Ave Maria Law School Settles Into SW Florida

Published on Thursday, 15 October 2009 17:55

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The paint was barely dry on the walls when the largest incoming first-year class in the history of the Ave Maria School of Law began arriving for the fall term. Now, about two months later, it all appears to be routine at the new location for the law school at the Vineyards. (Right, students study in the moot courtroom, one of the facilities that was built out for the new campus.)

andersonThe school will hold a Grand Opening celebration for the new campus beginning the evening of Nov. 12, when the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson (left), will appear at a fund-raising dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort.

The law school's acting dean and president, Eugene Milhizer, acknowledged in a recent interview that the process of moving - which involved uncertainty about the school's accreditation status as well as lawsuits against the school by three former professors - had a toll. Now that the school has successfully moved, kept its accreditation from the American Bar Association and settled the lawsuits, he said he is able to focus on the main mission of the school, and the success of its students.

"We had record applications and the credentials of our students have gone up at the same time that we increased class size," Dean Milhizer said. "Average LSAT scores went up over the previous year. In terms of selectivity, we admitted less than half of the students who applied which is the first time we've ever been that selective."

The LSAT scores and grade point averages of the incoming class "increased by significant numbers," according the the law school's director of external affairs, John Knowles.

There are more than 200 new students at the school and the class also has its highest percentage of women to date, the dean said. The law school's students come from 39 states, five foreign countries and 148 undergraduate institutions, Dean Milhizer said.

lawlorenzoMany of the new students are attending after successful careers in other fields, Mr. Knowles said. One is Lorenzo Thompson (right) who taught history for 10 years at a university in St. Louis before coming to Ave Maria. "I was drawn to the mission of the school," Mr. Thompson said, "and I believe that it will help me in my goals to work with the underprivileged."

Dean Milhizer said he is seeing encouraging signs in several key areas including admissions and finances. The school was put on a watch list by the Department of Education early this year, but the dean said that the financial situation is improving.

"One of the major sources is tuition revenue," he said, "and we have a very large class with a discount rate - that is the scholarship rate - that is about the lowest that we've ever had."

The school's fund-raising efforts are also looking "very good," he said, adding that, "My intention is to not run a deficit."

Dean Milhizer said that the admissions picture for the law school is improving for a number of reasons. The school's position as the only law school in southwest Florida has attracted candidates who would never have considered Ave Maria before, he said, adding that residents of Florida or graduates of Florida undergraduate programs make up the largest group from any single state.

The school also is seeing greater interest from Catholic undergraduate programs as well. "Now that we've had the drama and the uncertainty of the relocation process put behind us, a lot of the Catholic schools that have traditionally been our feeder schools are starting to become reconnected with us in a way that they weren't over the last couple of years," he said. "It also helps when we have Ave Maria University maturing."

The community and the Diocese of Venice have been welcoming, Dean Milhizer said. Bishop Frank Dewane celebrated Mass at the opening of the academic term and has been "very supporting of the law school." He will be a speaker in March, the dean said, at a conference that the law school is planning on human trafficking. (Click here  for Ave Herald story on Bishop Dewane's Mass)

Although the law school appears settled at the Vineyards campus, Dean Milhizer says the school's plan still is to move at some point to the town of Ave Maria, by the campus of Ave Maria University, although he acknowledged that such a move is likely years away. "There's no timeline that's been established for that. That's very much contingent on our ability to build the law school we want and that obviously will involve some major fundraising."

Among the challenges facing the law school is the selection of a permanent leader. The founding dean and president, Bernard Dobranski, resigned earlier this year and the school's trustees have established a committee to find a replacement. Meantime, Dean Milhizer leaves no doubt that he would like to remove the word "acting" from before his current titles.

The board of trustees said it would welcome his application for the job. "I plan to apply," he said.