Institutional Triage: Reflections on Being Acquired
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On June 25, 2012, I walked into the dean's office at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. He and I had been summoned by our university president to a hastily called meeting to discuss the law school's "academic program." Since I helped oversee our academic program as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the time, I was not particularly looking forward to the meeting. I assumed there would be bad news of some sort. Instead, we were told that Texas Wesleyan University ("TWU") and Texas A&M University ("TAMU") were in negotiations that, it was expected, would result in a "strategic partnership" beneficial to both universities. One result of that partnership, we were told, would be that operational control of TWU School of Law would be transitioned to TAMU. I must have looked as confused as I felt at that moment, because the President then leaned forward and with a kind, patient face said to me, "If everything goes as expected, the law school will be acquired by Texas A&M." The following two years at the law school were extraordinary. We spent 2012-2013 building relationships with TAMU and laying the foundation for our transition, all the while continuing our existing programs for 750 students. On August 13, 2013, approximately one year after we were told about the negotiations, the acquisition was complete, and we began operations as Texas A&M University School of Law. The following academic year, 2013-2014, involved navigating countless changes and adjustments across the entire range of our operations. One thing we did not have during the last two years was the luxury of reflection and careful planning. Instead, our work was triage. Certain tasks had to be completed so we could survive and operate as TAMU School of Law from day one. Others could wait, at least a short while. In Part I of this Essay, I provide a brief summary of the past two years at TWU-TAMU School of Law for background and context. In Part II, I provide a few reflections based on my experience in the leadership team that helped navigate our school through this significant transition. These are things I wish I had known two years ago. Perhaps law school administrators at schools facing similar institutional triage in the future will find them useful. Given the news from law schools across the country, it seems clear that other institutional changes are brewing, if not actively underway, as this Essay goes to print. These are difficult times (and, of course, times of opportunity) in legal education. Applications, enrollment, indicators, and revenue are down nationwide, job prospects for many graduates have dwindled, and schools are rethinking and reinventing their educational goals, programs, and operations. As universities and law schools grapple with these challenges, major changes will result. Institutions will "right size," merge, or close altogether. The leaders of those schools will face difficult decisions, some of which will have to be made on short notice with little time to thoroughly plan and evaluate options. This is not a "how-to" essay. From an administrative perspective, I think we did a number of things right and well during our last two years. But, as is usually the case in life, we could have done many things better. And we certainly made at least a few mistakes. To the extent there is value in these reflections, it may lie primarily in what we could have done more effectively or efficiently. As challenging as these past two years have been for our law school, we are now a stronger institution. We operated as a part of TWU from 1992 through 2013. During that time, we gained full American Bar Association ("ABA") accreditation (1994), were granted membership in the Association of American Law Schools (2012), achieved a strong regional reputation for producing well-trained and skilled graduates, and attracted a talented faculty with diverse scholarly and teaching interests. With our transition to TAMU, the future looks even brighter for our institution. Financial support for the law school has increased; we are carefully developing a number of new academic initiatives, including collaborations between the law school and other academic colleges at TAMU; our 1L indicators have improved; and we are actively hiring new full-time faculty members to add depth and breadth to our program. We are grateful to have emerged from the uncertainty and anxiety of the last two years, ready to face the future.