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Cooley Law School changes name, fires a lot of its faculty and staff

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The Thomas M. Cooley School of Law is now officially Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

In an awkward bit of timing, the school announced its name change the day before reports appeared in the media that the school was laying off a large chunk of its faculty and staff:

Sources in Lansing who are being laid off say the cuts are deep, upwards of 50 percent, according to one. Another said the impact could be as high as 70 percent. A Cooley spokesman disputed the amount, but said he did not have numbers.

“We have non-disparagement and confidentiality clauses upon which our severance packages hinge so I cannot say anything on the record and very little off the record other than to confirm that the cuts to faculty and staff are significant and I am among those in that category,” shared one faculty member, who spoke under condition of anonymity. “Plus I am really, really pissed.”

The source continued: “I was notified last week. My last day is August 31 … I honestly don’t know if they are done. If enrollment continues to decline then maybe not.”

Cooley’s JD enrollment has fallen from just under 4,000 (!) three years ago, to around 2,300 last fall, and seems likely to be lower this fall. On the other hand, the school’s FY2012 tax disclosures showed it clearing a $12.6 million profit enjoying excess revenues of $12.6 million over operating expenses of $108.5 million, and that the school’s net assets increased from $81.6 million to $118.6 million between July of 2009 and July of 2012. That was two years ago now, and it seems certain Cooley’s current balance sheet is not as robust, but the apparently radical nature of these faculty and staff cuts raises some interesting questions (I’ll have more to say in another post about the possibility that some law schools are exploiting the contraction in law school applicants for the purpose of eliminating expensive and/or troublesome faculty).

Anyway, it’s unfortunate that a respectable state university like WMU has agreed — no doubt for valuable consideration as lawyers say — to allow its name to be slapped on Cooley’s letterhead. The agreement between the two institutions appears to be essentially a legal and verbal fiction:

This is an affiliation between Cooley and WMU, not a merger of them. Thus, the affiliation does not change the governance of either institution by its respective board. The institutions remain autonomous.

Cooley remains a private, independent, non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational corporation. It is not a public or taxpayer-supported institution. . . The affiliation will not involve an exchange of funds or financial support, although as the relationship builds the institutions might enter into subsequent agreements, for example relating to the use of the other’s facilities.

Of course a name change is a time-honored marketing tactic when demand for a product is waning, as Prof. Stringer Bell, holder of the University of West Baltimore Distinguished Chair in Law and Economics, explores in a lecture below, via the Socratic method:

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