A press release announcing the beginning of the end of the Charleston School of Law had been circulating on Twitter for more than an hour, but most, if not all, of the faculty members who had gathered on the gutted second floor of the BellSouth Building to hear their bosses speak were in the dark.
Two beleaguered members of the school’s board of directors, Robert Carr and George Kosko, both retired U.S. magistrates, stood in front of their wary audience on the afternoon of May 6 as Carr read from the release.
(Click here for EXCLUSIVE video of the meeting at the school)
“The Charleston School of Law expects to make a formal announcement next week about whether it will accept a first-year class of students in the fall, the school announced today. We cannot in good faith enroll another class…”
But after finishing the statement that was sent to reporters, Carr delivered an ultimatum to the faculty members that had not been released publicly. He said that they could either become cheerleaders for the school’s sale to the InfiLaw System, or he and Kosko would close the private, for-profit school and everyone would lose their jobs.
Carr and Kosko urged the faculty to tell their students that this was a good deal for them and their school, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of professors view InfiLaw as a diploma mill that churns out new lawyers who are saddled with big debts and little opportunities to find decent legal jobs.
They say Carr and Kosko are desperately trying to sell the school to InfiLaw and have ignored other nonprofit options because they stand to make millions off the deal. The school’s five founders, a group that includes Carr and Kosko, already siphoned $25 million in profits from the school between 2010 and 2013.
(Related: Hostile climate for law schools played major role in CSOL’s woes.)
During the meeting, Carr and Kosko also asked the professors to send private emails of support to InfiLaw representatives and the state’s Commission on Higher Education, which controls the license that allows the school to operate, according to Jon Marcantel, an associate professor who was in the room that day.
“The room was largely silent. A couple people cried,” he said. “But for the most part we remained rather stoic.”
Some of the professors tried to sit on nearby windowsills – the only seats available in the yawning, unfurnished meeting space – but the sills were “covered in filth,” he added.
Carr and Kosko’s decision to make their announcement on the vacant floor of the BellSouth Building was a calculated one. Marcantel said the pair told faculty members that all this open space was available for lease to the school and could be turned into new faculty offices, but only if the InfiLaw deal went through.
“If their expectation was that we would go for the carrot, they did not receive the anticipated effect,” he said. “There’s no way in hell.”
Turning the screws
Students were in the middle of exams when Carr and Kosko stirred up anxiety about the school’s fate, said Matt Kelly, president of the school’s Student Bar Association. The move, he said, was in “poor taste.”
“That’s putting it nicely,” he added. “For individuals that purport to have a deep care for students and the school that they founded, their timing is questionable.”
Faculty, alumni and students were baffled not only by Carr and Kosko’s bad timing but also by their decision to announce that they planned to make a “formal announcement” at a later date about the future of the school.
“Either say something or don’t,” said Wes Allison, a member of the school’s alumni association. “I don’t know what their point was here, other than to cause further concern among students and alumni.”
Carr and Kosko were maintaining radio silence as of May 12, six days after their initial announcement darkened the shadow of uncertainty that has been looming over the school’s campus since the InfiLaw deal was first announced in 2013.
“We will issue a release when there is something to say,” Andy Brack, a spokesman for the school, wrote in an email.
Regardless of the finality of their statements, Carr and Kosko generated widespread speculation about the impending demise of the 12-year-old school. The Washington Post published an article titled, “Charleston School of Law to Close?” The Wall Street Journal wondered the same thing.
Many of the school’s first- and second-year students weren’t waiting around for a final word from Carr and Kosko. Nearly all of them requested their transcripts in preparation for transfer within a couple days of hearing that the school might be closing, according to Kelly, who is entering his third year at the school.
“If given the opportunity, I’d very much like to graduate from the Charleston School of Law,” he said. “My classmates are evaluating their options, but they’re limited. Some are doing visiting semesters at other campuses. Others are taking summer classes to push forward their graduation dates.”
Several students have already demanded that the school refund the deposits they put down on their tuition.
InfiLaw also appears to have backed away from the school, stating publicly that it had no plans to go back before the Commission on Higher Education and reapply for a license to operate the school. Opposition from faculty, students, and alumni thwarted the first attempt.
The school still owes InfiLaw substantial “management fees,” but the company has not begun collection procedures on the defaulted loan, said InfiLaw spokeswoman Kathy Heldman. She declined to say how much the school owed.
“We made these sacrifices so that the school could meet its financial obligations, including paying salaries, but we will not loan the school any additional funds,” Heldman said. “Our heart goes out to the students and alumni of the school and to the citizens of Charleston, who appear to be about to lose a wonderful civic resource.”
Standing up to InfiLaw
Many faculty members, students, and alumni would rather see the Charleston School of Law’s windows go dark before it becomes part of the InfiLaw System, which includes the Charlotte School of Law.
“No one knows what the long-term consequences of [closure] would be, but most of the alumni that I’ve talked with believe that would be less of a risk to the value of their degrees than having the school subsumed by InfiLaw,” said John Robinson, president of the school’s alumni association.
A professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he and his colleagues are willing to lose their jobs to avoid being cogs in InfiLaw’s “dirty business.”
“We want to be the faculty that stood up to InfiLaw and won,” he said.
The source added that some of the tenured professors were considering taking legal action against Carr and Kosko. Tenured professors can only be fired when a school declares financial exigency, meaning that the school is in such dire financial straits that its owners have no choice but to cut staff.
He said the professors could sue under the legal theory that Carr and Kosko lacked the grounds to override their tenure because they intentionally ruined the school by triggering a self-induced financial exigency in their quest to make a profit from the InfiLaw sale.
“They’ve taken this all the way to the brink,” he added. “They’re trying to intimidate everyone into accepting InfiLaw. And now people are transferring out and the school may end up closing because we don’t have any students.”
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz
Rules of closure
The Charleston School of Law appears to be on the verge of closing, but that doesn’t mean that the institution can shut its doors overnight and put faculty and students on the street with little advance notice.
The school has full accreditation by the American Bar Association, which requires ABA schools to follow a “teach-out plan” when the owners decide to cease operations.
Under the plan, CSOL must “provide for the equitable treatment of students” and that calls for continuing to give existing students the quality of education that they expected to receive when they joined the school.
The plan also requires a clear description of the financial responsibilities of all the parties involved in the closure.
The ABA’s accreditation committee would have to review and approve CSOL’s plan before the school could begin winding down.
If CSOL were to close without an approved teach-out plan, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education would work with the U.S. Department of Education and the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education to help students complete their education elsewhere at no additional cost.
One of CSOL’s owners, Robert Carr, told faculty members on May 6 that two ABA accredited law schools have expressed interest in stepping up and taking Charleston students. He added that CSOL’s lawyer is in confidential talks with one of those schools.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO of the meeting is below: