After hundreds of hours of research and writing, Professor Ken Vandevelde recently published A History of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, a new book detailing the years since the school’s founding as the San Diego campus of Western State University College of Law in 1969 through the end of his 11-year tenure as dean. In this first-ever published account of TJSL’s history, Professor Vandevelde, who was TJSL’s Dean from mid-1994 to mid-2005, shares his recollections, as well information gathered from interviews with numerous individuals connected to the law school during these earlier decades. The paperback is now available on Amazon.com
As described on Amazon’s website:
“This is the story of a small law school that, through force of will, transformed itself into something quite different. For most of its history, the law school was the branch campus of a for-profit, non-ABA (American Bar Association) accredited, Orange County law school that served principally part-time evening students in the San Diego area. More than half of the entering class did not survive to graduation and, of those who graduated, fewer than half passed the California bar exam, the toughest in the nation. Over the space of six years, the law school separated from its parent institution, adopted a new name, became the first for-profit law school in history to gain ABA accreditation, converted itself to a nonprofit law school and attracted a nationally based student body, becoming second only to Stanford among California law schools for its geographic diversity. By that time, the law school was ranked fifth in the nation among all American law schools for the quality of academic life on campus. Applications for admission rose tenfold, the academic dismissal rate fell to about 5 percent and the pass rate on the California bar exam began a steady climb, exceeding 75 percent when this narrative ends. Graduates were receiving offers from major law firms in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and other cities. The law school became predominantly full-time, but continued to admit significant numbers of nontraditional, part-time students and, as a result of these changes, was able to offer them a better education and a more valuable degree. This story demonstrates what can be achieved through a commitment to excellence and a belief that people matter.”
Professor Vandevelde, who joined the TJSL faculty in 1991, was continually surprised by the information uncovered during the more than two years he spent working on the book, a project he began in early 2011.
“One of the most interesting discoveries for me in writing this history was that the law school from its inception was ambitious in its desire for academic excellence and recognition,” says Professor Vandevelde. “It would take many years for the law school to achieve the founders’ ambitions in that regard, but they had the ambition from the beginning. Another interesting discovery was that the idea for opening a campus in San Diego originated with a San Diego law student who was dissatisfied with the quality of the education that he was receiving at another law school. This campus, in particular, was born from a desire for academic excellence and a concern for the needs of students.”
During the 36 years covered by the book, Professor Vandevelde tells how the law school was transformed. It began with a part-time program, a part-time faculty and a curriculum that covered little more than the subjects tested on the bar exam. Most students came from San Diego, a majority of the entering class never graduated and relatively few graduates left the state. By the time the story ends in 2005, the student body is predominantly full-time, more than 60 percent come from outside of California and nearly everyone graduates. The faculty had grown to more than 35 full-time professors drawn from America’s most prestigious law schools, the curriculum was rich in cutting-edge courses in areas such as intellectual property and international law and, for two consecutive years, The Princeton Review: The Best Law Schools had ranked TJSL fifth in the nation for the quality of life on campus, based on the high degree of student-faculty interaction and the sense of community among students.
Why did he write the book, especially when he also was working on his Ph.D. dissertation at the same time? According to Professor Vandevelde, who is the author of 10 books and two second editions, one of the most important reasons for writing a book like this is to help preserve the culture of the institution.
“The law school represents certain values that it has embraced over time, the most important ones in my mind being the quest for academic excellence and a belief that people matter,” he said. “A record of how these values have shaped the institution is important to keeping them alive.
“An institutional history also assists each generation in learning from both the mistakes and the successes of past generations. It satisfies our innate curiosity about the origins of the things around us. And, because it portrays our fellow humans engaged in their daily struggle with the vicissitudes of life, it can serve as a source of amusement and perhaps even of inspiration. Finally, for those who are not affiliated with the law school, this book demonstrates that we are a vibrant institution composed of people who really care about what they do.”
Once Vandevelde started the book, he was hooked. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know. New information raised new questions for which he needed to find answers.
“The research and writing was, for the most part, a great deal of fun because recreating the past is like being a detective or a spy,” he explains. “The most difficult parts of the process were locating some of the people involved in the early history of the law school, reconciling conflicting accounts and deciding what to leave out. My great regret is that all of the major participants were alive when I first thought about writing the book, but several of them passed away before I was able to speak with them. Ironically, I had exactly the same problem with my dissertation.”
For Professor Vandevelde, what perhaps is the most important lesson to be learned from the book is that history reveals that “We can be very proud of what we have accomplished against formidable obstacles.”
“The law school started from literally nothing – two couples sitting around a dining table imagining that they could start a law school,” he emphasizes. “There were no big investors, no large university standing behind them. But by endeavoring to meet the needs of students and by seeking always to improve on what they were doing, they rapidly built the largest law school in California. Further improvements were blocked for a time by a well-entrenched ABA policy against accrediting law schools that were operated as for-profit institutions. We eventually broke through that barrier, becoming the first for-profit law school to gain ABA approval and then becoming the first accredited for-profit law school to convert to a nonprofit.
“After that, we experienced an explosion in the quality of our academic program. Within four years, we were receiving more than 4000 admissions applications a year, we were second only to Stanford among California law schools for the geographic diversity of our student body, we were just beginning the best string of bar results in our history and our students were landing jobs at major law firms around the country. The ABA site evaluation team that visited the law school in 2004 said that TJSL’s transformation during the prior decade had been ‘miraculous’.”
If you want to learn more about TJSL’s history, Professor Vandevelde’s new book is available for check-out in TJSL’s Law Library and available for less than $20 at: Purchase on Amazon