Over the past 10 years, the Charleston School of Law has won respect from the local community and solid reviews from the legal community statewide. It has produced lawyers committed to public service, and its presence has added to the energy and appeal of the upper King Street area.
So it's no wonder that InfiLaw, a Florida corporation, wants CSOL to become its fourth law school.
And it's no wonder that CSOL alumni, faculty, students and the wider community want to make dead sure that this asset isn't diminished.
The process of ensuring CSOL's continued success is taking longer than InfiLaw would like. The intended purchase was announced last summer, and it is still not clear when - or even if - it can be completed.
Indeed, uncertainty could play havoc with student recruitment and admissions for the fall. And current students, while they are assured CSOL will be in business and viable, surely feel uneasy about the coming semester and the long-term value of their law degrees.
However, giving short shrift to state oversight could result in a larger deficit than keeping students and faculty in limbo a bit longer.
It was a surprise that the four-person Academic Affairs and Licensing Committee voted Monday 3-1 to recommend that the full Commission on Higher Education reject InfiLaw's application for a license to operate the school. CHE staff recommended in favor of InfiLaw. The full commission will take up the request on June 6.
Some of the persuasive momentum against InfiLaw has come from people's personal investment in CSOL and their concern that the school's reputation will suffer if the purchase goes through. The school was founded by five respected lawyers and judges, two of whom have sold their interests. One of the present owners is not in favor of the sale, but two of the owners are pushing it.
Opponents to the sale say the hard work of building a successful law school would be undermined by an ill-advised "marriage" to InfiLaw.
But the CHE is charged with examining hard data, not emotion, to determine if InfiLaw is capable of operating the school and likely to make a success of it.
For example, Licensing Committee members rightly expressed concern about a lawsuit by faculty members of the InfiLaw school in Phoenix, Ariz., alleging breach of contract and claiming that it defrauded students. Another lawsuit against InfiLaw's school in Naples, Fla., alleged it misrepresented student success and job placement.
InfiLaw's Columbia-based lawyer, Kevin Hall, maintained that the ongoing suits were baseless. InfiLaw insists it has the expertise and assets to capably operate CSOL.
But the CHE would be remiss if it didn't consider all of the issues that have been raised, including InfiLaw schools' rate of student attrition. A high attrition rate typically means many students leave a law school with no degree and a large amount of debt.
Matt Kelly, a 28-year-old second-year CSOL student, visited two of InfiLaw's schools at their invitation, and says he plans to ask the commission to order a third-party audit to ensure InfiLaw's self-reported post-graduation job rates and other statistics are accurate.
The Commission on Higher Education has been accused of being ineffective in shaping the higher-ed landscape across the state. For example, the University of South Carolina was able to begin a new medical school in Greenville with minimal oversight. The college was able to avoid CHE scrutiny under the pretext that its plan was merely an expansion of the existing medical school in Columbia.
It is encouraging that, in this case, the state's stewards of higher education have been able to assume the authority that CHE should exercise in every instance. The sale of the law school is a private business transaction, but the school's role in South Carolina demands public scrutiny.
The Commission on Higher Education, beginning with its Licensing Committee, is evidently meeting that responsibility.
The commission's final decision must be based on solid, pertinent facts - and on the best interests of our state and the Charleston School of Law.
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