On Nov. 17, Jay Conison achieved a dubious distinction.
That day, the American Bar Association announced sanctions against two U.S. law schools. Conison ran both of them.
The accrediting bar association publicly censured Valparaiso University Law School for failing to meet admission standards that prohibited the acceptance of students “who do not appear capable” of completing legal classes and passing the bar exam. The school’s current dean said the reprimand covered actions from 2007-13, when Conison led the school.
When he left Valparaiso in 2013, Conison was expected to retire. Instead he accepted a similar position at Charlotte School of Law. The ABA began its evaluation of CSL’s accreditation the next spring.
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Last month, the bar association placed Conison’s new school on two years probation, a far more serious punishment than a reprimand. As with Valparaiso, the accreditors cited CSL’s failure to maintain a proper admission policy while also singling out the school’s absence of “a rigorous program of legal education” to adequately prepare students.
On Monday, the Department of Education, citing a “substantial and persistent” pattern of noncompliance with ABA standards, announced it was cutting off millions of dollars in student loans to CSL students. In documents, the government repeatedly accused school administrators of making “substantial misrepresentations” to current and prospective students regarding its accreditation and “the likelihood that its graduates would pass the bar exam.” At the last test, the school’s graduates had the lowest scores in the state.
Federal officials say flatly that Conison and school President Chidi Ogene asked to keep the ABA findings secret out of fear that CSL would lose current and prospective students who pay up to $60,000 a year in tuition and expenses to attend the for-profit school.
Conison did not respond directly Thursday to emailed questions from the Observer, including whether school leaders can assure students that classes will resume as scheduled on Jan. 14. In a prepared statement released late in the day, school spokeswoman Victoria Taylor said the administration remains “cautiously optimistic” that the Department of Education will reverse its decision and Charlotte School of Law will open for the spring semester.
During the last academic year, CSL students received almost $50 million in federal assistance, most of it in the form of school loans. It’s unclear how the school can resume classes next month without the federal support.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Lee Robertson Jr., a Charlotte attorney and president of the school’s alumni society. “I don’t know how any business would stay in business without it.”
After the probation announcement, Conison told the Observer that a plan already was in place to improve admissions and curriculum, and restore the school to ABA compliance.
Thursday, school leaders promised to “fully and aggressively” appeal the Department of Education decision by the Jan. 3 deadline. Wednesday night, Conison and Ogene asked students to help them.
In an email sent out by Conison, he and Ogene recommended that students email U.S. Education Secretary John King and U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, the incoming chairwoman of the House Education Committee, to share details of how they would be hurt by the loss of school loans.
Conison and Ogene suggested that the students say they are committed to attending CSL next year and “to express your deep concern that you do not have the opportunity at this late date to make alternative plans.”
The odds of success are long. According to the Department of Education, more than 40 schools have been denied recertification in the student-loan program over the last three fiscal years. Four – the most recent in 2014 – made a sufficient case to have those denials overturned.
Margaret Kocaj, a third-year CSL student, said she has found the school’s response to the crisis wanting up to now.
“My frustration is we keep trying to fix the Department of Education issue,” Kocaj said Thursday. “Should we not have a contingency plan? Are we working on one? No one has said a word.”
Many of the students who have talked to the Observer are exploring transfers to other schools.
Two students – Rob Barchiesi and Lejla Hadzic – appear to be in the process of filing suit against the school and its owner Infilaw, which also operates for-profit law schools in Arizona and Florida. Federal court documents list them as plaintiffs in a court action but, as of Thursday afternoon, did not include a formal complaint.
Barchiesi, who has one more semester before he graduates, would not confirm that a lawsuit was pending. He did say that he and Hadzic “were exploring all legal options” after their efforts to contact the ABA, the Department of Education and Foxx in recent days had not yielded satisfactory results.
Likewise, the faculty’s support for Conision and other school leaders appears weakened. In an open letter released Wednesday, the teachers blamed the school’s problems on “missteps” by key but unnamed decision-makers, and they asked for more control over admissions and curriculum.
Next week, a group of CSL alumni will meet to discuss the school’s problems. Asked if he believes Conison and Ogene are the right people to resurrect the school, Robertson, the alumni president, responded with a statement that expressed the former students’ shock and disappointment over the loss of federal money.
Yet he described Ogene and Conison as “sincere and principled educators who are committed to producing successful graduates.”