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Law faculty face uncertain future

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Layla Abbas
Editor in Chief

Jocelyn Arceo
Arts Editor

President Devorah Lieberman tried to reassure faculty of the University’s commitment to tenure and adherence to the Faculty Handbook Wednesday, following several unsettling weeks during which faculty across the University have raised concerns about administrators’ plans for tenured faculty at the College of Law and the implications for the University.

In an emailed statement sent late Wednesday afternoon, Lieberman wrote that the University’s money-saving plan to downgrade the College of Law from an American Bar Association accredited law school to a California Bar program “will make every good faith effort to place tenured faculty at the law school in the new Cal Bar program or in another suitable position at the University of La Verne for which they are qualified.”

Lieberman’s message also said, “We emphatically affirm the administration’s commitment to tenure and academic freedom as critical to student success at the University of La Verne. Furthermore, we are committed to following the Faculty Handbook.”

Lieberman’s message, sent to faculty, was cosigned by Provost Jonathan Reed, and it included a letter originally handed out at the Faculty Senate meeting Monday on behalf of the President’s Executive Cabinet.

His letter stated: “The serious financial shortcomings at the College of Law and its recent low bar pass rates, compounded by the new ABA standard on bar pass rates, have created an extraordinary circumstance. The Handbook has been and will be followed by administration in the plan submitted to the Board by Dec. 16.”

University-wide budgetary concerns and increasingly stringent ABA standards prompted the Board of Trustees in October to put together an ad hoc financial exigency committee, including faculty and administrators, to consider the struggling law school’s future, and whether to shut it down entirely.

The Board abided by the guideline in the Faculty Handbook that called for considering program discontinuance, which required a committee elected by the Faculty Senate to prepare a report of recommendations to the Board regarding the financial exigency of the College of Law.

The Faculty Handbook also states: “Before terminating a tenured appointment on grounds of financial or program exigency/discontinuance, the University will make every effort in good faith to place the faculty member concerned in another suitable position within the University; (And) the appointment of a faculty member with tenure shall not be terminated in favor of retaining a faculty member without tenure in the same program or college except in extraordinary circumstances where a serious distortion of the academic program would result.”

The Board decided to abort efforts to maintain American Bar Association accreditation, and instead transition to a California Bar Association accredited law school in fall 2020.

Despite the reassurance this week from administration, tenured faculty at the College of Law are still apprehensive about their future, said Diane Klein, professor of law and member of the ad hoc committee on exigency.

“We are in a state of considerable uncertainty,” Klein said.

Their uncertainty is based on some of the language used by the Board of Trustees in a November resolution for the Cal Bar transition that includes “an alarming and unnecessary plan to abolish tenure as part of the creation of a Cal Bar-accredited program,” according the Faculty Senate.

The Faculty Senate wrote a resolution in response to the Board resolution they found so troubling. (The full Senate resolution appears on page 9)

According to the Senate resolution, “The plans revealed by the administration are in square violation of protections contained in our Faculty Handbook … The statements and plans convey that the University regards persons awarded lifetime tenure as dispensable, and the Faculty Handbook and the commitment to tenure contained therein as meaningless.”

The Senate continued to discuss the concerns regarding the tenured faculty at their meeting Monday.

The administration and the ad hoc committee will submit their plans before the Board meets on Dec. 16.

Klein said the ad hoc committee is busily drafting their plan to present to the Board.

“The plan we are drafting will include a level of detail I think has not been addressed yet,” Klein said. “It will be a plan for the ABA teach out, Cal Bar accreditation transition, and it will include recommendations related to the retention and reappoint to the current tenured faculty.”

Klein said she is not only nervous for her future at the University but also for the institution of tenure itself.

There are a few specific phrases used in the November Board resolution that faculty senators have pointed to as most concerning and threatening to tenure and the letter of the Faculty Handbook, such as the following:
“In fact, the recent very low first time bar pass rate led the Board of Trustees to determine that there is a serious distortion of the academic program at the College of Law.”

“The phrase ‘serious distortion of the academic program’ appears in the Faculty Handbook at chapter 4.5.2.3A and B, and its meaning there has to do with circumstances under which tenured appointments can be terminated in favor of non-tenured faculty or in favor of hiring new faculty, and that is permitted only in extraordinary circumstances where a serious distortion in the academic program would otherwise result,” Klein said.

She added that the language used by the Board has nothing to do with the success of the program, rather, if following what is stated in the Faculty Handbook, it focuses on the retention of tenured and non-tenured faculty.

“If the Board has determined that the overall program in legal education is a complete failure, so be it,” Klein said. “That has nothing to do with this language or the University of La Verne’s ongoing obligations to the persons to whom it awarded tenure.”

Matthew Witt, professor of public administration and faculty senator, said he is somewhat encouraged by the president’s Wednesday email.

“I imagine the president and the provost have been listening to how concerned faculty are,” Witt said in a Thursday phone interview. “I suspect it wasn’t merely our letter from the Senate, it was that it came immediately (after) the Board of Trustees response to the faculty ad hoc committee. I imagine they may have not expected that to occur at all or so quickly, and that they took the Senate’s articulation of those concerns as an indication that faculty at large are likewise very concerned given language from the Board of Trustees that would seem to indicate tenure at the institution is, or would be, in a precarious (state).

“The proof will depend very much on what happens next … How will the administration respond to solicitation from the Senate executive committee which will be meeting with them Monday morning next week? … I think they got a very clear message from faculty that we’re paying very close attention.

“The College of Law are esteemed colleagues. They are us. They are the academy. We are one. What happens to them, happens to us… There is an overwhelming consensus that we need to see from (administration) nothing ambiguous about commitments to tenure. We’ll see next week.”

Layla Abbas can be reached at layla.abbas@laverne.edu.
Jocelyn Arceo can be reached at jocelyn.arceo@laverne.edu.

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