The Daily Gamecock

Law school struggles: Panel highlights school's problems

Report: School's shortcomings include lack of communication, faculty issues, weak leadership, few concrete goals


Editor's note: This story begins a three-day look into USC's Law School. Today's story focuses on problems within the school. Tomorrow's story will look at the deteriorating building and the stalled effort to construct a new one. The series will conclude Wednesday with a look toward the future.

Earlier this year, the depressing news from U.S. News and World Report was delivered to USC's School of Law.

The school was no longer in the Top 100, dropping into the unranked third tier of the annual report.

It was a frustrating day for students in the school, said Philip Land, president of the Student Bar Association.

"When we see USC Law, we have so much pride," Land said. "We want a ranking that reflects the level of pride we have. To see us fall into the third tier is to indicate somewhere along the way up, that level of pride isn't shared."

Dean Walter "Jack" Pratt said he didn't consider the rankings valid. The slightest hiccup from a school can drop it dozens of spots, Pratt said, as so many schools are clustered together in the second tier.

"But we are concerned because students, faculty and law firms use them," he said. A look into the school through the eyes of a recent Blue Ribbon Report and a resolution passed unanimously by the Student Bar Association shows the problems inside the Law School are vast and could take years to fix.

Following the drop in rankings and increased student concern, USC commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to investigate matters in the school. The group, comprised of top-level scholars and administrators, visited USC for three days in September, interviewing students, faculty and administrators.

It praised the school for its incredible students and high-level teaching, which it called great assets to the state of South Carolina. Overall, it noted the school has much to boast about.

But there are many problems.

The panel's report said everyone interviewed noted a lack of leadership in the school that has been present for quite a while. In eight years, the school has seen four different deans. Pratt's term ends in May, and he decided not to seek reappointment. He'll likely return to the faculty here.

"Like I've told many people, I'll be honest then instead of an administrator," Pratt said with a chuckle.

Following the meeting with the panel, USC's Student Bar Association wrote a resolution, which passed unanimously. The Blue Ribbon Report was released in late October.

A law school without a clear vision won't improve, said Land, and it's difficult to have a sustained vision without consistent leadership. The resolution said the school has "no concrete goals or identifiable priorities other than the construction of a new building." It also said "the school suffers from a sustained, omnipresent lack of effective organizational leadership" and lacks "a clear and compelling mission, vision or strategy."

No faculty members have been added in two years, according to the report.

"And many faculty have retired or moved elsewhere, with the result that the current faculty is disproportionately divided between either long-serving faculty with relative newcomers, with few members of medium seniority to bridge the
substantial generation gap between the two groups," the report said.

Its findings on power inside the school: The dean has little, if any. That means change is slow, the panel wrote, as all decisions can be stalled by several committees which control matters. In a meeting prior to the report's release, the Law School faculty encouraged the same changes, Pratt said.

"These and other provisions in your bylaws create a weak dean who must compromise on difficult decisions in order to achieve progress," the panel wrote. "... Change at your school is thereby more difficult than at peer institutions with which you compete."

Pratt said he trusted the judgment of the panel on that conclusion.

The panel noted a consistent and pervading lack of communication between the faculty and the administrators, between the faculty and the students and between the administrators and the Board of Trustees.

The report also said there was a feeling of resignation among many in the school, which said the problems would be solely those of the new dean.

Pratt said he considered the report a fair assessment of the school, but he disagreed with the lack of communication findings. Pratt said he'd met with students, faculty and staff frequently, scheduling monthly meetings where all topics were open for discussion.

"But if these folks said it was a problem, that's something I need to work on," Pratt said.

The report also encouraged USC to differentiate itself from other law schools and find a clear and consistent vision to recruit top students and retain faculty.

Provost Michael Amiridis said currently defining a vision is tricky. Since the school is in the middle of a search for a new dean, it is impractical to define a vision only for it to be later changed.

Amiridis hopes to have a new dean in place for the 2011-12 school year.

"You want a leader to come in and put his or her signature on the strategic vision," Amiridis said. "But if you're recruiting people, you can't say, 'We're not sure what we want to be; What do you want to be?'"

Part II: Damaged building hurts credibility