N.C. Central University names Durham judge interim dean of law school

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Elaine Mercia O’Neal has been named interim dean of the School of Law at North Carolina Central University.
North Carolina Superior Court Judge Elaine Mercia O’Neal has been named interim dean of the School of Law at North Carolina Central University.

The N.C. Central University School of Law, under scrutiny for admission standards and low bar-passage rates, has named longtime judge and alumna Elaine O'Neal as its interim leader starting July 16.

O’Neal will oversee daily activities of the school and "ensure that the highest legal educational standards are upheld while the university undertakes a nationwide search for a permanent new dean," the university announced Friday.

O’Neal began serving as a North Carolina District Court Judge in 1994 and was elected to the Superior Court bench in 2011, where she serves in the 14th District.

Efforts to reach O'Neal were unsuccessful Monday, but Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson confirmed she will be stepping off the bench. The state constitution does not permit someone to hold elected office and appointed office at the same time.

NCCU's announcement did not list her compensation as interim dean.

The appointment comes after the university pledged to tighten admission practices at its law school by imposing a minimum LSAT score on future applicants, a move Chancellor Johnson Akinleye has said is likely to reduce the size of the incoming class by a third.

Phyliss Craig-Taylor, the dean since 2012, will remain at the law school as a faculty member.

In 2017, of those NCCU law graduates who took the bar exam for the first time in North Carolina, 54 percent passed, compared to 59 percent in 2016, according to a report. The school's attrition rate worsened, with 37.7 percent of first-year students in 2016-17 washing out.

From now on the school will deny admission to anyone who scores less than a 142 on the LSAT, a standardized test that’s scored on a range going from 120 up to 180.

Akinleye has said he hopes the action and a letter to the American Bar Association including testimonials from N.C. Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan, former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Wanda Bryant, among others, will become “the end of the conversation."

The law school’s “accreditation is not threatened at this point” and the ABA hasn’t even placed it on probation, the chancellor has said.

O'Neal earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics and her law degree from NCCU. She is a former member of the NCCU School of Law Board of Visitors.

O’Neal has served as a board member or co-founder of a number of organizations and institutions, including Restoration Institute for Leaders, Women’s Recovery House and Families First, according to the university's news release. She is also a former commissioner for the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies. Currently, she participates on the board of directors for Systems of Care and as a member of the Gang Assessment Oversight Committee.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this story.

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