WILLIAMSBURG -- Three weeks ago nearly 500 students at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary began the fall term in a nearly $6 million building, that was formally dedicated yesterday.
The elaborate facility, which some persons have jokingly called a library attached to a law school, became a reality primarily because of a threat in the mid-1970s by the American Bar Association to remove the law school's accreditation unless its library facilities and several other items were improved.
There were persons at those times who felt strongly that William and Mary officials were using the accreditation threat as a straw man to be knocked down by the construction dollars then almost routinely provided by the General Assembly.
Money for the William and Mary law school, however, was never easy to come by and an examination of documents, letters and communications between William and Mary and ABA officials between 1973 and 1978 reveals that the accreditation threat to the law school was not a veiled one; it was very real.
In 1967 the law school and its library moved into renovated quarters at the old William and Mary library building. It was three years after the move that college officials first began discussing the possibility of constructing a new building, especially designed for the law school.
In the meantime, there was a move among state legal personalities and state government officials to secure for Williamsburg the headquarters of the National Center for State Courts, then temporarily located in Denver.
Gov. Linwood Holton was very instrumental in getting the National Center to finally select Williamsburg as headquarters site in 1973. It was also Holton who first had a great vision of a large legal center with the National Center Building and an adjacent new facility for William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law.
Although the public has never been told, the law school accreditation problem began as early as Aug. 4-5, 1973, when the American bar association's council on legal education and its accreditation committee reviewed a re-inspection of Marshall-Wythe.
A resolution adopted at the meeting noted that the William ad Mary law school appeared to have deficiencies in its physical facilities, library and operating budget and that study space in the library failed to demonstrate compliance with ABA standards.
In his State-of-The-Commonwealth address in January 1974, out-going Gov. Holton included the request for a new law school building at William and Mary in his remarks and in his budget, calling upon the General Assembly to fund the project.
The construction, along with dozens of other such projects across the state, was not included in the 1974-1976 biennium budget that was adopted and the college continued to grapple with the growing ABA specter.
The first public indication of any accreditation problem at the law school came on Dec. 3, 1974 when the State Council of Higher Education, in a report released in Richmond said the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools feel that state support of the William and Mary law school was "submarginal" and that accreditation of the law school is, therefore, in jeopardy until deficiencies are corrected.
James P. Whyte, then dean of Marshall-Wythe said in response that "To say our accreditation is in jeopardy is a bit of an overstatement. We're not on the verge of going out of existence. Frankly, we need to sit more people in our library . . . we need more space for the number of students enrolled.
Wythe and the college were putting up a good front, because they did know that accreditation was in jeopardy, if not then, within the next several months.
In January, 1975, William and Mary officials decided that the best political course to obtain a new building, would be to delay a fund plea until the 1976 meeting of the General Assembly when the college would make the law school its No. 1 priority item.
In July, 1975, the accreditation picture came into sharper focus. During the 1973-75 timespan, college officials had been submitting progress reports to the ABA section on legal education. On July 10-13, 1975, the section's council adopted a strongly worded resolution highly critical of the law school and noting "very grave concern" about the following matters:
(1) Continued inadequacy of the law school building . . . and the fact that portions of the law school are housed in four (additional) buildings.
(2) Continued inadequacy of faculty salaries . . .which are below the national median and below those schools in the geographic area where William and Mary is located.
(3) Continued inadequacy of professional staffing for the law library.
(4) Continued need for additional strengthening of law library.
(5) Need for a clarification of autonomy of the law school admissions office and
(6) The law school's problems in the promotional pattern for faculty members.
For reasons known only to William and Mary officials, it was not, however, until Sept. 24, 1975 that Dr. Thomas A. Graves Jr., president of William and Mary, called a press conference, announcing the accreditation problem. At that time the press was told of only the first four points, cited by the ABA. On Oct. 14, the remaining two points, involving internal relationships between the law school and the college administration, were publicized.
The entire accreditation picture, however, seemed to revolve around the building. College officials contended all along that the other deficiencies could be handled, but the facility problem could not be corrected without the construction of a new law school building.
In December, 1975, the ABA was aware of the intense effort to be made at the 1976 General Assembly to secure the Funding for the new facility. By that time former U.S. Sen. William B. Spong Jr. of Portsmouth had been named dean-designate of Marshall-Wythe, succeeding Whyte. Spong began a personal effort to help secure legislative support for the school, working the corridors of the state capitol and talking to friends in the legislature.
On the last day of the 1976 General Assembly $486,150 was authorized to fund site preparation work and the construction of a parking lot at the law building site. The building had not been funded, but a major step forward had been accomplished.
The ABA, however, would not back off. On May 13, 1976, Spong and acting law school Dean Emeric Fischer traveled to Chicago to appear before a meeting of the council of the section of legal education of the ABA to explain William and Mary's position vis a vis the accreditation problem.
The session lasted about four hours and Spong recalled last week that he was able "to tell the ABA council that we had obtained money for site clearance and a parking lot. I told them that if they knew anything about the commonwealth of Virginia, they would realize they would never give money for a parking lot without building something next to it," Spong explained.
"That seemed to convince the ABA of Virginia's commitment" to build a new law school building at William and Mary.
Spong and Fischer also described to the council, in detail, the corrective means that had been taken at the law school since July 1975 to eliminate the other deficiencies listed in the ABA resolution.
Autonomy for the admissions problem had been reaffirmed, Spong and Fischer reported and the General Assembly had taken major steps in improving faculty salaries. The 1973 visitation inspection team found that William and Mary's median law school faculty salary ranked 134th among the 148 accredited law schools. By 1975-76, the college had moved the school to a position of 83rd among 156 law schools.
Law library staffing had been significantly improved by the hiring of a full-time, fully qualified law librarian and two other qualified librarians and interim moves had been made to improve the physical facilities at the law school.
The 1977 General Assembly approved the law school construction project as part of the $125 bond referendum issue to be voted on by Virginians in November. Then Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., who spearheaded approval of the referendum, is credited by Spong as giving the project its final push.
The referendum was approved and the ABA was off the law school's back. Within two days of the referendum's passage, college officials were initiating steps to get the construction underway.
Richmond Times-Dispatch at G-1, G-3 (September 14, 1980)
Kale, Wilford, "Threat to Accrediation Prompted W&M Facility" (1980). 1976–1985: William B. Spong, Jr.. 27.