School of Law sale awaits license from state agency

The Charleston School of Law library in downtown Charleston. (Photo by Ashley Barker)
The Charleston School of Law library in downtown Charleston. (Photo by Ashley Barker)
By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published Feb. 24, 2014

The InfiLaw System is committed to buying the Charleston School of Law even if it faces questions from the community and a review by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

InfiLaw — a consortium of independent law schools including the Charlotte School of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law and Arizona Summit Law School — agreed last July to provide management services for the school. By the end of August, InfiLaw had signed an agreement expressing its intent to purchase the Charleston School of Law.

The move was met with backlash from the school’s students and alumni about the reputation of the system, which has commonly been called a “diploma mill.” But InfiLaw spokeswoman Kathy Heldman said that charge gets leveled at almost all for-profit education institutions.

“It is unfortunate, and untrue for InfiLaw schools,” Heldman said in a statement. “InfiLaw schools would not succeed or retain accreditation if they did not graduate students who could pass the bar and get jobs.”

In response to community members asking whether the system would increase enrollment, Heldman said it wouldn’t be practical to recruit more students than the employer market could support.

InfiLaw provides its schools access to capital for acquiring or building new facilities and supporting academic programs. Its schools remain independently operated and governed by their own boards, administrations and faculties, according to Heldman. She added that InfiLaw would work with Charleston’s leaders to preserve the school’s culture.

“We believe that we can provide Charleston and its students with the financial resources and expertise to enhance their legal education and to move the school forward into the future – a future that is changing quickly,” Heldman said.

The sale is in limbo as InfiLaw waits for a decision from the state’s Commission on Higher Education about its application for a license to operate the school. Since InfiLaw already operates three other American Bar Association-accredited law schools, its leaders believe it will receive the license and approval from the ABA to transfer ownership.

Julie Carullo, deputy director of the commission, said an external review team completed an investigation in Charleston during the week of Feb. 10. The team — which consists of Charles Arberg, of the Federal Judicial Center; Rhesa Rudolph, of the Florida Commission for Independent Education; and Robert Wells, of the South Carolina Bar Association — will submit its findings to the commission, which is expected to reach a decision in May or June.

Click for larger image -- Charleston School of Law timeline
Click for larger image -- Charleston School of Law timeline
The commission also requested public comment about the school’s academics and curriculum, facilities and infrastructure, libraries, previous educational achievements and training, course and program outlines, financial soundness, reputation and advertising policies, as well as the character of its owners.

The public comment period ended Feb. 10, and Carullo said those submissions will not be available until after the full recommendation is made.

In January, Richard Sutton, executive director of the commission, said the process was taking longer than expected because of the public attention that the application has received.

“We very much appreciate the civic engagements of all of these individuals and parties in sharing their thoughts and observations, which we will duly consider within the parameters of the commission’s licensing guidelines,” Sutton said during a commission meeting.

Scrutiny of Infilaw intensified when lawmakers began speculating about the College of Charleston purchasing the school.

In the Charleston School of Law’s provisional license from the Commission on Higher Education in 2003, a provision was included that strictly prohibited the school from discussing or considering a transfer of the school to a public state institution of higher education.

After the school announced in August 2013 that only InfiLaw had submitted an application to purchase it, the commission amended the license to allow public institutions the chance to discuss buying the school.

Despite its contract with the school, InfiLaw agreed to allow the Charleston School of Law to consider other options, including CofC and the University of South Carolina.

USC, which runs the state’s only public law school, did not want to meet with InfiLaw, according to Heldman. However, senior representatives from CofC and InfiLaw did meet in October 2013.

“Proprietary information was shared and the parties may share further proprietary information with each other and meet again in the near future to continue their discussions, but at this time no further developments have occurred,” Heldman said.

CofC is open to discussions about meeting the educational needs of the community, according to Mike Robertson, a spokesman for the college.

“The College of Charleston remains interested in the future of the Charleston School of Law and continues to hear from community members who are concerned about the future of the CSOL,” Robertson said in a statement.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has said publicly he supports CofC purchasing the school. He even mentioned the school when he issued a recent statement about a bill proposing the merger of CofC and the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Having eventually Ph.D. programs in chemistry, physics, computer science, aeronautical engineering, perhaps a law school, and even more are the model for the future of a healthy, vibrant region,” Riley said in a statement.

He also wrote a letter to the commission in December urging it to not approve a license for the sale to InfiLaw.

He wrote that the city sold a “key parcel of land to the Charleston School of Law to give it long-range expansion opportunities” at a below-market value. Riley, who is also a member of the school’s board of advisors, said the city would have never done that if it thought the school would eventually become part of a national, for-profit system of law schools.

“The Charleston region is not huge,” he wrote. “I believe the Charleston School of Law, with its size and its close connection with the community, is the right fit.”

Reach Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker.

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