Law Review: Villanova's unseemly silence over law-school scandal

Posted: June 12, 2011

Four months nearly to the day after Villanova University disclosed its law school had inflated grade-point averages and other admissions data, seemingly to improve its ranking in the pernicious yet all-too-closely followed U.S. News & World Report survey, the university appears to have settled on a communications strategy.

And that would be to say nothing.

Neither law school dean John Gotanda, who took over in January after the falsifying of data had ended, nor university spokesman Jonathan Gust is returning phone calls on this one.

Although the disclosure deeply shamed the university and set off a wave of campus anxiety, Villanova has decided the most comfortable course of action is to, in a public-relations and marketing sense, plead the fifth.

This, one must concede, is a pretty cheeky approach. Even the randy New York congressman Anthony Weiner felt compelled to hold a news conference.

The results of an internal probe by the Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray L.L.P. will remain confidential, it would appear, and neither the public, nor prospective students, will learn who cooked the books, how long it went on, and what the university is doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.

But that doesn't mean Villanova's scandal is taking place in a vacuum.

Even as university officials seek to squelch information about fraudulent admissions data, a group of law-school student-body presidents is trying to prevent it from happening again.

Given what they pay in tuition, and the enormous debt loads they take on to finance their legal education - more than $150,000 for many students - who could blame them?

After news broke that for a time before 2010 both grade-point averages and LSAT scores for entering freshmen at Villanova Law School had been inflated, student-body presidents of 55 law schools proposed legislation that would require schools to submit admissions and employment data to the federal Department of Education, which would have responsibility for ensuring its accuracy.

Locally, the student-body presidents of Drexel University's and Pennsylvania State University's law schools signed on.

Nate Burris, a recent Boston College Law School graduate who organized the action and drafted the bill, said the proposal reflected frustration of law students at the current dismal job market, the skyrocketing tuition costs, and suspicion that law schools have presented a too-rosy picture of their graduates' employment prospects.

The Villanova scandal played a role in the formation of the group and the proposed legislation, said Burris, but he maintains there are larger systemic issues at play.

"There is a big disincentive for the law schools to take the lead and make changes on their own," he says. "The concern was that . . . rising tuition rates led to higher debt burdens on students that are not sustainable in the job market as it exists."

Though the employment picture for young law-school graduates has eased slightly since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis, the market remains tight. Just how bad was made clear in a June 1 report by the National Association for Law Placement, a professional association that focuses on the training and recruitment of lawyers.

The NALP study said overall employment for new law-school graduates as of February was 87.6 percent, the lowest since 1996, when overall employment was at 87.4. While there is no specific breakdown on the jobs that are filled, schools can count any of their law-school graduates as employed, even if it isn't in the legal profession.

Delve a little deeper and the picture becomes gloomier. Jim Leipold, the NALP executive director, said that jobs created by law schools to help young graduates accounted for nearly 3 percent of jobs overall.

Strip those jobs out and you probably have to go back to 1993 or 1994, when the legal profession was struggling to recover from the 1990-91 recession and its particularly brutal impact on white-collar employment, to find numbers that bad.

"The tail of the Great Recession is long and there are few bright spots in the employment profile for the Class of 2010," wrote Leipold in an analysis that accompanied release of the job statistics.

The fraudulent data at Villanova Law School appears to have occurred under the administration of Mark Sargent, the former dean of the law school. Sargent stepped down in June 2009 amid disclosures that he had been cooperating with police in a Kennett Township prostitution investigation. Sargent was one of two customers who provided information to police that resulted in a no-contest plea by the man running the business.

Two American Bar Association committees are working on revamping the reporting requirements in an effort to better inform prospective students. One of the participants, David N. Yellen, dean of Loyola University School of Law in Chicago, says he doubts there's much that can be done to prevent the kind of out-and-out academic fraud that occurred with the Villanova numbers.

He says the upside is that it probably is very rare - there are only so many Bernie Madoffs in the world. The employment information is another matter. That is reported every year and used by U.S. News & World Report. Yellen says it is often misleading because it makes no distinction between full- and part-time employment. Moreover, salary data often are reported from a misleadingly small sample of graduates.

"To hear that 90 percent of a class is employed can mask dramatic underemployment," he says, adding that he expects the ABA to require more precision in the reported data.

Villanova might go a step beyond all of that and tell the public more about its admissions-data scandal - and what it has done to set things right.


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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