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Law School Urged to Increase Admissions Standards

Law School Urged to Increase Admissions Standards
American Bar Association concerned with Texas Southern University law school’s bar exam failure rate.
By Lydia Lum

Based on an accreditation review, the American Bar Association (ABA) has criticized Texas Southern University’s law school, saying its students are “short-changed.” Among other things, the ABA said TSU officials enroll students “incapable” of finishing law school and passing the state bar exam.
The criticism against TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law reignites debate about the school’s historic mission of offering legal education to students who might not otherwise have that chance because their test scores and grades are lower than others. Thurgood Marshall was created in the mid-1940s, when Houston mail carrier Herman M. Sweatt sued the University of Texas after he was denied law school admission because he was Black. The state of Texas created the Texas State University for Negroes arguing Sweatt and other Blacks could get “separate but equal” education there. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in Sweatt’s favor and forced UT to admit Blacks.
Over the years, Thurgood Marshall has become the biggest producer of minority lawyers in Texas, and therefore has helped increase the state’s minority middle class. Indeed, the percentage of minorities at other Texas law schools still often drags in single digits.
Yet, in recent years, Thurgood Marshall has consistently ranked last among the state’s nine law schools in bar exam passage. This past February, only 36 percent of TSU law graduates taking the test for the first time passed. Meanwhile, 69 percent of all first-time test takers statewide passed.
“Thurgood Marshall School of Law is at a critical juncture,” the Chicago-based ABA said in a report. “The law school … claims to be a national leader … but that is vastly overstated. The attrition rate is unconscionably high. The faculty and administration of Thurgood Marshall (should) engage in some serious soul searching about the future and put together a carefully crafted, realistic action plan to get there.”
Frank Newton, dean of Texas Tech University’s law school, said the ABA’s emphasis on grades and test scores worries him. Newton, who is White, has been dean since 1985 and is former president of the State Bar of Texas. He has headed inspection teams for ABA accreditation efforts in other states.
“I cannot see how we measure just objective outcome,” Newton says. “I would feel uncomfortable if we barred those who just don’t meet the grades and test scores.
“In one-third of the cases, those predictors are off. I have great respect for TSU law school. They are expected to fit a square peg into a round hole. We need to grant that law school more freedom to operate.”
The law school’s reaccreditation does not appear immediately jeopardized. Thurgood Marshall must remain accredited so graduates can sit for the bar.
But the ABA report coincides with the federal Office of Civil Rights scrutinizing TSU amid worries about lingering discrimination and historic underfunding of Black colleges in Texas and other Southern and border states. Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers approved spending 31 percent more on TSU in fiscal 2002 and 2003 than in the previous two-year budget cycle. Lawmakers have said the measure includes language stating plans to grant TSU extra funds in future years.
TSU officials have said additional funds will finance an additional wing at Thurgood Marshall, among other items.
That apparently can’t come too soon for the ABA, which listed the following 11 things which Thurgood Marshall may not be compliant with:
•  Inadequate funding from TSU to Thurgood Marshall;
•  The law school’s self-study report does not identify means to reach goals;
•  Inadequate law school buildings;
•  Lack of full-time clinical faculty with tenure;
•  The only in-house clinic — environmental justice — has too many class hours;
•  The school admits academically unqualified students;
•  The education program doesn’t prepare graduates to pass the bar exam;
•  The law school publishes inadequate consumer information;
•  The law library lacks sufficient reference services;
•  The law library lacks financial help from TSU for teaching and research; and
•  The law library doesn’t employ enough competent staff.
Thurgood Marshall continues drawing the majority of Black and Hispanic first-year students among public law schools in Texas. But in recent years, the median Law School Admissions Test score for students admitted to TSU has been 142, compared to the national average of 150, the ABA said. The median grade-point average for students admitted to TSU’s law school has ranged from 2.67 to 2.76, compared with the national average of 3.06 to 3.10.
Since 1997, the highest bar passage rate that TSU law graduates have mustered is 60 percent. And the attrition rate of Thurgood Marshall’s 331 first-year students in 1999 was 40 percent because of low grades, compared with 9 percent nationally, according to the ABA.
Law school officials are supposed to submit a plan for improvements by November.
In a statement, law school dean John Brittain said the school already has increased admissions standards for this fall’s entering class and will continue doing so for future years. Saying the ABA and the law school have a “mutual interest” in increasing standards, Brittain said he expects the new standards will lead to “better performance.”
TSU’s law school has grown more important for some minorities in recent years because of the 1996 court ruling in the Hopwood case that banned Texas universities from using race-based admissions. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of Hopwood.  

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