Whittier College confirms there was no “financial exigency” at Law School

Confirming earlier blog posts (here and here) on the Whittier College law school closing, KPCC Radio reported yesterday that Whitter College President Sharon Herzberger stated the decision to close was not made because of “financial exigency” but instead was made “on the basis of educational considerations.”

A review of Whittier College’s financial statements (available online here), an application for a TRO filed by lawyers representing law school faculty and the widespread reporting on the announcement led to my original conclusion. (The ex parte TRO application was dismissed “without prejudice” apparently because the Judge wanted to review it after notice to the College. It is not clear if the faculty will re-file the petition.)

Whittier’s explanation is important because, one, it helps set the record straight and weakens the claims of many law school critics (and some leading law school faculty) who arguably favored the closure, but, two, points to a fundamental problem with the decision.

Whittier is a signatory to the AAUP Statement of Principles. These principles are also embedded in its Faculty Handbook which sets the terms, in part, of its employment agreements with faculty. (See the TRO Application at 7.) This commitment obligates the College to undertake closure of educational units like a law school only after a determination “primarily” by the faculty, or a committee thereof, that it is warranted.

The only vague evidence of an attempt at this was a task force formed with faculty that reviewed the law school. In his statement announcing the closing, Alan Lund, the Whittier College Board of Trustees President referenced this task force. But he failed to mention that, first, the task force was not asked to respond to an actual proposal to shut down the law school by the trustees or the administration (a decison reportedly made only a few days before it was annoounced), and, second, the task force actually concluded, according to a declaration cited in the TRO application, that shutting down the law school would damage the College as a whole.

Of course, the wider factual context remains unchanged: while Whittier’s bar passage rate had fallen significantly in the last few years, the nearby market for lawyers has steadily improved. This raises the question whether or not, if the faculty task force recommendations had been followed, the law school might now be on a healthy trajectory. Given the significant damage the closing by Whittier imposes that question deserves further scrutiny.