Dean says Villanova law school is back on track after admissions scandal

Though the data-falsification scandal "was a terrible black eye," dean John Y. Gotanda says, "the response has been tremendous."
Though the data-falsification scandal "was a terrible black eye," dean John Y. Gotanda says, "the response has been tremendous." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2012

Relaxed and smiling in his third-floor office at Villanova University's gleaming, glass-sheathed law school building on the Main Line, dean John Y. Gotanda gives no hint of the trauma that gripped the school in early 2011.

That was when the law school disclosed that admissions data for incoming freshmen had been falsified for an unknown period before 2010 and that the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray had been retained to get to the bottom of it. The scandal, which quickly gained national traction, found a ready audience of legal-education critics, who alleged that law schools writ large had been playing games for years with data and had been overcharging their students, to boot.

Since then, Villanova has been given high marks for dealing squarely with an issue that threatened its accreditation. The results of the Ropes & Gray probe were made public, senior administrators in the school's admissions department were let go, and the university hired the accounting and consulting firm KPMG to analyze its procedures and make recommendations for tighter controls on data.

The school also engaged former FBI Director Louis Freeh, the epitome of a tough-guy prosecutor, to serve as a monitor for two years, to make sure things stay on the straight and narrow.

Those measures seemingly have won a vote of confidence from both alumni and students. Gotanda said that the 2011 incoming class, at least when measured by class rank and LSAT scores, was the highest-quality ever. Fund-raising, meanwhile, hit a record level for the year ending in May, for years in which the law school was not in the middle of a campaign. The bulk of that money was given on an unrestricted basis, suggesting that Villanova law school graduates trust that the administration knows what it is doing.

"How can it happen? It was a small, closed group of people who held that information with very little transparency, and when they had a closed loop there, it was very hard to penetrate that," Gotanda said of the admissions-data scandal. "While I would admit it was a terrible black eye, the response has been tremendous."

That the law school was able to admit a high-quality class and succeed with its annual fund-raising during a time of very bad publicity, he said, speaks volumes about its institutional resilience.

Quite apart from the admissions scandal, these are times of great stress for legal educators. The job market for young law school graduates has been down for four years, with no hint of a robust recovery. Gotanda pointed to statistics compiled by University of Washington law school professor Brian Z. Tamanaha projecting 25,000 new legal-job openings each year through 2018 for the 45,000 or so lawyers graduating from schools each year.

In response, Villanova, like its peers, has ratcheted down the size of its incoming class, from 250 or so to 215. But it also has launched a far-reaching review of its curriculum and admissions criteria.

A consensus has emerged that even though the school already emphasizes business training - it offers a joint MBA and law-degree program that comprises 15 percent of its enrollment - there ought to be more. So the school is looking at adding nonlegal business courses to help future graduates better relate to and understand commercial clients.

"We think they should have such skills as finance, marketing and project management because lawyers today work across disciplines," he said.

In its early years, in the 1950s, Villanova sought out students who had been leaders of student-government organizations, on the theory those attributes would help them rise to the top.

And some of the top institutions of the region turned out to have Villanova law grads running them, such as David Girard-diCarlo, who served as chairman of SEPTA, went on to build the Blank Rome law firm into a litigation and lobbying powerhouse, and served for a time as the U.S. ambassador to Austria. Villanova law grad Nina Gussack, chair of the 500-lawyer Pepper Hamilton firm based in Center City, is one of a handful of women in the country to have run a major national law firm.

For Gotanda, the timing of his rise to leader of Villanova law was especially problematic. The data-tampering scandal broke three weeks after he had taken over, after a long career on the Villanova faculty. After releasing the barest of details, the university shut down communications. It later emerged that it was under instructions to do so from the American Bar Association, while Ropes & Gray conducted its investigation.

The atmosphere of crisis management that took hold makes Gotanda's earlier career seem almost becalming. He was raised in Hawaii, where he did his undergraduate work and also went to law school.

He worked as a staff lawyer at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and later went on to the prominent Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling, where he developed his career-long interest in international litigation and corporate law. He followed his future wife to Boston for a short time before joining the Villanova faculty in 1994.

Brenda Gotanda is now a partner at the Bala Cynwyd environmental law firm Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox L.L.P. The couple live in Bryn Mawr with their two young children.

Of all the places he has lived, John Gotanda said, he is most fond of the Philadelphia region. Its legal community is large and complex, and thus most interesting, he said. And there is easy access to Washington and New York.

For a lawyer and legal educator like him, Gotanda said, a perfect combination.


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

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