Confronted with controversy, a small R.I. law school aims to keep its reputation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The law school at Roger Williams University is a relative infant among peers, opened less than 15 years ago and angling ever since to elevate its national profile and climb the rankings ladder.

Which makes the recent attention it’s received all the less welcome.

In a whirlwind week last month, Ralph R. Papitto, 80, the former chairman of the university board, admitted using the n-word at a board meeting in May, then volunteered to have his name taken off the law school – the only one in Rhode Island. The dustup arrived at a delicate time for the university and especially for the young law school, which lacks the prestige of top tier institutions but has aggressively sought skilled students from outside the area and diversity in professors.

While a top 10 school has deep enough roots to shake off a controversy, it’s more challenging at a place like Roger Williams, which is still introducing itself to the national law community, said Andrew Horwitz, a professor at the law school since 1994.

“Obviously, our concern is that people will simply connect the statements that Mr. Papitto has made to the name of the law school and reach inappropriate conclusions based on that connection,” he said.

The Bristol law school opened in 1993 and received national accreditation a few years later. It was named in 1996 for Papitto, a successful businessman who served on the university board for nearly 40 years, despite objections from students who didn’t believe the school should bear the name of a person who was still alive and who was not a lawyer.

Joel Votolato, president of the law school alumni association, said Papitto is widely credited with coming up with the idea to open a law school in Rhode Island.

“It comes as a blow when something like this happens,” he said.

The school’s popularity is still largely regional – half the entering class in 2006 came from Rhode Island or elsewhere in New England, according to school statistics – though it does attract students from across the country.

Raising a school’s national reputation takes time, and Roger Williams is no exception.

The law school ranks in the fourth, or lowest, tier in the U.S. News ‘ World Report rankings. It also got a dose of bad publicity in 2001 when a newspaper reported that graduates since 1996 were having problems passing the bar exam.

Supporters say Roger Williams has made marked inroads since then, using an honors program and generous financial aid packages to lure top-flight students who might otherwise select better-ranked schools and retaining professors respected in niche fields like sentencing policy and domestic violence law. The bar pass rate has improved, as have standardized test scores.

Law student Kim Ahern, who helped circulate a petition that was signed by nearly 200 students and demanded that the school’s name be changed, said she was proud of having gone to Roger Williams and that the ordeal offered an opportunity for the school to make positive changes and move on.

“If this had happened anywhere, it’d be viewed as a setback,” she said.

Professors, alumni and law school board members suggested that Roger Williams would emerge with its reputation intact and said the public would recognize that an entire institution can’t be judged by the words of one man.

“One comment by a board member is just one comment by a board member and nothing more than that, as inappropriate as it may be,” said Robert Kando, a member of the law school’s first graduating class and current director of the state Board of Elections.

Its status as the state’s only law school means that students have access to clerkships, opportunities to argue before the state Supreme Court and a leg up at some local firms.

Papitto used the slur while discussing the difficulty in finding minorities to serve on the board, putting a spotlight on the number of minorities on the board and at the school.

At the time Papitto made the comment, there were 14 white men on a 16-member board and no minorities, and the organization responsible for accrediting the university had raised concern about the group’s lack of diversity. Since then, the board has said it’s taking steps to diversify.

The makeup of the student body is also less diverse than other schools in the region. Eleven percent of the students at Roger Williams’ law school identified themselves as members of minority groups as of last fall, spokesman Brian Clark said. By comparison, 18 percent of students at Suffolk University Law School are members of minority groups, and that number is 27 percent at Northeastern University School of Law, according to their Web sites.

Papitto eventually apologized and stepped down – saying he wanted to spend more time with his family – then asked to have his name removed amid mounting pressure from students, faculty and minority lawmakers. The university has agreed to take his name off the law school.

It was a precipitous fall for a man who had given millions of dollars to a school that bears his name. But in a statement asking to have his name stripped, he indicated that the school needed to move on without him.

“I do not want this controversy, which at present is running out of control, to further the damage already caused to the university.”