If ever there was an academic institution that needs the close and skeptical scrutiny of an independent set of eyes, it’s New England Law, Boston.
The Globe’s Michael Rezendes recently reported that John F. O’Brien, dean of New England Law, earns an astounding $867,000 a year in salary and benefits. That pay package, which is more than three times the median pay for law school deans, may well make him the best-paid law school chief in America.
Certainly there’s an enormous gap between the quality of O’Brien’s compensation package and the national ranking of the law school he leads. US News & World Report, in its listing of 199 law schools, includes New England Law in a tier that is not publicly ranked because the schools fall “below the US News cutoff.”
What’s more, under O’Brien, the school has generated revenue in recent years by hiking tuition by more than 80 percent, to over $40,000 a year, while more than doubling the percentage of applicants it accepts. That is emblematic of a larger problem in American legal education. For years now, American law schools have been cranking out significantly more young lawyers than the country needs. The result: Too many students at lower-echelon law schools take on heavy debt to finance a legal education that simply doesn’t result in a good law-related job.
O’Brien’s pay package alone should raise red flags. The dean has obviously benefited from a generous relationship with New England Law’s board of trustees, and particularly chairman Martin Foster. Foster took over as board chairman in 2007. In 2008, the Foster-led board boosted O’Brien’s already handsome pay of $437,000 to almost $615,000. Making that package even more problematic, the board also gave O’Brien a $650,000 “forgivable loan” — that is, one he doesn’t have to pay back if he remains at the law school for the stipulated 10-year period.
Foster and two other board members have done well themselves through their association with the law school. Until recently, the trio collected annual stipends that ranged up to $74,000 for the chairman, though that practice was discontinued after Attorney General Martha Coakley began raising questions about the propriety of paying members of nonprofit boards.
More outside pressure is needed. The Internal Revenue Service has oversight authority for compensation at nonprofits like New England Law — and the power to assess the equivalent of fines or even revoke tax-exempt status when nonprofits pay their executives exorbitant salaries. Coakley also has some authority to review the actions of nonprofits to determine whether they had justification and engaged in a deliberative process in making their compensation decisions.
Both should take a hard look at New England Law.
Meanwhile, the law school’s sleepy, self-satisfied trustees need to wake up. When Suffolk University found itself enveloped in a similar controversy about an overpaid president in 2009, reformers on its board worked diligently to clean house. Trustees at New England Law need to take the same pro-active posture. They should start by asking whether New England Law is really doing the most it can to serve its students — or if, as it appears, Dean O’Brien’s strategy is mostly about serving himself.