Cooley Presses ABA Suit

May 5, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Thomas M. Cooley Law School is still battling with the American Bar Association over accreditation of the school’s satellite programs at Western Michigan University in Grand Rapids and Oakland University in Rochester.

Cooley launched the satellite in Rochester in September 2002 and the satellite in Grand Rapids in May 2003. Both satellite programs were designed to offer the first two years, or 60 credits, of the law school’s required course curriculum.

The ABA has consistently refused to grant approval for the programs. Cooley filed suit March 30, 2004, asking the court to prevent the ABA from any further delays in ruling on the two-year satellite 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 hammered out in federal district court last April. The ABA agreed to a specific timetable to consider the satellite applications and Cooley agreed to voluntarily limit the number of credits students could take at the satellite campuses to 15. 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 made a recommendation to the ABA Council, which reviewed the applications in August.

Cooley contends it upheld its end of the bargain by moving 27 sections of satellite classes from Rochester and Grand Rapids to its Lansing campus “on less than two weeks’ notice.”

“We did what we promised to do, but contrary to our understanding, the Accreditation Committee made no recommendations about the merits of either satellite program, and (the) council declined to act at all on our applications,” Cooley President and Dean Don LeDuc said.

Instead, the ABA sanctioned Cooley and recommended it be ineligible to operate the satellite or branch campuses until at least September 2005 and barred Cooley from reapplying for acquiescence until this summer. The council also extended the period of ineligibility to operate a satellite or branch campuses to July 31, 2006, without explanation, according to LeDuc.

He said the satellite accreditation issue affects about 140 Grand Rapids students and 190 Oakland students. He noted that the ABA Committee and Council did confirm that all credits earned by Cooley’s satellite students count toward their J.D. degrees.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan has retained continuing jurisdiction over the case. Cooley re-opened the lawsuit in September, asking the court to order the ABA to grant acquiescence on the two-year satellite programs and to reverse all sanctions imposed by the ABA. Cooley also asked the court to order the ABA to schedule site visits at both campuses. Cooley continues to seek damages in the lawsuit. Both sides filed motions that the court has under review.

“We actually believe their rules prohibit any sanction whatsoever, once we limited the students to 15 credits,” LeDuc said. “We also challenge the increased sanction as arbitrary.”

In the motions, each side has asked for disposition of the case, in whole or in part, based upon the law and the legal issues presented, he explained.

“Our key argument is that the ABA was without power to sanction us given their own rules and our current limitation of the campuses to 15 credit hours.”

In addition to the lawsuit, Cooley is submitting updated applications to the ABA on June 21 that will include an application for provisional approval of a branch campus in Grand Rapids, LeDuc said. He doesn’t know when a decision will be handed down in the case because the timing of the decision is entirely up to the court.

In the meantime, Cooley is renovating the five-story Cooley Law Center in downtown Grand Rapids at 111 Commerce Ave. SW. The center currently houses the law library, faculty and administrative offices, and several smaller classrooms. Larger classes are accommodated at Western Michigan University’s Graduate Center at 200 Ionia Ave. SW.

LeDuc said the budgeted expense in 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 noted.

Cooley was founded in 1972 and was fully accredited by the ABA in 1978. It’s fully approved by the Michigan Department of Education to grant degrees.

Once the accreditation issue is resolved, Cooley anticipates reactivating its two-year programs at both satellite campuses immediately and eventually increasing them to full 90-credit, three-year branch campuses.    

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