by Paul Bowers
In a recent survey, 96 percent of Charleston School of Law students said they do not support the impending sale of their school to Florida-based education company InfiLaw System. In the same survey, 82 percent of first-year law students and 52 percent of second-year law students said they would consider transferring to a different law school if the proposed sale were to go through.
Leaders at the privately owned law school have been in talks with InfiLaw since at least October 2012, but many students did not find out about the potential sale until news broke about a management services agreement with InfiLaw in July 2013. InfiLaw has come under fire from local law students and lawyers, despite the fact that its three existing law schools in Phoenix, Ariz., Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., report average tuition costs and bar passage rates similar to CSOL's (the enrollment numbers and student-to-faculty ratios, however, are higher at InfiLaw schools than at CSOL).
Leigh Ellen Gray, a current CSOL student and editor of the Charleston Law Review, conducted a student opinion survey via the online service SurveyMonkey for a two-week period ending Nov. 2. According to Gray, the survey was posted in class Facebook groups and e-mailed to students, and it used IP address restrictors to ensure that it was only accessible on the Charleston School of Law campus. The survey received 358 responses from current students and yielded the following results:
• 98 percent of respondents said they do not support the school's proposed sale to InfiLaw.
• 82 percent of 1L (first-year) respondents and 52 percent of 2L respondents said they will consider transferring to a different law school if the proposed sale is finalized.
• 94 percent of 3L and 4L students said that a completed sale to InfiLaw would affect their support of the school as alumni.
• 95 percent of respondents said they believe students should have a voice in discussions regarding ownership of the law school.
Daniel Cooper, president of the school's Student Bar Association, says he wasn't surprised by the results of the survey. "The concerns that people have are the reputation and the number of students at those [InfiLaw] schools," Cooper says. Charleston School of Law had 477 full-time students in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to 1,168 the InfiLaw-owned Charlotte School of Law.
As a statistical instrument, the survey isn't perfect. Online surveys can't be fully randomized, and at least one of the questions, directed at 1L and 2L students, could be considered a double-barreled question: "Are you considering transferring if the proposed sale to InfiLaw goes through?" In a response to Gray's survey, school co-founders Robert S. Carr and George C. Kosko criticized the survey's methods and wrote that they "have bent over backwards to consider other alternatives."
After hearing the backlash against the school's agreement with InfiLaw, the school agreed to field purchase offers from accredited South Carolina colleges and local nonprofit organizations. "No individual or entity stepped forward to submit a proposal for discussion. No one indicated an interest in making a competitive bid," Carr and Kosko wrote in their letter.
Two of CSOL's five founders, Alex Sanders and Ralph McCullough, retired from the school's board of directors in July, leaving three founders on the board: Carr, Kosko, and Edward J. Westbrook. While Carr and Kosko have stood behind CSOL's agreement with InfiLaw, Westbrook has been pushing for the school to continue seeking purchase offers from public schools including the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston. In a letter addressed to Carr and Kosko on Oct. 17, Westbrook asked the board to appoint a neutral third party "to gauge the potential interest of the College of Charleston (and potentially others)" in purchasing the law school. He also had this to say:
I read with interest your October 14, 2013 statement that InfiLaw has 'listened to the community' and is willing to have discussions concerning the future of the Charleston School of Law with the College of Charleston and/or the University of South Carolina.
The posture of your offer is puzzling since InfiLaw does not own the law school. It has no license to operate the law school. And its attempt to engineer a purchase of the law school against the wishes of its students, alumni, and legal community has generated unprecedented ill-will. The more appropriate way to proceed would be for InfiLaw to recognize its tenuous and perhaps short-lived involvement with the law school and 'step aside' to allow the owners to seek better alternatives. If InfiLaw nevertheless insists on its present course, it should consider making such discussions more meaningful and transparent.