The Charleston School of Law has been a good fit for Charleston and the legal community locally and statewide. And information reported today by Diane Knich shows that it has been financially stable as well.
Only since InfiLaw came on the scene to try to buy CSOL and make it the company's fourth law school have questions been raised about CSOL's viability and success.
Indeed, InfiLaw's proposed purchase has become a flashpoint of controversy in the community with many faculty, students and alumni as well as Mayor Joe Riley, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and a number of other state lawmakers opposed to it.
Suggestions that CSOL would fail without InfiLaw have been convincingly refuted by lawyer Edward J. Westbrook, one of the school's founders.
It is up to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, which meets Thursday, to go beyond easy answers and assess whether InfiLaw should be allowed to own and operate CSOL. The state attorney general's office has said members may consider only specific criteria outlined by law. That would restrict them from considering, for example, pending lawsuits at two InfiLaw schools.
Although InfiLaw's Columbia lawyer, Kevin Hall, insists his client will prevail and be licensed, opponents to the sale believe they can demonstrate why InfiLaw's bid shouldn't advance.
CHE staff has recommended InfiLaw's licensing, but the commission's Academic Affairs and Licensing Committee voted 3-1 against it last month. During its deliberations, the CHE should carefully review the reasons for the committee's decision. Those include, for example, InfiLaw's academic standards and reputation. And members need to carefully examine the college's financial health. While InfiLaw contends that CSOL can't make it without its support, Mr, Westbrook says otherwise.
Mr. Westbrook, who supplied the funds to start the Charleston School of Law, and who, with two partners, purchased a building on Mary Street for CSOL to rent, has pledged to offer needed financial support for the school to continue. He also says it is reasonable to expect all five of the founders who divided $25 million from the school's profits to give back what is necessary to keep the school going.
Mr. Westbrook might be overly optimistic about that. Two of the five have been bought out. Of the three remaining, he is the only one opposed to selling to InfiLaw.
But Mr. Westbrook does have a plan for CSOL absent InfiLaw. He says the college's leadership had begun the process of making CSOL a non-profit school with its own independent board of trustees.
Opponents of the sale convincingly argue that a shift to the non-profit model would be better for the school, its home community and the state.
And as a sign of its financial health, CSOL had also begun design work for a new building on property it owns on Woolfe Street.
CSOL's red ink, Mr. Westbrook says, started when the founders borrowed, over his objection, $6 million from InfiLaw to pay Judge Alex Sanders and Ralph McCullough for their interest in the school, when they decided to step down. Then a management team was hired for the transition to InfiLaw, and when things didn't go well, a crisis management crew was hired, too - both at considerable expense.
In addition, 32 students transferred from CSOL when InfiLaw entered the picture, and 18 withdrew their acceptance letters. The losses resulted in a seven-figure drop in income.
The Charleston School of Law has been successful, and it has been embraced by the local community and the legal community.
To the extent possible in the permitting process, the Commission on Higher Education should consider whether InfiLaw is the right entity to own and operate the Charleston School of Law.
It doesn't make sense to gamble on an unpopular change when the current school structure has worked well - and is still a viable option.
Editors Note: Previous versions of this editorial incorrectly identified Edward Westbrook. He is a lawyer.
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