Over the last 36 hours, Dean Jay Conison has informed the majority of the Charlotte Law School Faculty, perhaps two-thirds or more, that they are being fired. Yesterday, Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell sent an e-mail to students informing them that negotiations with Charlotte School of Law had fallen through. Charlotte had repeatedly informed students that an agreement in principle had been reached and a final deal with the DOE was imminent. Mitchell's e-mail confirmed that an agreement had been reached but informed the students:
Since reaching that agreement with CSL, the department has been working to memorialize the agreement in writing while encouraging CSL to be fully transparent about student options under the agreement. . . CSL, however, has since rejected what it had previously accepted and has informed the department that it will not be accepting the conditions set.
Today Dean Conison sent an extraordinary announcement to the students attempting to explain why the long-awaited deal with the Department of Education had fallen through. Dean Conison directly contradicted the DOE's characterization of the events in an e-mail reproduced here in full:
From: Jay Conison
Date: January 19, 2017 at 11:53:20 AM EST
Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni of the Charlotte School of Law:
In the face of an extraordinary message from the political leadership of the Department of Education, we are writing to assure our students that the School will be open for classes this Monday, January 23 for the start of the Spring 2017 semester. We are continuing to work aggressively to protect our students’ rights. As we said in our earlier statement, we are not holding our students’ education hostage to these negotiations.
As you know, on December 19, 2016, the Department of Education decided to abruptly, and without proper cause, justification or the barest semblance of due process, end the Charlotte School of Law’s participation in the Title IV student aid programs. We believe that the Department’s action, specifically substituting its judgment for that of the American Bar Association, which continues to accredit the School, is contrary to federal law and the Department’s own regulations.
Since December 19, we have been working to protect the interest of our students. In particular, we have been negotiating with the Department to secure the payment of federal loan funds already awarded to many of our students for their education and find a path forward that affords protection and flexibility to all of our students affected by the Department’s reckless action.
Until now, we have avoided public discussion of the details of those negotiations in the hope of facilitating an agreement. However, the extraordinary statement that the Department sent directly to our students yesterday no longer makes that possible.
Perhaps the Department’s message represents the understanding of some Department officials. However, it does not accurately describe our negotiations, and it does not convey the way in which the Department’s position would deprive our students of the ability to continue their legal education.
Students who received a Fall 2016 Direct Loan disbursement and are entitled to a second disbursement this Spring will be credited with the anticipated loan proceeds for their tuition and fees. We intend to vigorously pursue our students’ rights to receive their additional loan disbursements with the new leadership of the Department and to ensure all of our students have the opportunity to complete their program.
It is very important to correct several points in the Department’s statement that grossly mischaracterize our negotiations. We must also explain the potential impact of the Department’s planned actions on students of the Charlotte School of Law.
The bottom line for the current leadership in the Department is that the School must immediately close. Students graduating in May would receive their Charlotte School of Law J.D. However, every other student would find himself or herself out of school at the end of May.
3Ls scheduled to graduate in August or December and 2Ls with one year to the completion of their programs would face very, very limited options. The Department’s intended treatment of our students is not acceptable. The Department refers to a loan discharge as a benefit for these students, but getting a loan discharge does not give students back their two or three years of hard work. And students would have to give up their hard work since —and this is not mentioned in the Department’s statement—to obtain a discharge a student would have to agree not to use the credits earned at CSL to transfer to another school.
The Department claims that the School of Law accepted this plan, and then reneged. That is absolutely not true.
After intense discussions, we accepted a two–page plan provided by the Department’s Office of Federal Student Assistance. Thisplan called for the School to enter into a teach-out with another institution and subsequently “close.” That is typical for a teach-out. But it was only when we received a seven-page proposed agreement from a different unit of the Department that we learned—as we explained above—that the Department’s intention was to allow our students to be taught out only until May, 2017. After that, the teach-out would end, and with it the legal education of most of our students.
As soon as we understood the Department’s position, we vigorously objected. We told the Department personnel with whom we were negotiating that we would not agree to deny our students the opportunity to complete their program.
We also very clearly informed the Department that its proposed path would not be permitted by the North Carolina agency that licenses non-public institutions of higher education seeking to operate in the state. In fact, that agency has informed our local counsel in no uncertain terms that the form of teach-out the Department proposed, with Florida Coastal School of Law directly conducting post-secondary activity in North Carolina in place of the Charlotte School of Law, would not be allowed. The planned teach-out—regardless of duration—could take place only if we remained an active institution, delivering curriculum and awarding degrees under its license and in compliance with agency rules and standards under North Carolina law, albeit under the supervision of the teach-out school, Florida Coastal School of Law.
We repeatedly reminded Department officials of this critical state law requirement. But instead of respecting the authority of the State of North Carolina to oversee post-secondary education within its jurisdiction, and instead of accepting the plan that was originally put forward by its own Office of Federal Student Assistance, the current Department leadership insisted on pushing on with its goal of precipitously closing the Charlotte School of Law, without regard for the harm that would cause our students.
Throughout these negotiations, we have sought to ensure that our students would have the best opportunity to complete their program and earn a J.D. from the School. It is regrettable that the Department of Education leadership, in the very last days of its tenure, has chosen to jeopardize the future of all of our students.
We are very proud of our students. Our graduates pass the bar, get good jobs, serve their communities, help diversify the legal profession and repay their federal student loans. That is why we will be open for the Spring 2017 semester on Monday, and why are working to ensure that our students have the opportunity and the resources they need to continue and to complete their legal education. And that is why we will continue to fight aggressively for the interests of every one of our students when the new Administration takes responsibility for the Department on Monday, January 23rd.
President Chidi Ogene and Dean Jay Conison
In further developments, Charlotte has finally released a class schedule, which included a substantially pared-down list of course offerings. Dean Conison fired several clinical faculty members as well, so the clinical offerings have been reduced, and there is no plan in place to address the needs of the many clients that the now shuttered clinics were actively representing.
Dean Conison did not respond to a request from Law School Transparency to provide information about the number of students that he expects to register. Large numbers of students have reportedly transferred to other law schools, but many students who could have transferred chose to remain based on the repeated promises of Dean Conison and President Ogene that they were going to work something out which would enable them to receive federal loan disbursements for the spring. Many of these students now feel betrayed once again by the school.
Although Charlotte is preparing a teach-out plan to submit to the ABA, and appears on the brink of closure, sources within the school indicate that Infilaw has not yet given up on the school. Their current plan is to substantially cut costs and try to ride things out this semester, while appealing to the incoming Trump administration, which Infilaw expects to be more friendly to the for-profit education industry, to reinstate their eligibility for federal loans, since the school remains ABA-accredited. Meanwhile, the school, which has had four straight years of progressively more disastrous bar results (despite offering significant payments to weaker graduates to defer taking the bar), is bracing for their worst bar results yet this July, as the historically weak part-time entering class of 2013 and full-time entering class of 2014 prepare to graduate this summer. Incidentally, among those fired by the Dean in the last 36 hours are three of the school's bar coaches.
Last week, Charlotte Faculty held a vote of no-confidence in the leadership team of Dean Conison and President Ogene. Apparently, the students were not the only ones who were unaware of the trouble the school was in with the ABA. The Administration reportedly concealed the extent of the problems from the faculty, and did not seek timely faculty input in how to address the ABA's concerns.
As always, I will keep you posted on further developments as I become aware of them.