GRAND RAPIDS — Although the American Bar Association finally granted Thomas M. Cooley Law School's request to establish three-year law degree programs at the school's Grand Rapids and Rochester campuses, Cooley is still seeking damages from the ABA in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Cooley launched two-year satellite programs at OaklandUniversity in Rochester in September 2002 and at WesternMichiganUniversity in Grand Rapids in May 2003 and had been awaiting the ABA's decision on the merits of those programs for more than four years. Cooley filed suit against the ABA March 30, 2004, seeking an injunction to prevent the ABA from any further delays in ruling on both program applications, seeking damages, and asking for the authority to expand the then-two-year satellite programs to full, three-year programs. The school previously was authorized to offer only 15 first-year credits at the Grand Rapids and Rochester campuses.
President and Dean Don LeDuc said the school is seeking damages of an unspecified amount, in part for harm to its reputation over the past four years, and for foregone income and the expenses incurred due to loss of projected enrollments while ABA approval of the programs hung in the balance.
"In Grand Rapids, we went ahead with the building but have not had the level of enrollment that would normally support it," LeDuc explained, noting that Cooley lost potential students during the four-year interim while the ABA stalled approval. "It's not that enrollment dipped; it just never grew at either location consistent with the projections we had put forward to the ABA."
LeDuc said oral arguments have already been heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and Cooley is just awaiting the decision. He said Cooley will put the appeal to bed if it loses or proceed with follow-up on the case if the court rules in its favor.
The Higher Learning Commission-North Central Association has approved the full three-year Rochester juris doctor program and the first two years of coursework in the Grand Rapids program.
"The difference between the Rochester and Grand Rapids programs is that OaklandUniversity has two graduate law programs — an LL.M. (master of laws) and juris doctor program — so the staff can approve adding the third year at Oakland, because that campus is already approved for granting degrees," LeDuc explained.
The Higher Learning Commission has already recommended the approval of third-year courses at the Grand Rapids campus, and LeDuc expects the commission will give final approval at its Aug. 28 meeting. Cooley, in fact, was one of the first independent law schools to receive accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. Last month the commission granted Cooley a 10-year extension of the accreditation, which is the maximum the commission allows.
Cooley has committed to a $20 million investment in the Grand Rapids campus at 111 Commerce Ave. SW. The five-story CooleyLawCenter in downtown houses a law library, faculty and administrative offices, and several smaller classrooms. Larger classes are accommodated at WesternMichiganUniversity's GraduateCenter, at 200 Ionia Ave. SW.
"We allowed it to grow as if it had been approved, so we already have the staff and budget we need to operate it in this fall's budget," LeDuc said.
He said the current operating budget for the Grand Rapids branch is about $9.7 million annually. Both campuses are budgeted for 22 full-time faculty members, 20 support staff and 10 library staff. The facility is leased from the developers, so the rent is included in the budgeted expense, he noted.
Cooley anticipates an enrollment of about 250 in Grand Rapids and 400 in Rochester this fall.