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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 10, 2014 4 years ago

Raise the bar

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Kevin Cieply, the new president and dean of the Ave Maria School of Law, is on a mission to help more students pass the bar exam.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

When he was associate dean at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, Kevin Cieply had the tough task of helping low-income students pass the bar exam.

The notoriously difficult exam is the ticket to the law profession and Cieply's experience at John Marshall will be beneficial in his new capacity as the president and dean of Ave Maria School of Law in Naples.

Improving Ave Maria's bar passage rate is critical to attract and retain students. Until now, Ave Maria's bar pass rate was below the state average, so Cieply and the faculty are making changes to the curriculum that should boost that rate.

“It's got to be my No. 1 emphasis,” says Cieply, who started as dean of Ave Maria July 1. “Every time I stand up in front of students I talk to them about the bar exam. I'm trying to create that ethic.”

Cieply says there's a direct correlation between bar-passage rates and a student's grade-point average. To boost the passing rate, grades for required courses will be curved so 20% of students will receive a grade of C or less this year. This will be a way to identify weaker students and get them the help they need or steer them to another career.

“We'll put a lot more resources into our bar preparation,” says Cieply, who served for more than 22 years in the U.S. Army and Wyoming Army National Guard as a helicopter pilot and Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) officer, retiring as a colonel.

The law school has formed a committee to review all the courses and make necessary adjustments. In addition, a standards committee is reviewing the rigors of all exams.

Cieply says he'll actively pursue students who have high Law School Admission Test results (LSAT) and help them land scholarships for free tuition, which costs $38,000 a year. One such scholarship is the Cardinal Newman Scholarship, which provides free tuition and a stipend for the three-year program at a Catholic law school. Cieply says as many as 50 Ave Maria students could benefit.

Cieply, 52, says rival law schools have poached students from Ave Maria, which is costly for the school with a current enrollment of 271 students. “We have to be aggressive,” he says.

There's enough room on the campus in Naples to boost enrollment to 550 students. Although it's a Catholic school, Cieply says courses on natural law and moral foundations attract other conservative students. About 64% of the incoming class is Catholic and 98% are Christian. “We offer two daily masses and walk the talk,” says Cieply.

Owning the campus at the Vineyards development off Pine Ridge Road, just east of Interstate 75 in Naples, would give the school more permanence and make the school more attractive to prospective students and wealthy donors, Cieply says. “You're much more in control of how you spend your money,” he says.

Although the young law school's alumni corps numbers about 1,200, Cieply is launching a campaign to raise $3 million as a down payment on the Vineyards property it is renting now. Owning the property would allow the school to name buildings after big donors, for instance. “We would like to do this over the next year,” he says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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