NCCU law to cut 1st-year enrollments, re-examine standards as Bar accreditors watch

N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said the law school dean would step down and the school would increase minimum admission standards following concerns by American Bar Association accreditors.
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said the law school dean would step down and the school would increase minimum admission standards following concerns by American Bar Association accreditors., 2017 file photo

N.C. Central University will reduce first-year law school enrollments as part of its effort to stay in the good graces of the American Bar Association’s accreditors, Chancellor Johnson Akinleye and other officials say.

Speaking to an alumni group on Saturday, Akinleye billed that as an interim measure ahead of an outside, university-commissioned review of the NCCU School of Law that “will look at everything we do,” including admissions standards, curriculum, faculty preparedness and leadership.

He also promised that NCCU Law will continue to give chances to applicants who may lack the strongest test scores or undergraduate grades.

“That tradition and that legacy has not changed,” he said, alluding to what alumni and law school leaders call its “school of opportunity” approach. “And it will continue. This is what we are all invested in.”

The chancellor’s appearance before the N.C Central University School of Law Alumni Association on Saturday – unbilled beforehand – came as administrators prepare a formal response to an ABA query about the law school’s admission standards.

The national trade group, which accredits law schools, counsels them to see to it they “only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing [a] program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” It wants answers from NCCU by Feb. 1.

NCCU Law’s twin problem is that it has a high first-year washout rate – 37.7 percent of the students who joined in 2016-17 didn’t make it to their second year – and a relatively low passing rate on the state bar exam among those who’ve completed their work and earned their J.D. degrees.

The ABA, meanwhile, is clamping down in the wake of the well-publicized issues around admissions and bar-exam pass rates that contributed to the closure last year of the private, for-profit Charlotte School of Law.

NCCU’s assistant dean of law school admissions, Kyle Brazile, said law schools now face a presumption that washout rates above 20 percent signify “you’re not doing something right.”

“A lot of the questions we’re getting is us trying to justify to them that we’re not being predatory,” accepting students who have little chance to make it just “for the sake that we need people in the seats and we need a line item in the budget,” Brazile told the alumni.

He added that “that’s not what we’ve done and that’s not what we’ve ever done,” as the school historically and consciously gives chances to minorities, rural and first-generation students, and others who’ve had to overcome barriers.

But he conceded the NCCU law school probably “didn’t adjust correctly for market forces” the past few years, namely the lower demand for law schools slots both nationally and locally.

Since 2011-12, the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) has dropped by about 16 percent and the number of applicants to NCCU Law has gone down by about 41 percent.

Brazile said the school “will have to get tougher in our reviews” of applicants, especially those with bottom-quartile numbers on both grades and test scores.

Admissions officers will make more use of interviews to gauge whether someone with good grades and weak test scores is a good candidate, he said.

Judging applications is often “more art than science,” he added, explaining that even good grades and test scores can mask poor writing skills, a “fluff major” or simply having skated through an undergraduate program without working hard.

But “the point is, we’re going to be admitting less of everybody,” Brazile said. “We’re going to be shrinking the class size.”

NCCU Law took in 186 new first-years in the fall of 2017, according to an annual statistical report to the ABA. That’s already down from a recent peak of 245 in both 2012 and 2013.

As for the outside review, Akinleye said Interim Provost Carlton Wilson is lining up “three deans” to do the work. Two will come from out of state, and the group should visit campus in February to talk to students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Officials are reviewing a draft response to the ABA’s immediate concerns, but are counting on the reviewers to give them the bigger picture about where the school stands and what it needs.

“We’ll wait for the response,” Akinleye said when asked about the possibility of leadership changes or staff reductions. “It’s better to act that way so we have data and are not making emotional decisions.”

He added that the reviewers could also help Central refine its strategy for helping admitted law students and maintaining the school-of-opportunity approach.

“It’s not going to be helpful at this point to do any finger-pointing,” Akinleye said. “The key in front of us is to solve the problem. And we are going to solve the problem.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

Notable NCCU School of Law Alumni

Here’s a look at some notable N.C. Central University School of Law alumni, their graduation dates and their accomplishments, courtesy NCCU:

▪  Robert Glass, 1951, became the first African-American assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut. In 1987, he became the first NCCU alumnus to sit on a state supreme court and the first African-American justice to sit on the Connecticut Supreme Court.

▪  Floyd McKissick, Sr., 1951, went on to become National executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1972, he launched Soul City, N.C., the first new town sponsored primarily by African-American enterprise.

▪  Leroy R. Johnson, 1957, became the first African-American member of the Georgia Senate since Reconstruction. He also become the first African-American lawyer in the Southeast to be employed on the U.S. District Attorney’s staff in Atlanta, Georgia; the first African-American to head a legislative delegation; and the first African-American to be named chairman of a standing committee in the Georgia General Assembly.

▪  Sammie Chess Jr., 1958, and became the first African-American Special Superior Court judge in North Carolina.

▪  Clarence C. “Buddy” Malone, 1959, started the first African-American law firm in Durham. His office became a training ground for many young lawyers graduating from NCCU.

▪  H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, Jr., 1964, was the first African-American in the 20th century to serve as a U.S. Attorney in the South. N.C. Rep. Michaux, D-Durham, has served in the state House since 1983, after a six-year hiatus. He first served in the state House from 1973-77. Michaux is the longest-serving member of the North Carolina General Assembly.

▪  Maynard Jackson, 1963, became the first African-American mayor of Atlanta in 1974. At age 35, he became the youngest person to be elected to the office.

▪  Wanda G. Bryant, 1982, was the first woman and African-American assistant district attorney in the 13th prosecutorial district of North Carolina.

▪  Ola Lewis, 1990, was first woman appointed to a position of Superior Court judge east of Greensboro in 2000.

▪  Carol A. Jones, 1994, was the first woman to be elected as a District Court judge for the Fourth District in North Carolina in 2000.

▪  Brenda G. Branch, 2001, was the first AfricanAmerican woman to be appointed to Chief District judge in Halifax County, North Carolina in 2003.

▪  Frank S.Turner, 1973, was the first African-American Judge to serve on the Orphan's Court or any other court in Howard County, Maryland. He was appointed by then-Gov. William Schaffer. In 1995 he was the first African American elected to the legislature in Howard County.

▪  Clifton E. Johnson, 1967, became the first African-American Assistant State Prosecutor for North Carolina since the 19th century (1969); the first AfricanAmerican District Court judge in North Carolina; the first African-American Chief District Court judge; and the first African-American Resident Superior Court judge for North Carolina. He also became the first African-American to be appointed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. While serving on the appellate court he rose to the rank of Senior Associate judge and served as the state’s first African-American chairman of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission.

▪  Henry W. Oxendine, 1973, was the first Native-American to graduate from law school in the state of North Carolina. He was sworn in as the eighth judge of the Supreme Court of the Lumbee Tribe in 2006.

▪  Willie Gary, 1974, opened the first black law firm in Martin County, Florida in 1975. In 1995, he won a verdict of $500 million, one of the largest jury verdicts in U.S. history.

▪  Michael F. Easley, 1976, became the first NCCU School of Law alumnus to serve as attorney general and governor for the State of North Carolina.

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