Aug. 15 2014 12:00 AM

Large-scale layoffs underway at WMU Cooley Law School

Cooley Law School

THURSDAY, Aug. 14 – Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School is delivering pink slips to faculty and staff in all of its Michigan campuses.

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, the country’s largest law school by enrollment, boasted a faculty of 271, full time and part time, according to its website.

James Robb, associate dean of external affairs and senior counsel to the school, confirmed the layoffs are underway. They are a “painful but necessary” process to help “right-size the organization,” he said.

Last month WMU Cooley Law School announced its Ann Arbor campus would not be accepting entering freshmen. It stated at that time that faculty and staff layoffs were coming.

WMU Cooley Law School has seen more than a 40 percent drop in enrollment over the past few years. Cooley has raised tuition by 9 percent. S&P gave it a negative rating at the end of last year.

The cuts “came about as a result of decreased enrollment which most if not all law schools have seen,” Robb said.

“On July 1 we informed employees and public we had instituted a financial management plan,” he said. “This calls for faculty and staff reduction. We are in the process of doing that now. The process is not complete. I don’t have numbers for you. And I don’t know that we will release numbers, frankly.”

When asked if the cuts were as deep as 50 percent Robb said, “I think you’re hearing wrong.”

In some departments they retained one person, in some they retained five,” said another professor, who did not want to be identified. "All heard anecdotally."

“I can tell you there are reductions at each of the Michigan campuses,” he said.

Cooley has campuses in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids and Tampa Bay, Fla. Robb said he wasn’t sure if there would be layoffs in Tampa Bay.

Robb said he expects the layoff process to be completed by the end of August.

“There is some consideration of closing the (Ann Arbor) campus ultimately,” he said.

But he assured there has been no talk of closing Lansing and that the downsizing would not impact the Lansing baseball stadium that carries its name.

“We are grateful to the support of the Lansing community toward the school,” Robb said. “We are proud to play an important role to the economy of the area.”

One source said that Cooley's financial problems became more urgent when Wells Fargo Bank sharply raised interest on a line of credit, making it unaffordable. To raise funds, the source said, Cooley plans to issue bonds in September through PNC. To make those bonds more attractive, Cooley needed to reduce costs — thus the large-scale layoffs.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” Robb said. “This is a painful but necessary process so we can put the institution in the right to be financially attractive to the investors. It is correct we are working on the renewal of a bond issue. And, to the extent that the school is in a stronger financial position the bonds are more appealing to financial investors.

“We regret that we need to do this,” Robb continued. “We expect that it will put the law school, the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School in a position to continue to provide outstanding education to our students.”