Bell brings law school high hopes for future

The first time Georgetown attorney Ed Bell spoke to the student body of the Charleston School of Law, he gave them his personal cellphone number.

It was early November, shortly after he had been named president and part-owner of the struggling school, before a packed auditorium at the Charleston Museum. After 21/2 tumultuous years, in which the school teetered on the brink of closure and financial collapse, Bell knew his students must have dozens of questions about the future of the school, the value of their degrees and whether the for-profit, Florida-based InfiLaw System was still poised to take over.

So he told the crowd to pull out their cellphones and text him their questions. He expected he would receive two or three. Instead, his phone lit up with almost 200 messages.

“I thought he was crazy,” recalled Matt Kelly, president of the Student Bar Association. “But true to his word, he responded to people. When people send emails, whether it’s him or members of the administration, you get actual responses.”

Among students and faculty, Bell’s brief tenure as president has breathed new optimism into a school that had been limping along on life support for months. The Sumter native, who helped keep Garden & Gun magazine afloat during the recession, has committed to converting the law school into a nonprofit by the second half of 2016. When the American Bar Association approves the transition, Bell said he will assume sole ownership of the school.

“Changing this school from a for-profit school to not-for-profit school is going to be huge,” Bell said. “We won’t have the temptation to look at the money.”

In an interview at his Georgetown office, Bell described his plans for overhauling the law school:

He’s juggling offers from three development groups to build a new permanent campus for the School of Law. He’s talking to state lawmakers about starting a special court of general jurisdiction in downtown Charleston where students can try actual cases under the supervision of their professors. He wants to grow the School of Law Foundation with the hope that one day students can graduate debt-free.

The law school is still on the hook for a $6 million loan from InfiLaw, but Bell has promised “the note will be taken off the books soon” without using tuition dollars to cover it.

“The opinion is unanimous: There is no downside to what Ed Bell is doing. I haven’t heard one criticism,” said Nancy Zisk, one of the three tenured professors who sued the school after they were terminated in May. Zisk was reinstated in August after the court granted an injunction allowing her to keep her job. “Everything we said, everything we were fighting for, he has responded to precisely, which again, is sort of amazing.”

The turmoil at the Charleston School of Law began in 2013, when two of the school’s founders announced their intention to sell the school to InfiLaw, a plan that faculty and students vigorously opposed. The proposed sale hit several snags as school leaders sought the necessary approval for the deal from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. Zisk and two other laid-off professors, Allyson Haynes Stuart and William Want, claimed they were fired for their outspoken opposition to the InfiLaw sale and sued the school,

InfiLaw ultimately withdrew its application for a license to operate the School of Law. The proposed sale fizzled.

Meanwhile, the law school’s enrollment continued to decline and its reputation suffered. Student and faculty morale plummeted.

“It was a bruising fight,” said Bill Janssen, a longtime professor at the law school. “But it was also a fight with the purest of intentions — the students, the alumni, the community, the faculty all were galvanized together to achieve a goal that was student-centric, making sure that the quality of education and the resources available for that were in place.”

With Bell at the helm, “a buoyancy” has returned to the hallways, Janssen said. “It’s a night and day change.” Bell ordered the law school’s attorneys to drop its counterclaims against the professors who sued.

The School of Law still faces several hurdles as it rebuilds its reputation. In December, the U.S. Department of Education added the Charleston School of Law to a growing list of colleges and universities across the country under “heightened cash monitoring” by the office of Federal Student Aid. According to the Education Department, an institution may be subject to increased oversight for a range of financial or federal compliance issues, including late financial statements, outstanding liabilities, accreditation issues and, in the case of the School of Law, concerns surrounding its financial responsibility.

Bell described the law school’s inclusion on the list as a “kind of probation,” based on its financial issues from 2014.

“All schools struggle financially, for some reason it’s the nature of the beast, and I’m going to change that,” Bell said. “We’re going to be entrepreneurial about the way we do things.”

Enrollment at the school also dropped nearly 22 percent in the fall, to 355 students from 454 students in the fall of 2014. Bell said he hopes to enroll at least 100 new freshmen every year until the school houses roughly 650 students.

To that end, he said he’s written just under 2,000 personal letters to every pre-law college adviser in the country to reassure them about the future of the Charleston School of Law. He’s even included his home phone number so they can call him at night if they have any questions.

As president, Bell has agreed to pay himself a $1 annual salary. He’s already kicked himself out of the president’s office on King Street, which was costing the law school $1 million in annual rent.

Turning the school around, Bell estimates, will cost about $15 million.

Asked whether he would be willing to fund the school’s sea change himself, Bell said, “I’m willing to put in anything.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.