By Tyler Roberts
Arizona Summit Law School has just a little over a month — until May 15 — to prepare a plan to present to the American Bar Association that shows how the school is improving and why it should keep its accreditation.
If not, the school could be forced to close in the coming years.
After failing to meet a number of accreditation standards — including a poor bar passage rate last July, the troubled for-profit law school was placed on probation at the end of March by the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Describing the situation as critical and urgent, the ABA stated that Arizona Summit’s admission practices, academic programming, graduation rates and bar passage rates have “resulted in the Law School now being in a position where only immediate and substantial action can bring about sufficient change to put the law school on a realistic path back to being in compliance.”
Further accreditation hearings will be conducted in September and November of 2017 to review the law school’s progress.
Donald Lively, president of Arizona Summit, said the law school had been preparing for probation since last fall. He claims to have informed current and prospective students of the possibility that it was out of compliance.
The school also recently announced an affiliation with a nonprofit historically black college in Florida, Bethune-Cookman University.
Already the law school has implemented changes that its administrators hope will bring the school into compliance. Lively said admission standards have been adjusted, curriculums have been changed, and resources have been funneled to new academic programs with the aim of increasing student success on the bar exam and in the job market.
“We are going to make sure that we are in full compliance with the accreditation standards while preserving the law school’s original mission of promoting diversity,” Lively said.
At 43 percent minority representation, Arizona Summit has the nation’s most diverse student body. Accomplishing this level of diversity, however, came at a cost, Lively said. For example, admission standards at Arizona Summit are remarkably low. (Read more about this in our Winter 2017 issue of National Jurist.)
The entering class had similar credentials as those who began in 2015 with a median LSAT of 143. The median GPA rose slightly to 2.96.
The probation ruling was released after Arizona Summit’s worst performance on the bar exam to date. In July 2016, just 24.6 percent of graduates who took the Arizona state bar exam for the first time passed.
Lively is optimistic that necessary improvements could be made before the ABA reconvenes this fall to review Arizona Summit’s accreditation status; however, he said future class sizes would likely shrink.
That’s already happening. In the fall of 2016, there were 200 fewer students enrolled at the school than the prior year.
On The Faculty Lounge blog, David Frakt wrote: “It is very likely that most students in good academic standing will try to transfer out this summer. No student wants to be at a school that might lose its accreditation. … The students that will be left behind will be the “worst of the worst” who are extremely likely to fail the bar, making it unlikely that Arizona Summit will be able to achieve the necessary improvements in their bar passage rate. … Based on recent history at other InfiLaw schools, I would expect the school's Dean to declare a Reduction in Force very soon, followed by firing half or more of the faculty at the conclusion of the spring semester.”
Arizona Summit is the second of InfiLaw System’s three law schools to be placed on probation. A similar probation decision was made last November for Charlotte School of Law, which then saw the Department of Education pull federal loans.
In addition to the ABA’s probation decision, Arizona Summit faces other challenges in proving its viability to the Department of Education. Earlier this year, the DOE announced that Arizona Summit did not pass the DOE’s gainful employment test, placing the law school in danger of losing access to federal student aid if employment rates do not improve in the next four years.
In the midst of these troubles, Arizona Summit is affiliating with Daytona Beach-based Bethune-Cookman University. While not a silver-bullet solution, the move would allow Arizona Summit to sidestep the DOE gainful employment test while taking advantage of Bethune-Cookman’s academic support services. It’s unclear if BCU knew of the school’s ongoing accreditation struggles.
“We will be better aligned with who we are and what we want to accomplish, and most importantly reflect that Arizona Summit has real social utility,” Lively said about the affiliation.