The decision by the Indiana Tech board of trustees to close the university’s law school came after law school dean Charles Cercone repeatedly argued the institution could become viable if it remained open.
“I was trying to get more time,” he said. “But given the board and the information they had in front of them, it just wasn’t an easy pitch.”
Cercone said the board voted Oct. 23 to close the school but held off on announcing the decision because Indiana Tech President Arthur Snyder wouldn't be available for comment until this week. Indiana Tech released a statement Monday morning announcing the law school's closure.
Now the law school has 30 days to develop and submit a plan for closing to the American Bar Association as required by Rule 34 of the ABA Rules of Procedure for the Approval of Law Schools.
The dean said his goal is to make sure the current students are able to transfer to other law schools where they can continue their legal education and ultimately be able to practice law. He has reached out to law school deans in Ohio and Indiana and, he said, has gotten a good reception.
“I think both the ABA and the other deans want to do the best they can for our students,” Cercone said.
Jon Olinger, a member of the law school’s charter class, said he was saddened by the decision to close but that he was most concerned about the faculty.
“The students will land on their feet,” Olinger said, noting the third-year class will be able to graduate and sit for the bar exam while the first- and second-year classes will be able to transfer. But the faculty and staff are getting hit hard because many had uprooted their lives, sold their homes and moved to Fort Wayne to teach at the law school.
Of the university administration, Olinger said “They need to be ashamed of themselves.” He said this is a “total lack of consideration for the lives of the staff and faculty.”
According to Indiana Tech Law School’s website, of the 12 listed as faculty members, five were hired in 2015, including Cercone, and two were more came in 2016. Two law school faculty members reached this morning declined to comment. Others did not return messages.
Cercone said the board of trustees had been in “really serious discussion” about the fate of the law school since late September or early October. Indiana Tech stated it decided to close because of financial constraints. The university had already incurred a loss of nearly $20 million in operating the law school and believed that for the foreseeable future, the deficit would continue growing.
“Our law school faculty and staff have made commendable efforts in serving our students,” Snyder said in a press release. “Despite their many positive achievements, we have not seen enough of a corresponding increase in demand by prospective students to enable the school to continue in operation.”
Cercone acknowledged the market is “exceptionally difficult” and there are many unknowns as to how the legal job market will change. In addition, he noted while the faculty is committed to maintaining student quality and not accepting applicants who earn a lower LSAT score, the competition for these students is fierce among other law schools.
Still, he tried to make the case that if Indiana Tech Law School had more time to tout its curriculum and faculty, as well as post better bar exam passage rates, that would have increased student enrollment.
Cercone was confident that law school would have gotten full accreditation and bar results from subsequent graduating classes would have improved. He said the institution has raised its admission standards and made its curriculum more rigorous.
The law school suffered a major blow this fall when only three of the 13 graduates who took the July bar exam passed. Cercone does not believe the low passage rate caused the board of trustees to pull its support.
“I don’t think, in the long run, the bar results were a determining factor in the board’s decision,” Cercone said. “I think it was much more where is the legal market trending, especially for quality students.”
Olinger does not agree. He called the university’s statement that it was pulling the plug because of finances a “garbage excuse.” He contended the bulk of the $20 million loss came from construction costs to build the law school and, echoing Cercone, given more time, the law school would have been successful.
“This isn’t something that happens on a whim,” he said of the decision to close. “They’ve been planning this for a while.”