What to make of the Villanova censure

The American Bar Association’s censure of Villanova University earlier this month will likely bring an end to negative publicity for the law school. But the fall out could continue, with some questioning whether the ABA took strong enough action, and others wondering if the public humiliation was in the best interests of legal education

“The ABA needed to do something,” said William Henderson, law professor at Indiana University – Bloomington. “But I worry that this may deter other [schools from coming forward]. Hopefully, this whole issue will go away because of better reporting standards.”

Villanova disclosed in January that former staff members had inflated the school’s median grade-point averages and scores on the Law School Admissions Test, both factors that weigh heavily in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings.

Villanova's average LSAT scores inflated by two to three points between 2005 and 2009. The median GPA was raised by up to 0.16 points. The law school saw it’s ranking in U.S. News fall from 67 to 84, after correct data was submitted this year.

The law school’s applications were down 19 percent for the entering class, which is a higher drop-off than the national average of 11.5 percent.

The ABA said misrepresenting the data was "reprehensible and damaging" to prospective applicants, law students and the legal profession. The law school could have lost its accreditation. But the ABA felt that the current Dean, John Gotanda, had taken aggressive action to disclose and investigate the situation. He assumed the dean’s position in January, just weeks before the scandal broke.

Investigators found that the law school's former dean, ex-associate dean, ex-assistant dean and the former admissions director worked together to inflate the median scores and GPAs, according the censure notice. In addition, investigators found inaccuracies in the number of admission offers between 2007 and 2009, making the school appear more selective. This is another factor used in U.S. New’s rankings.

The ABA found that the former employees “acted in secret, and worked to prevent other persons in the Law School and the University from learning that admissions data was being misreported to the ABA.”

Mark Sargeant, the former dean, resigned in 2009 amid a prostitution investigation. The other three staffers resigned or were dismissed more recently.

"Such misconduct will never occur again at Villanova," Gotanda wrote to alumni. "I want to assure you that the actions of a few former employees do not reflect the true character or culture of our institution or our people."

As part of the public censure, the school must post the reprimand on its website for two years, issue a public statement of correction to all law schools and hire an independent compliance monitor for two years.

A person who is close to the ABA committee that reviewed the situation said the problem with misleading data is that crime could easily pay. A law school that inflates its numbers long enough could attract applicants with better LSAT scores and GPA’s, thereby improving its unaltered numbers.

As such, the ABA had to take some action, but it didn’t want to discourage other schools from coming forward. Still, the Villanova situation is rare since the former dean had already left in disgrace. It is less likely that a new dean would “out” a former dean, especially when that person could still be a tenured professor at the school.

Some in legal education don’t feel the required actions are strong enough to deter other schools.

“Villanova Law did a really bad thing,” wrote David Hoffman, a law professor at Temple University on the blog, concurring Opinions. “To punish the Law School, the ABA has required it to spend a ton of money on process. There is zero evidence that this process will deter, specifically or generally. Other schools will look at this case and see that ABA is more interested in the atmospherics of disclosure than in actually engaging in thoughtful and principled regulation.”

William Henderson said the current lawsuits against Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Cooley and New York Law Schools over misleading employment data should further concern legal education – as they will keep the issue in the news.

“We need to get our act together,” he said. “We need a rigorous police force.”

Earlier this summer, the bar association announced it would begin requiring schools to report specific job-related data, including alumni employment status, types and locations, and to publish that data on law school websites.