Law School Takes ABA To Court

April 2, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Thomas M. Cooley Law School is suing the American Bar Association for blocking accreditation of its new satellite law programs in Grand Rapids and Rochester.

Cooley filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Tuesday seeking an injunction to prevent the ABA from any further delays in ruling on both satellite program applications and to assure that the applications will be “fairly and properly” reviewed.

Cooley also is seeking damages.

“We haven’t specified the amount, but the focus would be on harm to the reputation,” said Don LeDuc, president and dean of the law school.

Cooley launched two-year satellite programs at Oakland University in Rochester in September 2002 and at Western Michigan University in Grand Rapids in May 2003.

About 120 law students are in the Oakland program and 60 in the WMU program, LeDuc said.

Currently, students complete the third year of the program at Cooley’s Lansing campus, which has been accredited since 1995, so credits they’ve accrued in the satellite program aren’t in jeopardy, he said.

“They are Cooley law students and we are just one school with three campuses,” LeDuc explained. “Students are free to go to any of those campuses.

“Until this gets resolved or we get an order or injunctive relief from the court, the third-year students will have to take their classes in Lansing.”

He said Cooley has had to forgo a considerable amount of income because it hasn’t been able to fully promote the programs while accreditation has hung in the balance.

Furthermore, if the ABA refuses to grant accreditation, he said, Cooley would be stuck with all the expenses it has incurred for long-term lease arrangements on the facilities.

Cooley has spent about $3.5 million on the Oakland program and about $2 million on the Grand Rapids program to provide facilities, materials, staff and services to satisfy ABA requirements.

Cooley contends that the ABA instructed the law school to follow one set of rules governing satellite programs and then changed the rules without informing Cooley.

The law school maintains that its satellite programs not only meet but exceed ABA standards and rules for satellite programs.

According to Cooley, the ABA has refused to grant “acquiescence,” or approval, for the programs and has “refused to agree to an appropriate resolution recognizing that the programs meet satellite campus requirements.”

“What they did was propose a new set of rules that they said would come into effect at a later time,” LeDuc explained. “They said we should go ahead with following the old rules, not the rules they were proposing, which we did. So we sent in our questionnaire and forms that they required on that basis.

“Two days later they made the new rules official. Now we’re caught in a procedural argument over which rules applied.”

Before opening either campus, Cooley asked the ABA council and accrediting committee for acquiescence for the new programs, and an ABA representative conducted site reviews, which were “highly favorable,” he said.

The ABA is claiming, in part, that the Cooley programs haven’t met certain guidelines, but the ABA has never actually reviewed the program applications under the new rules, LeDuc said.

The law school further contends that the ABA accrediting body has:

  • Not been open in the accreditation process.

  • Ignored favorable site reports.

  • Refused to discuss the matter and failed to return phone calls.

  • Uses secret criteria in the accrediting process.

“Our complaint isn’t about the ABA, it’s really about the council’s accrediting committee, which the ABA doesn’t actually control,” LeDuc observed.

Cooley takes issue with the committee because it’s not subject to oversight by ABA leadership. The ABA accreditation process should be transparent, open, accountable and fair, LeDuc said.

In addition, school officials believe there may be a conflict of interest on the part of the accrediting committee because John F. O’Brien, dean of New England School of Law, chairs one of two key ABA reviewing bodies.

“Back in 1996 he wrote the only negative inspection report we’ve ever gotten,” LeDuc said.

“In addition to having a prior factual background that we think colors his judgment, New England School of Law is always one of the top five competitors with Cooley for applicants. We think given the circumstances of this one that that was grounds for him to be disqualified.”

While Cooley was applying for accreditation, another law school’s application for a satellite program was approved, he said, but the ABA told Cooley it could not reveal what criteria applied to the decision.

“When they decide, they do it in secret meetings that the affected school is not permitted to attend. We can only speculate as to what goes on in those meetings because nobody ever finds out about anything.”

LeDuc said the ABA has threatened to reconsider the accreditation that Cooley Law School has had for 29 years over this one issue of whether or not Cooley was required to have the ABA’s prior acquiescence.

“In our view, all they’re really supposed to look at in this acquiescence phase is whether or not what we do in the satellite takes away from our program and compliance in Lansing.

“They’ve already determined that we’re in compliance in Lansing, so in our view that whole thing is moot. That’s the argument we’ll obviously have to prevail on in court.”

LeDuc said that under ABA rules, even if the school were to lose its accreditation its graduates would always be considered graduates of an accredited school.

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