Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has added his voice to the many opposed to the sale of the Charleston School of Law to InfiLaw System, which represents a complete turnaround on his position.
When leaders of the private law school announced in July that they had entered into a management services agreement with InfiLaw - likely the first step in a sale - Riley said the sale would be good for the Charleston school and its students. Joining InfiLaw's existing system of three other law schools would bring more resources to the Charleston school, he said.
But in a December letter to the state's Commission on Higher Education, Riley discouraged the group from granting InfiLaw an operating license. And he stated that the city never would have sold a parcel of land at the corner of Meeting and Woolfe streets to the law school at below-market rate if it knew the law school would be sold to InfiLaw in the future.
The city in 2004 purchased the lot for $1.2 million, then sold it to the law school for $875,000. Riley said the city was trying to help the school earn accreditation from the American Bar Association, as well as give it room to expand.
"Certainly the city of Charleston would not have done this with any thought that eventually the Charleston School of Law would become part of a national, for-profit system of law schools," Riley stated in the Dec. 16 letter, which the commission released to The Post and Courier Friday.
Riley said Monday that he changed his mind about InfiLaw after having more time to study and understand the impact of the law school becoming part of a large, for-profit system. "It seemed logical at first blush," he said, "but on reflection, it's not the right course of action."
Robert Carr and George Kosko, two of the law school's three current owners, said in a prepared statement that the commission's role should be to fairly and objectively evaluate the merits of the pending application for licensure. "Such role should also be discharged free from any undue influence and with respect for the due process and other rights of the parties involved," they stated.
"While we recognize there is certain public interest in this matter, the fact is that the law school is a private business," Carr and Kosko stated. "The pending sale to InfiLaw is a free enterprise commercial transaction between two private entities."
They also stated that four of the law school's five original founders agreed that InfiLaw would provide the best future for the law school.
InfiLaw spokeswoman Kathy Heldman said the company remains committed to purchasing the school. "Unlike any other real or imagined potential purchaser, InfiLaw has the experience and resources to successfully own, operate and invest in the School. InfiLaw schools are independent and make their own academic, faculty and admissions decisions, and as a result, the community mission and culture of The Charleston School of Law will be preserved."
Many students, alumni and members of the state's legal community are opposed to the sale to InfiLaw because they say standards at the company's three other law schools are lower than those at Charleston School of Law. They are concerned that such a sale could diminish the value of a Charleston School of Law degree.
Charleston lawyer Peter Wilborn represents the Charleston School of Law Alumni Association, a group opposed to the sale.
Wilborn said many students and alumni would not have enrolled at the school if they had known it could become part of InfiLaw in the future.
"It's clear that students are not the only ones that are getting the bait-and-switch," Wilborn said. The taxpayers are as well because they covered the cost of the discounted land that was sold to the law school. "Taxpayers subsidized a private concern so the owners could make money," he said. "The city wouldn't have given it to them if it was just to line their pockets."
The commission is in the process of reviewing InfiLaw's application for a license, spokeswoman Julie Carullo has said.
According to an update on the law school on its website, the commission accepted public input on the matter online through the end of the day Monday.
And the commission has formed a three-person external review team to help the commission investigate whether it's appropriate to grant InfiLaw a license. Committee members are Charles Arberg, director for judicial education at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C.; Rhesa Rudolph, assistant executive director of the Florida Commission for Independent Education in Tallahassee; and Robert Wells, executive director of the South Carolina Bar Association in Columbia.
The Charleston School of Law also has been mentioned in the ongoing push by some legislators and higher education leaders to merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.
Last week, College of Charleston President George Benson made a strong statement to the House Ways and Means' Higher Education Subcommittee supporting the merger of those schools, and appealing to members to include the Charleston School of Law in that plan.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.