At the Antioch School of Law in Northwest Washington, the husband and wife codeans have been fired, a crucial $420,420 federal grant providing legal aid for D.C. indigents is in jeopardy, the students are in turmoil and an administrator was abducted at gunpoint last Saturday.
In short, life is about normal at Antioch: Tumultuous.
But Antioch, where controversy has been a required course since the school's founding in 1972, now seems to be at a crossroads. Its position as the nation's foremost practitioner of clinical legal education, where the 422 law students routinely assist their professors in representing clients, is riding on the outcome.
Conceived as an effort to insitutionalize the social activism of the 1960s, Antioch is now faced with an uncertain future because of the controversy generated by its two founders, the codeans, Edgar and Jean Cahn, and the unsettled economic state of the law school's parent institution, Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
The Cahns were fired two weeks ago after they lost a lawsuit questioning the university's authority over the law school and then refused to turn over law school funds to the central treasury in Yellow Springs.
Antioch president William M. Birenbaum sent Joseph Meng, 37, most recently the president of the Culinary Institute of America, to Washington as the acting dean of the law school, located at 2633 16th St. N.W.
But some students, angry at the Cahn's firing, told Meng at a meeting earlier this week that they think he should quit because, in the words of first-year law student Frank Mack, "You are nothing more than a sacrificial lamb, a protector and insulator from Birenbaum."
"It's not a question of how things were run or should have been run," said another first-year student, Charles Hamilton. "Right now I'm wondering if the school is going to survive, academically or financially. I don't know for sure what's going to happen."
Hamilton and others are certain, however, that they want the school's clinical law education to continue.
"Anything less isn't what I'm paying my money for," Hamilton said.
Most of the 65 students at the meeting peppered the boyish-looking, quiet-spoken Meng with questions about the school's future. Many of them, despite Meng's assurances to the contrary, openly doubted the university's commitment to the law school.
One student sacastically suggested Antioch University's improved financial consition -- it survived a near bankruptcy last May -- was like going from certain "terminal cancer to maybe terminal cancer."
Curtis Thomas, a third-year law student and one of several blacks who called for Meng's resignation, told the new dean. "I have nothing against you personally. But I know that two months ago. . . there was some degree of harmony in this place and we were sitting in class trying to learn this animal called law."
"We've worried about the clinical program falling apart," another student told Meng.
The students' worries -- and Meng's too -- are about a $420,720 grant from the Legal Services Corp. That expires next Thursday. The money represents 19 percent of the law school's $2.2 million annual budget and it is an open question whether it will be renewed.
The grant finances a large part of what makes Antioch unusual -- its llegal representing of poor people. The National Clients Council, an advocate for poor people who use federally funded legal services, has urged Legal Services to suspend the grant to Antioch on grounds that the law school no longer has an independent governing board.
When the university fired the Cahns, it also prohibited the law school's governing board from doing anything except raising money and asked its chairman, attorney John W. Cummiskey of Grand Rapids, Mich., to resign.
Legal Services is expected to decide in the next few days whether to renew the grant. In the meantime Mario Lewis, Legal Services' general counsel, said his group wants to know exactly what role Antioch University plans to play at its law school.
"We were funding a very unique insititution with a unique structure," Lewis said.
Birenbaum emphatically said that the university has no intention of changing the curriculum at the law school or its emmphasis on a clinical legal education compared to the usual classroom instruction at other schools.
"We're not in the business of operating a normal law school," said Birenbaum, who oversees eight Antioch campuses in the United States, one in London and one in West Germany. We're doing our thing. It's either this type of law school, with a sense of social mission, or no law school."
Meng told the students at the two-hour occasionally boisterous meeting that the university has agreed to reconstitute the law school's board of governors if that is necessary to secure the Legal Services grant.
"I don't think the [Legal Services] corporation has any practical reasons for terminating the grant," Meng said. "Maybe politically they do.
"I can tell you the university doesn't have the funds to replace that money," Meng said.
He later told one student questioner that Antioch would not rehire the Cahns, even if it meant losing the Legal Services grant.
If the Legal Services grant is again approved, the law school's roller coaster existence faces a new hurdle this spring when the American Bar Association decides whether to accredit the school for another year. The ABA's accreditation committee has raised questions about the school's financing arrangements and whether it adequately encourages scholarship by its full-time faculty.
The 15-member faculty cannot be left out of the Antioch story either.
Long at odds with the Cahns over whether the facullty should be represented by a union, the faculty eventually won the right to establish an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But the university has balked at honoring the current contract, which was signed by the Cahns, buy not by the university trustees.
Meng said "98 percent [of the contract] is acceptable to the university," but a clause on tenure for professors is not.
Law professor John Sizemore, chief of the bargaining unit, charged that the university is "using this tenure issure not to acknowledge the entire contract. . . They're trying to intimidate us, get us in line."
While the faculty and the Cahns feuded over the unionization issue, Sizemore said faculty members feel sorry about the firing of the Cahns, in part because the law school deans put up their Washington home as collateral for loans to pay the faculty and staff last May when the parent university enountered its severe financial problems. The university has now promised to pay last May's payroll starting next October, Meng said.
If the myrad disputes at the school were not sufficient to ensure ongoing controversy, a new, bizarre twist was added to the mix last Saturday night.
Thaddieus Sarpy, who heads the school's internal audit and budget control branch and is a part-time Antioch student, was abducted at gunpoint by two men in Northwest Washington about 8:15 p.m. and held in a school car in Rock Creek Park until 9 a.m. Sunday, according to D.C. police.
During that time, Sarpy, 37, was repeatedly asked questions about the school's operations, according to school officials. The two men eventually walked away ffom the car, leaving Sarpy shaken but unharmed. Sarpy told officials that he had never seen his abductors before. No arrests have been made.
Through all the turmoil, the Cahns have stayed away from the school and mapped strategy for an appeal of the legal decision.
During the Cahn's tenure, 517 students graduated from Antioch. Of the 383 who have reported their bar exam scores to the school, 319 passed.
As at other law schools, however, Antioch's white students have done far better than minority students. A total of 91 percent of the white students at Antioch have passed the bar exam, compared to 53 percent for minorities, the school said. A total of 42 percent of Antioch's students are women and 36 percent of them minority group members.
About 55 to 65 percent of Antioch's graduates have passed the exam the first time, figures that are roughly 10 percent less than graduates for other Washington-area law schools Antioch said.
Still, Edgar Cahn says that the school has filled a need for the District of Columbia's poor, providing $800,00 a year in legal services, while representing 2,000 to 3,000 clients a year.
In addition, he said that the school has won new rights for D.C.'s mentally retarded, tenants and those seeking unemployment compensation and social security payments.
"The school stood for. . . poor people in District and disenfranchised people throughout the nation who came to D.C. looking for a redress of their grievances," Cahn said.
Cahns and others, mostly students, fear that mission, despite the assurances of Birenbaum and Meng, may now be abandoned especially if the Legal Services grant is not renewed.
The turmoil has left students, faculty and administrators confused.
"I feel cheated and I'm not pro-Cahn or anti-Cahn," says Francesco Isgro, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a first-year Antioch law student. i"I don't know if there's anyone who can replace the type of dedication to a philosophy that the Cahns had.
"I'm concerned," he says. "When I came here I felt Antioch was in the forefront of a certain type of legal education." Now he is not so sure.