The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has recommended that the state deny a request from George Mason University to acquire the International School of Law in Arlington and operate it as a university-affiliated law school.
However, George Mason President Goerge W. Johnson said the George Mason Foundation a nonprofit organization set up to serve the needs of the university, will proceed with plans to buy the 11-acre site in Clarendon, where the law school now stands. The foundation has a contract to purchase the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Kann department store, which [WORD ILLEGIBLE] houses the law school, for $32 million on Dec. 1.
"This is not the end of the law school," said Johnson, adding that the ultimate authority on whether or not George Mason can operate a law school rests with the General Assembly, not with the Council of Higher Education.
In recommending against the law school, the council took a harder line than that of a study commission appointed to consider the George Mason proposal. George Mason officials had said the university would need state funds for five years to operate the law school successfully, but the school was expected to be self-supporting after that time.
The study commission, while urging that precautions be taken to make sure the law school was self-supporting after five years, did not specifically recommend that the proposal be rejected.
The council, however, expressed "grave doubts" that such a law school could ever be self-supporting. In voting to recommend denial of George Mason's request, the council said, "If the General Assembly agrees to an affiliation, there is no guarantee the state will not have to pick up the cost after a five-year period."
The decision last week was the third time George Mason, the state university for Northern Virginia, has been rebuffed by the council in its bid to add a law school.
In previous decisions, educators argued, as they did again last week, that Virginia already has enough lawyers and that creation of a law school at George Mason would be too expensive, taking valuable resources away from other educational needs.
George Mason officials have complained, however, that the decisions reflect the university's state college system and the reluctance of state education officials to do anything that might suggest competition with the two state-supported law schools already in existence - at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.
Founded just over five years ago, when 26 students showed up to study in a makeshift classroom in a borrowed church basement on 20th Street NW in Washington, the International School of Law has lived hand-to-mouth for much of its life. Nevertheless, enrollments have climbed steadily.
A year ago in March, it moved from Washington to the old Kann store in Arlington, a block from the future Clarendon Metro station.
Despite its growth - to an enrollment of about 600 this fall - the school has failed to win accreditation from the American Bar Association. This has seriously impaired its ability to attract top students and faculty, the study commission noted, and it also means its graduates are not permitted to take the bar examination in many states.
Currently, Virginia permits graduates of the International School to take bar exams, but Maryland does not. In the past, graduates have been allowed to take the District bar exam, but the District government has said it will reverse that practice in the future. Officials at the International School were known to feel that affiliation with an established institution, such as George Mason, could assist them in winning accreditation.
In a formal statement after the council decision was announced, George Mason president Johnson said he was "seriously concerned that the interests of the citizens of Northern Virginia may not be neglected, the opportunities of both educational and economic development ignored or misunderstood and the ambition of scores of its young people blighted."
Johnson noted that he has the option to lobby in the legislature for restoration of the law school at George Mason. In the past, however, such efforts have been unsuccessful, and legislators have tended to look with disfavor on establishment of a third, state-supported law school.