSL were placed on probation, many students in good standing would seek to transfer and applications from qualified prospective students would decline very rapidly, resulting in further significant faculty reductions, and raising questions about institutional viability.
Although the focus of my presentation was on admissions and its potential effect on the bar passage rate, I also identified several other problems at FCSL in my talk, including downward trends in the number of applications, post-graduate employment rates, transfer attrition and employee job satisfaction and morale. Through my comments and visual aids, I sought to demonstrate that the school faced a severe crisis and needed to rapidly change course. I emphasized that these problems, though severe, were not insurmountable. I intended to explain how my experience, particularly at Western State, would help me lead the faculty to reverse these negative trends and put the school on a path to sustainable success, but unfortunately I was denied that opportunity.
I will not speculate on the reasons that President Stone demanded that I end my presentation and leave the campus. Suffice it to say that I did not say anything that should have been offensive or insulting to any member of the faculty, nor did I say or do anything that warranted my expulsion from the campus. I would have no objection to FCSL releasing the video recording of my presentation so that any interested party could judge for themselves, but it seems unlikely that this will happen. Although President Stone apparently concluded that I was not a good fit for the position, I am hopeful that my aborted presentation, and the recent Atlantic article and the conversation it has generated, will lead FCSL and their sister InfiLaw schools to closely evaluate their admission practices.