Waiting for graduation ceremonies to begin Saturday morning, Philip Davis summed up his place in the university’s history — at age 60, he is the oldest student who has ever graduated and ever will graduate from Indiana Tech Law School.
Davis is a member of the law school’s Class of 2017, which is the second and the last class to complete their studies at the Fort Wayne’s Indiana Institute of Technology. In October 2016, Indiana Tech president Arthur Snyder made the surprise announcement that the law school would be closing at the end of June 2017. He cited the school’s $20 million loss in operating expenses and the expected low enrollments as reasons for discontinuing the legal education program.
The decision shocked and angered students and has left lingering resentment. Of the 21 students receiving J.D. degrees, only five attended the university-wide commencement Saturday at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
According to Davis, some of his classmates opted to stay away because they did not want walk across the commencement stage and have to shake Snyder’s hand.
The class did have a private hooding ceremony the evening of May 12 at the Allen County Public Library in downtown Fort Wayne since some did not want to include the university in their celebration. About 17 graduates attended the event with their families and received their degrees from law school dean Charles Cercone and associate dean Charles MacLean.
“That was basically our ceremony which was very meaningful and important because we had stuck together and gotten through this process,” Davis said.
Waiting for the main commencement exercises to begin, Davis and his four classmates stood apart in the sea of black caps and gowns. They were clustered under the sign designating where the law school graduates should stand and talked quietly amongst themselves.
Snyder presided over the 96th Indiana Tech graduation and his last as the leader of the university. Despite criticism for opening a law school in 2013, a time when lawyers were struggling to find J.D.-required jobs, Snyder championed the new venture. His retirement coincides with the school’s closure.
The law school graduates were among the first to enter the arena, taking seats near the commencement stage. As Cercone called their names, they walked across the stage, had the hood placed on their shoulders and proceeded back to their chairs. No mention was made that they were members of the final law school class.
Noah Moore, who relocated from Jackson, Mississippi, to attend Indiana Tech Law School, called the graduation day bittersweet.
“We put in a lot of hard work,” Moore said of the Class of 2017. “That’s what actually makes (this day) bittersweet and kind of has me upset. Our hard work can’t be overlooked.”
He and his classmates started in August 2014, just a few months after the law school’s founding dean, Peter Alexander, abruptly left. The program then failed in its first attempt to gain accreditation from the American Bar Association but was successful on the second try, getting notice it had provisional accreditation shortly before the inaugural class graduated in May 2016.
Bad news came again when only three graduates passed the July bar exam and, not long after that, university board of trustees decided to close the law school.
Moore thought about transferring, even though it would have meant repeating his second year. He talked to his family who encouraged him to stay, reminding him of the work he had done and how much he had changed.
After the closure announcement, he had to push himself even more.
“I think we got support from the dean and the faculty but once we started going downhill, everything was in shambles and everyone was in a frenzy,” Moore said. “But I took it upon myself to just channel what I needed to do to move forward.”
Davis also noted the changes that came immediately after the university decided to shutter the law school. Support staff were pulled, at least one class had to be cut, an academic conference was cancelled and the occasional pizzas with the dean were stopped. In fact, the day after the announcement, students noticed people walking around the hallways and classrooms with clipboards and tape measures, evaluating how to repurpose the building.
A final insult came on graduation day when Davis noticed his first name was misspelled in the commencement program.
“I’ve got to believe that that’s the kind of thing that would have been caught if we’d had proper support staff,” he said.
Following the commencement ceremony as graduates and their families flooded the lawn outside the coliseum, trading hugs and taking photos, the law school building on the edge of campus was silent. The parking lot was empty, the doors were locked and the windows were dark. Inside the main entrance, the grandfather clock, given to the school by the inaugural graduating class, stood against the wall.
Davis, a real estate broker before he pursued a J.D. degree, plans to stay in Fort Wayne and practice real estate and business law. He described the education at Indiana Tech as a mixed bag. The experiential learning activities were great but, having done some pro se work, he said at one point he had more Indiana trial experience than the entire faculty at the school.
“There’s been great instruction and then there’s been instruction that hasn’t been maybe what we needed to get,” Davis said.
Moore plans to move to Georgia, where he has family, and look to begin his career in either the district attorney’s office or the public defender agency. During his studies, he completed externships with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, California, the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office and the Northern District of Indiana Federal Community Defenders’ office.
“It was very difficult,” Moore said of his tenure at Indiana Tech. “It was a very emotional time but I kind of took the attitude of a lawyer that you’re going to encounter certain hardships, certain obstacles on your journey. With that in mind, I just decided to move forward.”