In Fort Worth, where residents are fiercely loyal to Texas Christian University and the color purple, a deep-rooted Texas institution is flying its maroon and white flag high and having any indelible impact.
Six years after Texas A&M University acquired Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and renamed it the Texas A&M University School of Law, remarkable strides are being made inside the walls of a low-slung concrete office building in southeast downtown Fort Worth, across the street from the Fort Worth Water Gardens.
While the façade may not stand out, the numbers and data do: No. 1 in the nation in improved student quality, dramatic increase in the number of applicants, dramatic rise in passage rate of the bar exam and employment in “gold standard” jobs.
Furthermore, the law school is ranked tops in the country for improved reputation and increased rank as a result of its rapid rise to 83 among the American law schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The school was unranked before it was acquired by Texas A&M.
“On almost every measure of the quality of a law school, we are No. 1 in terms of the delta – in terms of the direction,” said Dean Robert B. Ahdieh, who is also the holder of the Anthony G. Buzbee Endowed Dean’s Chair at Texas A&M School of Law. Ahdieh was named dean in June 2018.
The improvements have come as the law school has shifted away from its early position in the Texas Wesleyan era as a school mainly for part-time students working their way through the program. Now, the law school has some part-time students but no official part-time program.
That shift is not just taking place because of the new leaders at the school, it’s also reflects a trend nationwide and it was starting when Texas A&M acquired the school.
“The later days of Wesleyan, there were more full-time than part-time students, but early days in particular it was almost entirely part-time students,” Ahdieh said.
Now, Texas A&M law school is catching up to its Texas rivals in terms of stature and quality.
With a ranking of 83, Texas A&M is ranked above Texas Tech’s long-established law school at No. 117 as well as the law schools at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and South Texas College of Law, which both rank between 146 and 192. The University of North Texas-Dallas is unranked because it has yet to be accredited.
Texas A&M’s latest ranking puts it within closer range of the state’s most established law schools, including the University of Houston at 59, Southern Methodist University at 52 and Baylor University at 48. Ranking at 16, the University of Texas’ law school is the highest ranked Texas school in the U.S.
For Texas A&M, these academic strides come alongside an imbedded commitment to student diversity.
“Among our peer schools, we actually have the highest diversity rate of any of them (outside of the University of Houston),” Ahdieh said.
Another indicator of Texas A&M’s success is its passing rate on the bar, which was has climbed steadily in the past two years – from 83 percent two years ago to 87 percent last year among those taking the bar for the first-time.
“This year we’re 90 percent and third in the state,” Ahdieh said. “Only Baylor and UT are ahead of us.”
The law school’s formula for its achievement is a combination of encouraging study and strategic approach to identifying and shepherding students who need help.
“We have a set of courses and recommendations and mentoring and advising … using data to figure out who’s at risk and to engage those students in a systematic way,” Ahdieh said.
While the law school’s approach to academic excellence has helped chart a successful course, it is not the only aspect of the school that is bringing attention and recognition.
The law school is also taking a lead on innovation, community engagement and providing solutions to problems plaguing Fort Worth and beyond.
One way the school is accomplishing those goals is through its Master Jurisprudence and Non-Degree Programs that aim to help professionals in other field better understand the legal issues they encounter in their jobs.
“I think of what we do as teaching the law rather than just training lawyers,” said Ahdieh.
With a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a law degree from Yale Law School, Ahdieh is especially interested in regulatory and institutional matters, especially in regard to business and finance.
“We face an ever-increasing number of so-called ‘wicked’ problems,” he noted, including an aging population, access to health care, disease pandemics, climate change, poverty, global financial crises and terrorism.
“Legislation, regulation, compliance issues, contract issues cut through and are sort of interweaved with those, so it makes sense for someone who wants to try and solve those problems to have some understanding of the substance of the law,” Ahdieh said.
The two-year-old Master of Jurisprudence program, with a current enrollment of 170 this fall, is a one- to two-year master’s degree program focused on legal issues faced by people who work in areas of health care policy and administration, business and finance, compliance, cyber security and technology and oil gas.
The Non-Degree programs offer certificates and are similar to executive MBA programs but for engineers or physicians.
“The idea is that there are going to be some folks who don’t need a master’s degree or they don’t have the time, so can we develop certificate programs for them,” Ahdieh said. “Lockheed came to us and said ‘our cyber security engineers need some additional training in law and regulation and law and policy. Can you help us with that?’ ”
Ahdieh said that through these types of partnerships and engagement, problems can be solved and everyone benefits.
While the law school is in an outpost far from the main campus at College Station, there are elements of the Aggie tradition beyond the prevalent maroon and white décor.
Identical to the iconic 12-foot tall 12th Man statue situated in front of Kyle Field on the Texas A&M campus, Texas A&M Law has its own quarter life-size version of the larger-than-life statue of E. King Gill.
The statue symbolizes the law school’s selfless service, one of the six Aggie core values that define personal and professional standards.
The 12th Man tradition dates back to 1922, when Gill was the last man on the bench – suited up and ready to play – as the Aggies scored an upset in the Dixie Bowl.
There are other nods to Aggie traditions, even to the four-legged ones, such as a small plaque in a study area that reads: “Miss Reveille IX sat here on September 25, 2015.”
Looking to the future, Ahdieh said he foresees opportunities for major collaboration in a physical way on land the school owns.
His vision involves a development anchored by the law school that brings together training and cooperative programs and various types of businesses and industries that would interface and benefit everyone involved as well as the whole community.
“The summary of this is, we need more higher education in Fort Worth,” he said. “We need more higher education in downtown. We need that for all sorts of reasons, but frankly, more than anything else we need it for economic development reasons.”
Arizona State University, he noted, built a downtown campus, even though they are less than 30 minutes away from downtown.
“They realized there were lots of opportunities that would arise from being in the middle of downtown that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” he said.
Georgia Tech, he said, has done something similar with Tech Square, in one of the fastest growing urban cores in the country.
Developments of this sort are already underway in other parts of the country. Cornell University is a leader in this type of co-op development with a New York City campus near Roosevelt Island, he said.
“Cornell is developing this mixed facility that has corporate headquarter space, housing, academic space, so on and so forth,” he said. “Exactly the idea that in some sense I’m suggesting that we can potentially do here.”
With the impending renovation of the Tarrant County Convention Center, there is an opportunity to transform a lackluster area in downtown into something spectacular – and something that could spur economic development.
“Can we imagine sort of a project that really is an innovation hub, a district in this space here,” he said. “It does a lot of things.”
– Additional reporting by Robert Francis and Paul K. Harral