Florida A&M University’s Law School, which faces a possible loss of its accreditation, recently got a boost in the form of a new dean and good news about higher pass rates on the bar exam.
FAMU’s Board of Trustees has confirmed LeRoy Pernell as the new dean. Pernell currently leads Northern Illinois University’s Law School and was previously vice provost at Ohio State. Pernell will start working as a consultant to FAMU immediately, even thought his formal contract will not start until January 2008.
He declared that his priorities will include re-evaluating the school’s faculty and the quality and structure of its teaching. “I don’t pretend that this task will be easy, but I do know that I have the exceptional work of others to build on,” he wrote to the NIU administration explaining his decision to leave.
FAMU as a whole is trying to recover from serious accounting and financial management problems including $39 million in unaccounted-for expenditures that threaten its accreditation.
Its law school may be in an even more perilous position. The school is being sued by several students who allege that a flawed grading procedure resulted in their being unfairly dismissed. “My clients think their law professors are good teachers,” says attorney David Maxwell, “but the administrators are so bad they are undermining the students’ education. I wish Dean Pernell could start immediately because at least he was a practicing attorney with 10 years of experience running a law school.”
The law school, which reopened in 2002, is only provisionally accredited and faces an upcoming review by the American Bar Association in October. One of the problems it faces is that until very recently, only about half of all its graduates were able to pass the Bar exam required to get a law license. FAMU still has the lowest pass rate of any law school in the state. But earlier this month, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners released the results of the July exam which showed 60 percent of FAMU students passed. One reason FAMU chose Pernell is because his students at NIU achieved a pass rate of 83.5 percent.
“Mr. Pernell is facing a huge challenge,” says Martha Barnett, a former president of the American Bar Association and a senior partner in a Florida law firm, which has endowed a fellowship at the law school. “Any new law school is going to have a difficult time attracting a first-rate faculty and a qualified student body, and this law school has an additional challenge built into the very nature of its mission of community outreach to increase the number of minority lawyers. A lot of these students have lower GPAs and LSAT scores. On the other hand,” she says, “Dean Pernell should really benefit from the new president’s administrative reforms.”
FAMU’s president, Dr. James Ammons and university officials outlined a number of specific steps they had taken to fix things. FAMU has:
· Replaced 85 percent of its administrative leadership.
· Hired a team of accountants who have reconciled the university’s budget for the first time in two years.
· Required all lost or stolen property to be reported to the campus police.
· Hired a new director of financial aid.
· Reformed its payroll process and instituted a better training program to help employees understand how to use it properly.
· Signed a new contract with its food service firm, Sodexo, requiring the company to invest about $ 3.3 million in campus renovations and better service.
· Changed its staffing policies to allow employees from other Florida state agencies or universities to transfer into FAMU without losing their accumulated sick time, improving its ability to recruit qualified employees and administrators.
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