Alumni Board statement to the Charleston County Legislative Delegation

John Robinson, as president of the Charleston School of Law Alumni Board, appeared before members of the Charleston County Legislative Delegation today to address alumni concerns and to attempt to aid the delegation and the Commission on Higher Education as they pursue answers about the changes happening at the Charleston School of Law. Representatives from CHE, the South Carolina Bar, and the Charleston School of Law student body also appeared, made remarks, and answered questions. Although invited to participate, representatives from the Charleston School of Law were notably either absent or silent.

John Robinsons remarks, as prepared, follow:

First let us start by thanking the members of the Charleston County legislative delegation for holding this public meeting—the alumni who have worked to help build the Charleston School of Law know that in its short ten years’ history it has become an important part of the life of our city and our state; we are gratified to know that you, too, recognize that the school’s well-being affects the well-being of all your constituents, whether directly or indirectly. And we must also thank the delegation specifically for giving our alumni an opportunity to be heard today.  We care deeply about the Charleston School of Law and the direction it is heading. 

Classes began this week at the Charleston School  of Law.   In addition to the fears and anxieties that come with being a first-year law student, trying to navigate difficult subject matter and learning to think in a new way about the word, CSOL students must be thinking about the future of their school.  What will it look like when I graduate?  Will there be a school here?  Will the school I signed on to attend have the same role and purpose, both during the time that I am a student, and in the future?

When the law school announced at the end of July that it had entered into a “management services agreement” with Infilaw Services, the reaction among alumni was swift and strongly negative. Who was “Infilaw Services?” Why Infilaw Services? Why an out-of-state law school franchisor? And why, indeed, an out-of-state law school franchisor whose schools are  being sued by their own students and faculty, whose policies concern academicians that I have spoken with. Why a private-equity-fund-owned, out-of-state law school franchisor with no relationship to South Carolina, our community, our students, or our alumni? And what was a “management services agreement” anyway?  What does it look like?  How does it affect current and future students?  Who is running CSOL?

In the intervening weeks, the answers to those questions have been few and many questions answered have unsatisfactory responses.    What we have learned concerns us more: First, we learned that Judge Alex Sanders and Ralph McCullough had both withdrawn from the partnership, their shares “redeemed”; we are all left to wonder just exactly what that means. Next, we learned that there will be a representative from Infilaw, Peter Goplerud, on campus this fall occupying Ralph McCullough’s old office, though we are assured nothing has changed, and Infilaw is not in charge here; we are all left to wonder why, then, exactly they are here, if not to make changes at the school. And, most recently, we learned that, in fact, at least one remaining owner and director of the law school, Mr. Ed Westbrook, shares our concerns and strongly opposes the Infilaw deal.

Our efforts at learning more, at having our concerns assuaged have been met by stonewalling from the remaining directors, retired Judge Bob Carr and former Judge George Kosko, always under under the guise of confidentiality agreements with one party or another. And yesterday we learned that the remaining directors would decline to participate in today’s meeting, citing fears that their licensure might be in jeopardy if the subject of public school mergers were introduced. We are disappointed, but at this point not surprised, at this continued rejection of dialogue and transparency. Of course, we understand that the law school is a private business and that the rules governing South Carolina corporations do not require transparency of ordinary businesses. But the legislature has long recognized that when a corporation’s stated business is the education of South Carolinians, there must be rules in place to protect students as consumers and the public at large from corporate decisions that would adversely affect either. We appreciate the fact that CHE, and other stakeholders, are asking to see the management services or consulting agreement; prospective and current students have a right to know what’s going on at the school.  So does the Bar and the community.   We are relieved to know that significant changes in ownership and management  at the law school cannot take place without oversight from numerous regulatory bodies, perhaps most importantly from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. We fully believe and expect that the CHE will use all the powers granted to it by the legislature to ensure that any change in management or ownership at the school does not adversely affect the student experience or the public interest.  Judge Sanders correctly stated that selling a law school is not like selling a loaf of bread.  This hearing is proof of the public’s concern and your proactive response to a matter of great importance to the lowcountry and state.

 The alumni of the Charleston School of Law want to see the school thrive and survive. We believe that those who founded the school are surely entitled to reap the economic benefits of their investments. We believe that there are alternative plans to the course Mr. Westbrook fears and objects to. We have heard many good ideas from the alumni and from the community at large and will welcome any opportunity to workwith the school, the community, our state government, and all interested parties to ensure a strong and secure future in our community for the school we have loved and supported. The crisis of the last few weeks can, with hard work from all who care about the school, appear in hindsight as opportunity. Let us seize this opportunity to do something good for the legal community, the lowcountry, and the State.

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