Cooley Assesses Legal Setback

GRAND RAPIDS — Thomas M. Cooley Law School lost the latest round in its fight with the American Bar Association over expansion of the school’s satellite programs at Western Michigan University in Grand Rapids and Oakland University in Rochester.

U.S. District Judge David McKeague upheld the ABA’s rejection of the law school’s plan to expand both satellite programs into branch campuses offering the full three-year, 90-credit law school course curriculum. As it stands, Cooley is ineligible to operate branch campuses prior to July 31, 2006.

Cooley intends to appeal the decision, said President and Dean Don LeDuc. The ABA has already scheduled the two program applications for inspection and review in October, he said. But he doubts that anything will shake out before next summer.

“It’s not very likely to happen because they’ve been so grudging and negative in everything they’ve done so far,” he remarked. “They have the power to approve these tomorrow if they wanted to.”

The ABA is set to do its inspection in October, and if it really pushed through, it could be finished by the end of this year, or could comfortably complete the process by the end of the January semester, LeDuc said.

“If they were nice people they would let us start in May. I don’t anticipate they’ll be disposed to do that, but they could.”

It all boils down to a matter of ABA approval. It’s strictly about whether Cooley should have had the authority to offer up to 60 credits through the satellite programs to begin with and whether it should have the authority now to expand the programs into full branch campuses, LeDuc explained.

Cooley launched the satellite in Rochester in September 2002 and the satellite in Grand Rapids in May 2003, both originally as two-year, 60-credit programs. The ABA had consistently refused to grant acquiescence for the programs, leading Cooley to file suit in March 2004 to bar the ABA from any further delays in ruling on the branch applications.

The ABA’s defense to the lawsuit was that Cooley should not have gone beyond offering more than 15 credits at the satellites without its prior acquiescence.

Both parties made concessions under an agreement reached the following month. The ABA agreed on a specific date to consider the applications and Cooley agreed to voluntarily limit to 15 the number of credits students could take at the satellite campuses.

Effective with the May 2004 term, students who had accrued 15 or more credits were required to continue their studies at Cooley’s Lansing campus.

The ABA’s Accreditation Committee considered the satellite program applications in June and at the same time considered an updated application for provisional approval of a full branch campus for Cooley in Grand Rapids.

The accreditation committee subsequently recommended that the ABA Council sanction Cooley and render it ineligible to operate branch campuses prior to July 31, 2006, and Cooley re-opened the lawsuit. Suddenly, it seems, the issue had become one of the performance of Cooley Lansing graduates on the July 2003 and February 2004 Michigan Bar Exam. It came up without notice at the last meeting, LeDuc said.

“We had satisfied every concern they had ever raised; then out of the blue they raise this issue of the bar results,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned it’s entirely spurious. The bar results have nothing to do with the branches because when they decided this, no Oakland or Grand Rapids student had graduated. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not an operation in Oakland or Grand Rapids would be viable.”

In a letter to LeDuc regarding the imposed sanction, the ABA’s education and admissions section indicated that Cooley’s bar passage results suggested the school had failed to demonstrate that the satellite programs would not detract from the law school’s ability to “maintain a sound educational program leading to the J.D. degree.”

Cooley responded that the ABA committee’s use of bar results to block acquiescence in the Oakland and Grand Rapids programs represented a departure from past practices. In the two years since Cooley filed its first satellite campus application, it was the first time the committee identified bar results as a reason for denying acquiescence, according to LeDuc.

“Bar passage rates may fluctuate widely from one administration of the exam to the next,” Cooley pointed out in an action letter to the ABA Accreditation Committee. “For example, over the past 10 years, Michigan’s overall bar passage rates on individual administrations of the examination have fluctuated from 69 percent to 90 percent for first-time takers, from 12 percent to 64 percent for repeat takers, and from 57 percent to 85 percent for all takers.”

Cooley further pointed out that on the most recent February 2004 bar exam, the school’s preliminary, in-state bar exam passage rate:

  • Exceeded the passage rate of the University of Michigan for first-time takers.
  • Exceeded the passage rates of the Detroit College of Law, the University of Detroit-Mercy, and Wayne State University for repeat takers.
  • Tied the passage rate of the Detroit College of Law for all takers.
  • Trailed the passage rate for all takers of the University of Detroit-Mercy by just 2 percent and of U-M by just 3 percent.

During this summer semester, the satellite expansion issue affects about 160 Grand Rapids students and 240 Oakland students, LeDuc said. He noted that the ABA Committee and Council have previously confirmed that all credits earned by Cooley’s satellite students count toward their J.D. degrees.

For the school in general, enrollment has been good, he said, but if the ABA had approved the branch applications in the first place, enrollment in the satellite programs likely would have been significantly higher.

“There are some people that are sitting and waiting to see what happens and we’re not getting them. They’ll either go some place else or come to the Lansing campus. When we ultimately get the approval, people will reconsider.”

LeDuc said the budgeted expense for Cooley-Grand Rapids for the current year is slightly more than $6 million, exclusive of capital expenses for the library, furnishings and equipment. The facility is leased from the developers, so the rent is included in the budgeted expense, he said.

“We’re not deterred by this. We’ve already gone through the reaction to it. We’re going ahead with the final phase of the building. As far as we’re concerned, this is just one more bump in the road.”    

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