UMass, law school officials say acquisition is no financial threat

Grant Welker

The heads of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the Southern New England School of Law said Monday that a proposal for a UMass law school poses no financial risk to the university or the state.

In a meeting with The Herald News editorial board, UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack and SNESL Dean Robert Ward said the economic downturn is the right time for UMass to absorb the 230-student school and turn it into the state’s first public law school.

“We got a pretty good thing going, but we know it can be better,” said Ward, whose school’s board of trustees wrote to UMass President Jack Wilson last month offering itself as a donation to the university. SNESL needs the resources of UMass to upgrade the school to meet national accreditation, he said.

Gov. Deval Patrick gave his support to the proposal on Monday, provided it “meets the fiscal and financial tests,” according to the Statehouse News Service. “I think a first-class state university system, as this is, ought to have a law school, and I think this helps fill out an element of the university’s portfolio,” Patrick said.

The previous governor, Mitt Romney, was considered by public law school advocates to have been a main reason for its failure in 2005.

UMass Dartmouth submitted its proposal for the public law school last week to Wilson and the UMass board of trustees. In it, UMass Dartmouth says it will invest $13.8 million in the school through fiscal 2015, including $2.8 million to upgrade the library with resources and acquisitions, and nearly $2 million on new faculty.

Another $3.3 million would go toward 25 fellowships each year, with 50-percent loan forgiveness in return for four years of public service.

None of the investment costs will come from the state or other UMass programs, MacCormack said. Instead, the law school would rely mainly on tuition, fees and fundraising.

The proposal needs a series of approvals, including from the UMass trustees next month and the state Board of Higher Education in February. If the Board of Higher Education supports it, Patrick said he will, too.

When UMass Dartmouth and SNESL last proposed a public law school, the Board of Higher Education voted in April 2005 to reject it.

UMass Dartmouth and SNESL officials insist that this proposal is different. The 2005 proposal was a merger, while this attempt is a donation; tuition revenue would go directly to the state general fund, unlike the previous proposal. Officials say they didn’t receive a fair hearing last time, and a lawsuit from SNESL students after that attempt allowed a former Massachusetts appeals court chief justice to oversee the current process.

Critics of the proposal have said a slumping economy is the wrong time to begin a law school and that not enough demand exists for more lawyers.

MacCormack and Ward have staunchly defended the plan. MacCormack called the opposition “elitist” and said many have a “regional bias” against placing a UMass law school in the southeastern corner of the state. Ward admitted much of the criticism made him angry. “My board (of trustees) is not dumb,” he said when asked about criticism over the timing.

The 65-page proposal argues that demand does exist for lawyers, citing a projected 11-percent national growth rate through 2016. A UMass law school, meanwhile, would add only 318 more graduates over the next five years than are currently graduating.

The school “will not create an additional law program in Massachusetts as some continue to suggest,” the proposal says.

MacCormack said she hopes the law school can receive provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association by 2013. ABA accreditation is necessary for students to be eligible for the bar exam outside Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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