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Law School in Freefall Brush with the Law

Brush with the Law

by ANTHONY GANCARSKI

Gonzaga University’s Law School, in Spokane, Washington, fell to the bottom [4th] tier in US News and World Report’s annual ranking of law schools, released this month. Despite the local SPOKESMAN-REVIEW featuring quotes from students and administrators saying the expected — "Gonzaga is the top private law school in the Northwest" — the institution nonetheless dropped from 138 to 177 in the annual rankings. That’s what happens when less than two-thirds of your students pass the Bar.

And, of course, I saw it coming. But a little too late. After I moved across the country to accept a scholarship from Gonzaga on the strength of its social conscience and self-presentation as a "law school on the rise". That said, I probably should’ve been put off by the GU Law School website’s obsessively detailed description of the new facility. Depicted as "the building of the 21st century", the structure was "completed with the precision of a well-planned military campaign.

And who says American architecture doesn’t shock and awe? Certainly not GU Law’s Webmaster, who holds forth at excruciating length about the building’s virtues. The walkway leading to the building, for example, is "lined with flowering trees". "You enter the building" — picture yourself doing it! — "through a monumental arched entrance framed in granite." The granite features "a geometric design" that "alternates between rough and smooth stone."

According to the site, the law school is full of "sweeping" views. A "sweeping series of open staircases" connects the floors of the building. The third-floor student lounge boasts a terrace with a "sweeping view of the Spokane River". All of this, according to unnamed students and faculty, at once "welcomes visitors". "The building exudes a certain ‘wow’ factor."

As does Gonzaga’s new law school ranking. Wow, prospective law students are undoubtedly saying to themselves, this school isn’t worth my time. 177th out of 185 schools in the nation? For a school charging over $21k per annum for tuition, it’s criminal to have a student-teacher ratio of 25:1. To put that number in perspective, Yale’s ratio is less than 8:1. Even among fourth-tier schools, GU’s ratio is the worst in the nation.

How is that possible, when the school boasts a structure as lavish as one of Saddam Hussein’s "presidential palaces"? Daniel Morrissey, Dean of Gonzaga’s Law School, claims "financial constraints imposed on us by the University’s Central Administration" have stopped the law school from hiring additional faculty, expanding the law library, and so on.

Looked at in that context, the question is begged: why did the Law School buy such an ambitious building if their funding was so tenuous? Who ultimately is responsible for the Law School’s decline in national prestige? Can Morrissey reasonably blame his higher-ups at the University? If so, why stop there? Why not blame the American Catholic Church itself? After all, if the Church weren’t so scandal-ridden, then there might be money for Gonzaga to meet US News’s criteria.

How compromised is the future of Gonzaga’s law school? Stung by reports that Gonzaga graduates — in contrast to its gaudy promotional literature — are having a hard time finding work, Morrissey is encouraging students to seek employment outside the Northwest. What better testament than that is there to the mismanagement of Gonzaga’s law school? The legal profession is rooted in locality; typically, attorneys study in the state where they hope to practice law, so that they can develop contacts and learn the idiosyncrasies of their state [or region's] laws.

To convince students that the Gonzaga law experience is worth over $60k for tuition alone, then to tell them that their degrees may lack the tangible value promised, is nothing short of fraud. Such bait-and-switch tactics are not the hallmarks of an institution interested in justice, equity, and [as the marquee sign in front of the University itself flashes] "educating people the world needs the most." Rather, they are mechanisms used to service an untenable institutional debt load, to sell students on the benefits of a Gonzaga Law Education, and then to tell them once committed that not all benefits can be delivered.

Dean Morrissey claims that "it won’t be hard for Gonzaga to bounce back into the third tier". But just months ago, at Gonzaga Law’s Fall Orientation, the carefully-managed buzz was that Gonzaga was certain to become a second-tier school by the time the most recent class graduated. The US News ranking should be a terminal embarrassment for Morrissey, who recently got his job only to find that he’s poised to take the fall for what amounts to malfeasance by the school he heads.

ANTHONY GANCARSKI attended Gonzaga Law School for just over a term. This column originally appeared in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. He welcomes email at Anthony.Gancarski@attbi.com