A Tuesday night town hall meeting for Charleston School of Law students yielded few answers for those concerned about the college's uncertain future. Frustrated students were unable to get direct answers on whether the school is being sold to Florida-based InfiLaw Systems, how InfiLaw will be involved with the school's management, whether enrolment at the school will increase, and whether present faculty will be kept on after the 2013-2014 academic year.
Last week, students and alumni found out via the blog FITSNews that the for-profit downtown school had entered a "management services agreement" with Florida-based InfiLaw Systems, leaving many wondering whether the school was going to be sold. Hundreds of students and alumni showed up to Tuesday night's meeting, which was held in the Charleston Music Hall and included a panel of school administrators and InfiLaw leaders.
What the audience did learn was that the leadership of the Charleston School of Law had already fielded some offers from other companies. Judge Robert S. Carr, a founding member of the school's board of directors, said that two private colleges had approached the board over the past five years about making "arrangements," but the deals fell through. Carr said the school also tried to become a nonprofit institution, but that plan also fell through. When a student criticized Carr and the directors for moving part of the school's base and structure to Florida, Carr responded that the board had looked for other options.
"First of all, my obligation is to the students," Carr said. "My obligation is to the faculty and staff. My obligation is to the business partners. The community comes fourth. We are trying to preserve the school community. What good would it do the community for this school to go away, to not exist?"
Talks with InfiLaw about the management agreement began in October 2012, but a member of the school's non-governing board of advisors rose to say he didn't hear about the potential deal until the news broke online last week. Still, school leaders say the relationship with InfiLaw goes back even earlier than October.
Judge George C. Kosko, another founding board member of the Charleston School of Law, said that when the school was founded in 2003, he reached out to InfiLaw CEO Rick Inatome and Charlotte School of Law President Donald E. Lively. "We looked to people who had done it for advice, and we got it," Kosko said. "Not only did we get advice, but we made friends, and we came to learn what they stood for. The things that Charleston School of Law stands for now were in very large measure molded and created by Rick, Don ... What's going to change in this law school between the way it was last semester and this coming semester is nothing."
According to Kosko, two of the school's original five Board of Directors members have stepped down, and the remaining three are the school's owners. Kosko said that both Judge Alex Sanders (the former chairman) and Ralph C. McCullough II left the board due to medical issues. Neither Sanders nor McCullough could be reached for comment.
The Tuesday night meeting began with a lengthy presentation by the panel, including numerous Powerpoint slides about the merits of InfiLaw's three other schools, Charlotte School of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law (in Jacksonville), and Phoenix School of Law. When Inatome rose to a lectern to speak, a few boos came from the back of the auditorium. "If I had read some of the things about our association that you all have read, I would be out there booing too," Inatome said. "What I hope to do is let you know exactly what I feel are some of the misrepresentations that you've heard about, read about, and what we really stand for, and let you know how proud we are to invite you into our consortium."
The crowd grew restless after about 50 minutes of Powerpoint presentations and introductions of InfiLaw employees and demanded that the panel skip to the Q&A session. Dean Andy Abrams said he had already spoken with many students in his office and received numerous suggestions via e-mail, some of which were "anatomically impossible."
At one point during the Q&A, an audience member stood to ask a question of his fellow students: "If you had known the school was going to be sold to InfiLaw, how many of you would have applied?" In a crowd of hundreds, nearly none of the students raised their hands.
InfiLaw's reputation precedes it. While its three schools boast high employment rates for graduates, its admissions are also markedly less selective. According to lawschoolnumbers.com, Charleston School of Law accepted 50 percent of applicants for the Class of 2017, compared to 67 percent at Florida Coastal, 69 percent at Charlotte, and 73 percent at Phoenix.
InfiLaw schools have some critics from within their own ranks, too. At Phoenix School of Law, two former professors are suing the school after the administration allegedly announced a plan to eliminate tenure, change the curriculum, and require students to meet with an administrator before transferring to other schools.
"Reputation's everything," one student said during the Q&A. "I don't mean to disrespect anybody up there, but Florida Coastal Law and Charlotte School of Law do not have the best reputation. Y'all have been comparing us the whole time. We don't want to be those schools." He was met with applause from the audience, and when he asked the panel what they would do to differentiate Charleston School of Law from the InfiLaw schools, Inatome blamed InfiLaw critics like the editorial staff of FITSNews for using misleading data in stories.
When students pressed Kosko to say whether the school was going to be sold to InfiLaw, he said that regulations from the American Bar Association prevented him from commenting. "What I can tell you is we have a management agreement with InfiLaw Services and we've sent a letter to the ABA," Kosko said. "If I go beyond that statement — and I'd love to answer your question — I will run afoul of ABA regulations."
When asked if InfiLaw would be working to expand enrolment at Charleston School of Law, Inatome said that the school's own leadership team would set its enrolment goals. "We have had absolutely no conversation related to changing the size of this school in any of the multiple years that we've engaged with this school," Inatome said.