.SF School’s Misfortune May Benefit East Bay University

JFK University steps into the void to extend a hand to law students left stranded by the closure of San Francisco's perennially quirky New College.

Alex Brant-Zawadzki enrolled last fall to pursue a law degree at what was advertised as the oldest public-interest law school in the country. He figured he would get his degree, join a law firm, and fight the proposed construction of an environmentally destructive toll road in Orange County. He still expects to get his degree, but apparently not from the college he first chose.

Brant-Zawadzki had chosen to study law at New College, a school renowned for its leftist leanings and eccentric laxity — it has been known, for example, to offer clothing-optional classes. Like many New College students, Brant-Zawadzki was motivated by the desire to create a “sustainable, sacred and just world,” as per the school’s slogan. The offbeat San Francisco school seemed a perfect fit.

But just a year into his studies, his goals were rerouted when New College lost a decades-long battle to keep its accreditation. Today, like scores of others in his shoes, it looks like Brant-Zawadzki will graduate instead with a degree from John F. Kennedy University, a Pleasant Hill-based school with its own brand of transformational, change-oriented curriculum.

Brant-Zawadzki said JFK University obviously wasn’t where he had planned to go to school, but that he’s happy to be able to continue his education. “We don’t really have a choice,” he said, “I just worry about the ones who already have their degrees, or the students who were so close to getting it. … But what’re you going to do? It’s accredited, we’re not.”

Mostly, it’s New College’s vision that he’ll miss. It offered an egalitarian, anti-establishment take on law, one of the most “establishment” studies imaginable. “I’m standing here right now looking at Bay Area Legal Aid, where low-income people come in for free legal counseling and I almost want to cry,” Brant-Zawadzki said after class one day last week. “They won’t have that anymore.”

But New College never really won widespread credibility, viewed as quirky by some and a hippie anachronism by others. Since the Western Association of Schools and Colleges first accredited the school in 1976, New College spent the better part of three decades on warning or probation, according to a report released by the accrediting agency. Last summer, the body warned the school to improve its allegedly unorganized accounting of financial aid and shady admissions and grading standards. The Department of Education immediately pulled funding. Beleaguered and broke, the near-bankrupt college — which relied largely on tuition from its few hundred students — tried to catch up. But even the most hopeful had to face the prospect that the college would close. Today, students and the few remaining faculty members who teach there for free face an eviction from their building at 50 Fell Street.

To New College supporters, the school’s academic credibility was never in question. Students who enrolled at New College had a vision for social change. The college offered degrees in poetics, social activism, and feminine spirituality. Its faculty boasted highly educated teachers, many of whom were known for helping nonprofit organizations get off the ground.

But its bookkeeping was another matter. Balancing the books, or failing to do so, is nearly enough reason for a school to lose accreditation. And that’s exactly what happened in late February. The school had stopped paying teachers last fall — though many kept teaching — and lost half its students since then. Last week, its web site went down and the phones rang unanswered.

Now that it has officially lost its accreditation, the remaining students are left in a lurch trying to figure out how to salvage their education. For those enrolled in the New College School of Law, that might mean re-enrolling on this side of the bay.

JFK University, which boasts three former New College faculty members, was the first to offer a partnership. “It’s a tragedy and a disaster,” said Jeff Brown, Dean of JFK’s School of Law and former New College instructor. “You have 140 [law] students literally left out in the cold.”

To remedy that situation, Brown spearheaded efforts to accept New College scholars as transfer students. The plan is to house them at JFK’s Berkeley campus on Ashby Avenue. Taking in an influx of law students will jump-start growth at the satellite campus and boost JFK’s revenue. With all the financial aid and tuition siphoned from New College to JFK after students start fall semester on a new campus, Brown said, the school should benefit economically from the new students.

“We’ve been wanting to open a place for students from that area to go to law school,” Brown said. “So as unfortunate as the situation is, this is actually a good thing in a way because it gives people in that area an opportunity to pursue law in their neighborhood.”

The reputation of New College for providing a law education focused on helping the poor and disadvantaged should also steer JFK’s curriculum in a fresh direction, Brown said. “It’s something I’ve been trying to get started since I’ve been here,” he added.

In the short term, New College teachers will be incorporated into JFK and put on the school’s payroll. To make the changes long-term, he added, the California Bar Association would have to approve the move. For now, it’s something Brown dubs a “teach-out.” “If we wanted to make this permanent, we’d need a library, some more classrooms and offices, and other things that a real law school would need,” he said. “We don’t have that in Berkeley right now. We’re just dealing with this as it comes to us.”

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