Cincinnati Law is not unique by any means. With the exception of the very top tier, law schools, including Cincinnati Law, are facing a steep decline in the number of graduates — this year will be the lowest in about four decades. And predictions for 2018 are that there will be even fewer.
“We have a massive amount of contraction taking place,” said William D. Henderson, a law professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “The average entering class is now about 182, which is down from 260. And there are 40 more law schools now than there were 40 years ago.”
Applicants began shying away from law school several years ago as the number of jobs requiring a three-year law degree shrank. To many, the six-figure debt did not seem worth the risk.
Few law schools have dared to raise tuition lest they price themselves out of the market. At the same time, students are bargaining furiously for discounts so they do not have to pay full price — or anything close to it — for a degree.
That has left law schools like Cincinnati Law in a vise because “around half of all law students pay either sticker tuition or something close to it, while others pay tuition that, in real dollars, is similar to tuition rates of 20 or 30 years ago,” said Paul F. Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder law school who tracks law school data.
At the same time, law schools like Cincinnati’s — one of the oldest in the nation, founded in 1833 — have hefty expenses, including six-figure professor salaries that are meant to match partner-level wages.
Dr. Bard, for example, was paid $300,000 annually over her five-year contract, according to her contract. The school has more than two dozen professors on its faculty, including two former deans. Now Dr. Bard will join them as a third dean because she remains a faculty member.
No amount has been disclosed, but according to data Cincinnati Law is required to file with the American Bar Association, the school appears to have racked up a multimillion-dollar shortfall as the number of students and the amount of tuition revenue slid in recent years.
The financial situations of many public law schools are not visible to the public because their budgets are integrated into their overall university system. Public universities these days are often subsidizing cost overruns at their law schools, choosing to keep their law schools operating because of tradition and prestige. And private law schools do not have to disclose financial information. As a result, law schools’ troubled finances have largely been kept away from the public eye.
Most law schools have not opted for new ways of doing business and, instead, have resisted changes that might result in slippage in the national rankings.
To attract students with stellar test scores and grade point averages, nearly every law school, including Cincinnati, heavily discounts tuition through so-called merit scholarships. That is commonplace even though, according to critics, the aid subsidizes wealthier students at the expense of those who lack access to a superior educational system and extras like test preparation.
Dr. Bard, 54, arrived at Cincinnati Law with a degree from Yale Law School as well as a master’s in public health from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate from Texas Tech University, where she had been an assistant provost and a professor at its law school. Her main task at Cincinnati was coming up with ways to close the law school’s revenue gap — a product of lower tuition income that failed to match the school’s customary outlays.
According to data filed with the American Bar Association, only about 12 percent of students in the 2015 academic year paid the full listed price. The school’s current annual charge of $29,010 for tuition and fees for nonresident students is less than the $40,000 it charged as recently as the 2012-13 academic year. Resident tuition and fees have stayed static, at $24,010, but the net tuition figure — or the actual amount paid — is $15,233 as a result of tuition discounts. All of this adds up.
During her tenure as dean, Dr. Bard improved the school’s ranking, up more than 10 places, to No. 72 in the 2017 national law school results. Enrollment is up 73 percent over the last two years, to 277 full-time students. Bar passage rates have stayed steady and she also re-established relationships with some law school donors.
Nonetheless, Peter E. Landgren, the university’s interim provost, placed her on administrative leave. He declined several requests to explain why he had taken a measure typically reserved for actions deemed improper. Christo Lassiter, a professor of law and criminal justice at Cincinnati Law, said that Mr. Landgren told the faculty at a meeting he attended last Friday that “Dean Bard has done nothing unethical and nothing illegal.”
Still, it is clear her proposed budget-cutting measures rankled faculty members. One of them was combining the law library with that of the main university library — and separate law libraries are counted as pluses in the national rankings. Other deficit-slashing proposals included requiring written advance approval for faculty travel and for receipts, and increasing the current teaching load of three classes.
A major point of contention was her proposal to trim back the use of school operating funds to supplement salaries of senior faculty members holding endowed chairs. By last December relations had deteriorated so badly that Mr. Landgren had devised a plan to “restore mutual trust and respect” to smooth over difficulties between Dr. Bard and the faculty.
The plan went into effect in January, providing for the parties to meet a mediator. But before that came about, Mr. Landgren announced last week that “after much consideration,” he was placing Dr. Bard on administrative leave.
Dr. Bard, who has retained a lawyer, has declined to elaborate, but in a public statement last week she said: “This action was unexpected and raises serious questions about the university’s failure to support the financial goals for which I was hired and the due process to which I am entitled.”
Those in charge of the transition, according to Mr. Landgren’s announcement, are “senior faculty.”