THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Monday, June 19, 1995 TAG: 9506190032 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY MARC DAVIS, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: VIRGINIA BEACH LENGTH: Long : 214 lines
The law school was in trouble. Two years old and already in trouble.
The problem was the American Bar Association. It was 1988, and ABA regulators disliked almost everything about the new law school at CBN University. They disliked the school's finances. Its administration. Its Christian mission.
They especially disliked the school's tenure policy. ``It is not clear,'' the ABA wrote, ``that the school really has tenure.''
This was bad.
Every law school must have ABA accreditation. Without it, graduates cannot take the bar exam. And to get accreditation, a law school must have a tenure policy to protect its faculty from political pressures.
But CBN had no tenure system.
At least, that's what university officials later claimed. The school had rolling faculty contracts, and professors thought that was tenure.
Administrators knew differently.
How could the university sell this tenure policy to the ABA? Herbert W. Titus, the law school dean, had a solution: Don't change the policy, Titus told a professor on Christmas Eve 1988. Just reconstrue it, lawyer it a bit.
The result was a letter to the ABA that apparently misrepresented the school's tenure policy. Top officials at the university admitted in court this month that the letter was not true.
Now, the deception has returned to bite Regent University, as the school is now known. For six days earlier this month, the letter was a crucial piece of evidence in a trial that challenges the university's new tenure system.
Worse, the deception ticked off the ABA, which refused to grant Regent full accreditation this year, in part because of the misleading letter.
``It was an inaccurate representation of the university's policy in respect to tenure, and we've had to pay for it,'' Law Dean J. Nelson Happy said last week. ``They were absolutely rubbed the wrong way by it, and rightly so. We've paid the price. We took our 20 lashes.''
This is the story of Regent University's rocky, eight-year relationship with the American Bar Association - the story of why Regent apparently misled the ABA in 1989 and how, despite that, the law school stands closer than ever to accreditation.
This story is based, in part, on dozens of confidential documents, including ABA reports, that were made public this month during the trial of a lawsuit filed by three Regent professors, who are suing the university in Circuit Court.
From the start, university officials knew it would be rough.
Titus had warned them. In 1985, when the law school was just a glimmer in the eye of founder Pat Robertson, Titus wrote a fat feasibility study. It threw up every imaginable red flag.
``ABA accreditation is not something to be pursued without careful reflection,'' Titus wrote. ``Accreditation represents a submission to the ABA's authority and thorough scrutiny. . . . The standards promulgated by the ABA represent an intrusion into virtually every area of a law school's internal affairs.''
Titus also warned of entering ``an unholy alliance'' with the bar association.
Don't expect to be warmly welcomed by this close-knit legal fraternity, Titus cautioned. Look at what happened to Oral Roberts University. There, the law school got a court order to win provisional ABA accreditation. Even then, the ABA denied full accreditation, saying Oral Roberts' religious policies violated academic freedom and faculty tenure.
Expect the same treatment here, Titus warned. ``We should anticipate significant opposition from forces within the ABA,'' Titus wrote.
On almost every count, Titus proved to be prescient.
Problems began almost immediately.
On Sept. 8, 1986, the CBN University School of Law was born. It was, in effect, the old law school from Oral Roberts, moved 1,000 miles east. Roberts' entire law library had been moved to the Virginia Beach campus, along with several students and faculty.
``Our school is distinctive,'' Titus declared, ``in that God and his word play a central role.''
The ABA was not happy. It refused to transfer Oral Roberts' provisional accreditation to CBN.
Within a year, the ABA denied accreditation altogether. Everything at the new school was suspect, the ABA found in 1987: Faculty salaries were too low, the law library was inadequate, the dean was part-time, the university didn't have enough money.
``The Law School does not have the resources necessary to provide a sound legal education and accomplish the objective of its educational program,'' the ABA wrote.
None of this was made public. Neither the ABA nor the university released the accreditation report.
The next year was no better. The ABA reported the same problems and again denied accreditation.
This time, Titus had a plan.
On Christmas Eve 1988, Professor Gary T. Amos ran into Titus in a second-floor hallway. The dean was unusually upbeat, Amos recalled in court. He was even talkative, which was unusual for a man known on campus as Titus Lip-us, Amos said.
Titus had had a brainstorm on how to appease the ABA. At that time, the school had rolling three-year faculty contracts. Administrators later insisted these were not a guarantee of lifetime employment. The ABA demanded a more traditional form of tenure.
Titus told Amos his plan. ``The Lord showed him (Titus) to meet the ABA objection to the tenure matter, it was not necessary to redraft the language in the contract itself,'' Amos testified. ``All you had to do was reconstrue it. . . . It was a matter of construction, of lawyering.''
So Titus wrote a new letter to the ABA. It was signed by university President Bob G. Slosser. It declared that CBN had tenure, that a professor could not be fired unless he breached his contract or his program was discontinued.
``Under no circumstances other than the ones set forth above would a faculty member be refused a new three-year contract on an annual basis,'' said the letter dated Jan. 12, 1989.
That solved the ABA's tenure problem. A few months later, the ABA granted provisional accreditation.
Again, the ABA's reasons and the Slosser letter were not made public. When the letter surfaced four years later, it caused a huge furor on campus and, ultimately, with the ABA.
Did Titus and Slosser lie to the ABA in their 1989 letter?
That question was posed in court over and over this month, in the professors' tenure trial.
Judge Edward W. Hanson Jr. seemed fascinated by Amos' testimony that Titus wanted to ``reconstrue'' the faculty contracts for the ABA, without changing the contracts themselves. The judge pressed Amos to be sure he understood.
``Did he (Titus) use the word `lawyering?' '' Hanson asked.
``Yes,'' Amos replied.
Several Regent officials testified that they were appalled by the Slosser letter when they saw it for the first time in 1993.
``I must say I felt violated,'' said Richard C. Csaplar Jr., a Massachusetts lawyer who is now chairman of Regent's Board of Trustees.
``It was a dramatic departure from what I perceived the position of the board to be,'' said David J. Gyertson, Regent's president from 1991 to 1993.
``I knew this was not true. . . . '' said Terry R. Lindvall, an original faculty member from 1978, and Regent's current president. ``I thought, this could not be right if I'm understanding it correctly.''
Yet a lawyer who represents the three professors suing Regent, William H. Robinson Jr. of Richmond, says the letter was not a misrepresentation when it was written.
Robinson says the letter correctly stated CBN's tenure policy in 1989, that professors were entitled to new contracts every year unless they breached their old contracts.
That system was changed in 1994, but the three professors refused to sign contracts under the new system. They insisted that the old system offered more security.
That is why, Robinson argued, the university now maintains that the old system never was tenure. The new system ``basically abrogated the guaranteed tenure rights that they (the professors) have had for years,'' Robinson argued in court earlier this month.
If not for Titus, the whole affair might never have happened.
The avalanche began when Titus, the law school dean, was fired in 1993. It triggered everything that followed: a revolt by law students, a faculty complaint to the ABA, creation of a new tenure system, the firing of three law professors and, ultimately, the public release of the 1989 Slosser letter.
Here's what happened, according to an ABA fact-finding team:
By 1993, Regent's trustees were very unhappy with Titus. They believed the law school ``had wandered far outside of the religious mainstream (even for Regent's religiously oriented educational programs),'' the ABA team wrote.
``Philosophically, Herb Titus' religious viewpoint is outside, or much narrower than that advocated or tolerated by Regent University generally,'' the team concluded.
Because Titus had picked the original law faculty, ``his religious views were broadly shared, or at least were not resisted, by faculty members,'' the team wrote.
Titus also controlled admissions, so applicants who shared his views were considered ``more acceptable.'' The result was a homogenous faculty and student body, and ``a concern that academic freedom and diversity did not prevail in the school,'' the team reported.
Titus had to go. The trustees offered him a faculty chair with a $120,000 salary - a 30 percent raise - and several perks, but only if he took a one-year leave of absence. Titus refused; the trustees fired him.
Students and faculty protested, and the 1989 Slosser letter became public.
Eight faculty members complained to the ABA, saying Titus' firing violated Regent's tenure policy. They complained again when three law professors - two of them ``tenured'' - were fired.
On March 17 this year, the ABA Accreditation Committee issued its final report on the matter.
It found that Regent did violate ABA standards. If faculty really had tenure under the old system, then the firings were a violation, the ABA wrote. But if the faculty had no tenure, as Regent now claimed, then the university had lied to the ABA all along, and that was a violation, too.
Either way, ``these inconsistent representations have had an adverse effect on the accreditation process,'' the ABA concluded.
Today, Regent has a new tenure policy. The university says it is based on a similar policy used at Michigan State University. ``On its face,'' the ABA wrote, the new policy ``appears to comply with the (ABA) standards.''
As a result, the ABA dismissed the professors' complaint and said it will continue to monitor Regent's tenure situation.
The professors' lawsuit is pending. The trial ended June 9 and Judge Hanson asked for written briefs. He may rule in late July, but the ruling probably will not affect anyone but the three professors.
As for the ABA, Regent is closer than ever to accreditation. In March, the ABA extended provisional accreditation one more year and reported fewer concerns than ever before.
The money and staff issues that have dogged Regent for years are gone. The school has a new building, a new library, a big endowment.
Two stumbling blocks remain: tenure and the low passage rate of Regent graduates on the Virginia bar exam.
Happy believes the first issue is easy. ``There isn't anything more to do except avoid violating our own tenure policy,'' he said.
The second is harder, Happy said. Last year, Regent had the lowest passage rate - 61 percent - among Virginia's six law schools. But, Happy noted, that was based on only 30 graduates who took the exam. Most Regent graduates left Virginia and took the test elsewhere, Happy said.
If not for the 1989 Slosser letter, and the controversy it generated, Regent might have its accreditation today, Happy speculated. ``But they forgave us,'' Happy said. ``I think that's because we have a new staff. . . . Bygones are bygones.''
The ABA would not comment, as is the organization's policy.
KEYWORDS: REGENT UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL ACCREDITATION AMERICAN BAR
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