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Golden Gate University Law School faces bankruptcy, closure

Golden Gate University at 536 Mission St. in Downtown San Francisco. | Google Streetview

A nonprofit law school in Downtown San Francisco faces an existential vote on Wednesday, as students and faculty join forces to keep the 122-year-old institution alive. 

Founded in 1901, Golden Gate University has struggled to stay afloat in recent years, but the surrounding neighborhood’s deteriorating economic condition has taken its toll. A January 2022 plan to stay afloat by selling property sputtered out with the “precipitous devaluation” of Downtown commercial real estate, the university said in a letter to the law school community last Friday.

“In sum, a perfect storm has impacted GGU Law.” the letter read. “The University cannot continue to sustain an operating deficit from the Law School. And we must maintain sufficiently high admissions standards in order to comply with [American Bar Association] bar passage requirements. No decisions have been made.”

The administration acknowledged to The Standard that a proposal regarding the law school’s long-term future exists. However, the university neither confirmed nor denied that outright closure or giving up its accreditation with the American Bar Association were on the table.

Students, faculty and alumni, however, were told that the Board of Trustees would either close the law school altogether or relinquish its accreditation, according to a letter circulating to save the school. Concerns revolved around providing a path to law school for people “otherwise overlooked by traditional legal education institutions,” a group who have historically made up a significant portion of the school’s student body.

“As one of the only [American Bar Association] law schools with a mission of access to legal education in the Bay Area, GGU Law’s closure would have far-reaching consequences that extend well beyond the institution itself,” read the letter, which more than 800 people signed.

Alternatively, the school could continue with only the State Bar of California accreditation. Doing so would limit students' employment opportunities, the letter reiterated, and it would not address any financial difficulties.

Golden Gate Law currently has about 200 students, according to Student Bar Association president Mohammed Jamal, and needs some $50 million over five years to avoid bankruptcy, although The Standard was unable to confirm that figure independently.

“The closure of the program would have a huge effect on the legal industry,” Jamal told The Standard. “Its status as a law school that produces public interest lawyers that serve the public good will be lowered.”

Nonetheless, the school’s troubles were well-documented. The American Bar Association found Golden Gate University School of Law to be out of compliance for having low bar passage rates in 2021, prompting the school to substantially lower its admission rate starting in 2022.

The university as a whole is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges through 2025, but has a “formal notice of concern” and could be sanctioned if its financial situation, among other issues, doesn’t improve. 

Losing that status to free up constraints would make things even worse for its graduates and devalue their degrees, faculty and students said.

The Board of Trustees will vote on proposals for the law school on Wednesday afternoon at a meeting closed to the public, including students. The broader law school community is promised an update by July 1. 

Jamal hopes that the trustees approve an alternative plan to closure or giving up accreditation. But some students are fed up and just want to pass the bar and move on. 

“It’s part of GGU’s culture of not fostering transparency and communication with the students,” Jamal said. “I do, sincerely, hope that things change.”

This story has been updated to clarify what accreditation by the State Bar of California means.