Nearly 100 Whittier Law School students gathered outside of Mendenhall Hall on Friday Apr. 21st to protest Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger and the College Board of Trustees’ decision to close the law school.
The students replaced the normal Friday afternoon sound of rushing cars on Painter Avenue with loud chanting and honking horns. Those who had travelled to Whittier College from the Costa Mesa campus stationed themselves in front of the building to establish a presence on the corner of Philadelphia Street and Painter Avenue surrounded with news trucks andlocal reporters.
It quickly became clear to passersby that the passionate students, equipped with signs demanding answers, had a major issue at hand.
“I’m concerned about the validity of my degree, and that’s why I’m standing here today,” said Awa Henderson, a graduating student at Whittier Law School. “I care because I’m about to graduate and our school’s reputation is on the line. It’s already hard in the legal field to get a job, and with this going on, it’s making my chances even slimmer.”
Two days prior, Whittier Law School’s Board of Trustees announced that the school would not be accepting new students for the upcoming Fall Semester and that the law program will be discontinued once the remaining students have graduated. The decision will make Whittier Law School the first law school fully accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) in the nation to close its doors in recent history.
“We believe we have looked at every realistic option to continue a successful law program,” said Board Chairman Alan Lund in an online statement. “Unfortunately, these efforts did not lead to a desired outcome.”
President Herzberger and the Board of Trustees cited “concern over educational outcomes” as a large factor in the decision to close the school. “The Board was very mindful of the fact that nationally, the landscape for legal education had changed drastically,” said Herzberger. “It was educational considerations and, in particular, the board was concerned about the bar passage rate of our students and whether we were serving them well, given what their rate was.”
In 2015, Whittier Law School had a 38 percent passage rate on the bar exam, and the following year that number dropped to 22 percent. However, in November 2016, abovethelaw.com reported that California’s bar exam pass rate was at a 32-year low, with an overall pass rate of 43 percent. This could indicate that the struggles of Whittier Law School students are in tune with national trends.
“The faculty had tried various things, such as changing the curriculum or changing the bar pass program multiple times over the years,” said Herzberger. “The faculty were putting into place what they thought would be improvements, but the problem is that you don’t know if this will work until four years down the road, and by that time you’ve accepted four more classes.”
According to the Law School, first-year enrollment fell from 303 in 2010 to 132 last year. However, President Herzberger claims that enrollment and the Board’s decision are not connected.
“We have deliberately reduced targets for the number of incoming students each year recently, responding to the continued interest among graduates in securing a legal education,” said Herzberger. “There was no direct connection between enrollment and the decision by the Board.”
In their statement, the Board of Trustees indicated that they had explored other options, which Herzberger confirmed, explaining that these options were being considered over the past two years. “[One] option was to find a way that the Law School could demonstrate rapidly improved student outcomes,” said Herzberger. “[The second] option was to find someone else to invest in the Law School or find a way to merge with another, since the ABA has said that there are too many law schools in the area and trying to attract students to the law schools is challenging in this area.”
Herzberger said that throughout the process, Whittier Law School students were informed of the options that the Board of Trustees was considering. “They certainly knew what the bar pass rate was, and they knew that we were working with another group to take over the law school, which would’ve allowed us to continue to operate for the next couple of years during the transition,” said Herzberger. “I think in any situation like this, it’s hard to accept the reality and so I can understand the student’s position, but the truth is that they were well-informed.”
However, the primary reason that students of the Law School gathered in front of Mendenhall in the days following the Board’s decision was they felt that they were blindsided.
“On Tuesday, when [The Board of Trustees] informed us of this news, that was the first time that we ever heard of it,” said Henderson. “In January, when they had the land sale, they didn’t inform us of the sale and they didn’t tell us that the students were going to be okay and that they were going to bring in a private entity to take over the school. They never once told us that our degrees would be jeopardized and that the Law School would be closing. This was the first time that we’re aware of this information, and when they did break this news to us, they had absolutely no answers.”
Despite concerns over communication between the Board and student body, President Herzberger says that the remaining students at the law school will be a top priority during this transition period. “We haven’t decided on a set closing date yet,” said Herzberger. “What we’re doing is trying to plan that out and to see exactly how we’re going to make sure that students have the opportunity to complete their JD in a timely fashion. We have to develop that plan and then that’ll be known. But the important thing for the students to know is that we’re committed to our existing students right now.”
In January of 2017, Whittier College sold the property where the Law School currently sits, making the institution renters on the property for the next two years. Herzberger confirmed that a large portion of the profit gained from the sale went back toward paying off the debt on the land, but the remaining profit will go to Whittier College, where the Board of Trustees will decide how that money is used.