Education

Questions linger over closure of Whittier Law School

Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa.
Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa.
Leonard Myszynski/courtesy Whittier College

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Less than two weeks after officials with Whittier College suddenly announced the closure and sale of its 15-acre campus in Costa Mesa, the school remains mum about the campus’s new owner and what will become of the property. Public documents so far shed scant light on what’s next for the site once proudly lauded as Orange County’s first accredited law school. Secrecy around the negotiations has lead to speculation on campus about the reasons behind the sale.

Ana Lilia Barraza, a spokeswoman with Whittier College, said the school was honoring a request by the new owner of the property who asked college officials not to discuss the purchase. But she did say that officials had been in negotiations for months to turn the school over to an operator. Barraza would not identify the entity the college had been negotiating with nor say whether it was a third party or the buyer of the property at 3333 Harbor Blvd.

Those negotiations broke down in early April, she said, leaving officials no choice but to close the law school because of declining enrollment and students’ poor academic achievement. Officials have said they are no longer accepting new students and will close the school once all its 380 current students graduate or transfer to another school.

“It was something that we really worked on to make it work,” Barraza said. “We wanted to give the law school the opportunity to continue and to thrive.”

KPCC found four recently registered companies associated with the campus or the sale – some of them with names that suggest they were set up for educational purposes: Cultivator Education Group owns BEG Holdings, which purchased the property. And WLS Operations and North America Universities Alliance System, Inc. were registered at the campus as new companies in January.

Officers for the last two are not available in California public documents, but a person named Miao Yang is listed as president, CEO and secretary for Cultivator Education Group. Yang did not return calls for comment and a man who answered the door at the Arcadia home listed as the company’s address and would identify himself only as a “renter” and would not give his name.

A search of public documents turned up no record of either WLS Operations or North America Universities Alliance System having run a law school in the past. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, said it hadn’t been contacted about transferring operations of the law school.

Barraza, the Whittier College spokeswoman, said she could provide no information about WLS Operations or North America Universities Alliance System. She said school officials considered the party they were negotiating with qualified to run the school.

Some faculty have complained about being left in the dark about the decision to close the school. They claim the sale had more to do with dicey finances from declining enrollment than student achievement. The law school has seen a 40 percent enrollment drop since the 2012-2013 academic year, according to Whittier College, which began running the law school in 1975 and moved it from Hancock Park to Costa Mesa in 1997.

“I think that the timing of the closure really reveals what the true motivation was,” said Radha Pathak, a professor at the law school and associate dean for student and alumni engagement. She and other faculty members sued the school to try to stop the announcement of the closure but a judge declined to sign an injunction.

Pathak said the law school’s finances were projected to go into the red in the 2017-2018 academic year.

Public records show BEG bought the campus property for $35 million. In 2014, Whittier College used the law school to refinance $91.2 million in debt.

College spokeswoman Barraza would not comment on the transaction and college officials denied poor finances were the cause of the sale.

“This was not a decision made on the basis of financial exigency,” said Sharon Herzberger, who’s the president of both Whittier College and Whittier Law School. “It was made on the basis of educational considerations.”

She said falling passage rates for the school's graduates on the bar exam, the test that allows a graduate to practice law, were the driving force behind the decision to close the school. In 2016, 22 percent of Whittier Law School’s graduates passed the bar exam on their first try. The California average was 62 percent.