Politics & Government

Students: Charlotte School of Law to announce fate of classes this week

The Charlotte School of Law is located at 201 S. College Street in uptown Charlotte.
The Charlotte School of Law is located at 201 S. College Street in uptown Charlotte. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Besieged Charlotte School of Law plans to announce as soon as Thursday whether it will reopen for the spring semester scheduled to start in less than two weeks.

The school’s leaders, dogged by government accusations and a financial crisis, revealed the new deadline to a group of students during a Wednesday meeting to discuss the problems facing the for-profit school.

During the session, administrators announced that because of the uncertainty surrounding the availability of student loans, they have canceled the school’s annual week-long intercession program, which was to start Monday.

Whether spring semester classes open as scheduled on Jan. 16 appears to depend on enrollment. According to the students who attended the meeting, CSL needs at least 500 students – about two-thirds of its current enrollment – to commit to taking classes this spring.

School President Chidi Ogene said the school will announce a final decision on the semester in the next “24 to 48 hours,” though the deadline could change due to outside events, the students said.

Given the hurdles students suddenly face in paying their tuition, it’s difficult to say whether the enrollment goal is at all realistic.

In November, the accrediting American Bar Association put CSL on probation, citing longstanding failings in the school’s admissions policies, curriculum and pass rates on the bar exam. The bar accused school leaders of attempting to hide the problems from current and future students.

Last month, the Department of Education made CSL the first accredited law school ever to lose access to federal student loans and other financial aid. The government’s reasoning: CSL students were being saddled with up to $200,000 in loan debt while having little chance of landing the legal jobs and salaries necessary to pay the money back, leaving taxpayers with the bill.

The one-two blow has left hundreds of law students scrambling either to transfer to other schools or find an alternative way of paying CSL’s estimated $44,000 in annual tuition and fees.

Even if the school somehow reopens, students say they face the prospect of a greatly devalued diploma.

“Charlotte School of Law has pulled the rug from beneath my feet. I’m supposed to graduate 130 days from today,” said Matt Blevins, one of about 10 students who gathered outside the school’s College Street offices for a midday rally to bring attention to the crisis.

Wednesday, third-year law students Blevins, Margaret Kocaj and Louis Gonzalez met for more than an hour with Ogene; Jay Conison, the school’s dean; and Victoria Taylor, CSL’s spokeswoman and director of marketing.

Describing the meeting as “private,” Taylor declined to answer questions about what transpired, including whether the school will announce plans for the new semester this week.

Kocaj and Blevins, both scheduled to graduate in May, described the session as blunt and occasionally adversarial, though both said they learned a little more about the school’s plight.

School leaders were careful with the information they shared, given the ongoing dispute with the Department of Education and two federal lawsuits in which students have charged the school with deception, fraud and breach of contract, the students said.

“There was a lot of blank staring at me,” said Kocaj, who owns a Charlotte tax-preparing business. “If I’m being honest, it was if they were shocked that someone could be intelligent enough to break through the cloud of BS they’ve been putting out.”

Blevins said that when he challenged the administrators’ claims that they had toughened the school’s admission policies, the meeting “became kind of adversarial.”

“The president of the law school, instead of just defending what the school is doing, came back at me in an aggressive manner, like, ‘What would you have done?’ 

Both Blevins and Kocaj said they left the session disheartened about the future. They said the school has about 150 third-year students who can be expected to finish their last semester at CSL rather than lose substantial credit hours by transferring.

But that’s only a third of the enrollment school leaders say they need. Kocaj said the goal is unrealistic, particularly since administrators told the student delegation Wednesday that they cannot afford to offer free or reduced tuition to finish out the year.

In response to the financial uncertainty, CSL already has announced it will not accept any new students in the coming semester. School administrators also say they are trying to arrange private loans to replace some of the lost government money. Last year, CSL students received almost $50 million from the Department of Education to cover tuition, fees and living expenses.

School leaders say they are trying to establish a transfer program with Florida Coastal School of Law, a sister institution in the three-school InfiLaw chain.

Where that will lead is unclear. The school’s faculty has already expressed a lack of confidence in the school’s leadership and has called for a larger role in admissions and curriculum. Meanwhile, the students say the Wednesday meeting left them downbeat about their futures.

“Realistically, I think the odds are pretty low that we start on the 16th,” Blevins said. “I want to hold out hope, but the meeting did not make me feel confident that we’ll be starting back next week.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS