UMass law school opponents slam proposal

Grant Welker

The proposed University of Massachusetts law school in Dartmouth is one step away from reality but still faces criticism from three private law schools in the state and western Massachusetts legislators considering filing a bill to restrict state aid for the school.

UMass Dartmouth, which would create a public law school at the Southern New England School of Law, has said the school won’t require money from the university system or the state. The proposal was supported by the UMass board of trustees last week and will go before the state Board of Higher Education, the final step, in February.

Stanley Rosenberg, a senator whose district includes the UMass’ flagship Amherst campus, is considering legislation to ban the law school from using state money, according to The Republican of Springfield. If UMass is so sure its proposed law school won’t need public funds, it should be OK if legislation made sure that didn’t happen, state Rep. Ellen Story, a Democrat from Amherst, said.

“A public law school is a wonderful idea and it’s long overdue, but to pretend it won’t cost the state any additional money is not realistic,” Story said.

“The university is already being severely cut, and my worries are that the university will be cut even further because there will be another school that needs to be funded out of the same pot of money,” she said. Story said she thinks the law school is a “done deal,” that it has enough votes to pass and that legislation is the best way to ensure state money isn’t used for the school.

Rosenberg could not be reached for comment.

The dean of the Western New England College School of Law in Springfield has also questioned UMass’ assertion that a law school will not require state funds. “It will not be possible,” said Arthur Gaudio.

Gaudio was the dean of a public law school at the University of Wyoming and worked for the American Bar Association administering to its accreditation committee. He predictsthe UMass law school would need at least $9.6 million from the university system or the state in its first year, at least $52 million in the first five years, and at least $91.8 million in the first decade.

His estimates are based on annual operating costs, tuition discounts needed to attract high-achieving students, and average per-student costs for public law schools in New England.

“It is not possible for an American Bar Association-approved law school, or one seeking approval, to operate solely on the stated tuition funds without incurring a substantial cost” to UMass or the state, he said in a letter to UMass trustees.

Law schools at Suffolk University and New England Law, both in Boston, also oppose the plan.

Those two law schools and WNEC have released reports they say show that SNESL is worth far less than it and UMass claim and that SNESL has lost money in eight of the last 11 years. A report by the law firm Banis, O’Sullivan & McMahon said SNESL is worth between $7.2 million and $8.5 million, not the $22.6 million that SNESL and UMass claim. Another analysis publicized by the law schools says SNESL facilities are far too small and that the UMass school wouldn’t be able to gain accreditation with its projected budget.

“It is now the challenge and obligation of the Board of Higher Education to perform and carefully consider independent due diligence and financial analysis that the University of Massachusetts and its trustees failed to do,” the three law schools said in a statement.

“We feel it’s our obligation to let people know this money may be wasted on a school that might have little chance to get accreditation,” said Rob Gray, a spokesman for the schools’ coalition. Suffolk declined to comment on Monday.

Margaret Xifaras, SNESL board of trustees chairwoman, defended her school’s valuation, saying real estate values don’t consider things like an estimated $11 million it would take to replace the library’s book collection. Projections of how the school would rely on state aid are “crazy,” she said, and accusations that the school isn’t profitable are wrong.

“We’ve been totally honest here that we operate in the black, but right at the margin,” Xifaras said, calling the three law schools “afraid of competition.”

UMass Dartmouth estimates it will take in a net $8.4 million in its first year, just over half from fees. It expects costs in that year to be around $6.6 million, including $1.6 million devoted to improvements related to achieving bar accreditation.

One local graduate of the WNEC School of Law said after the UMass trustees vote last Thursday that she was “disappointed” in WNEC’s opposition to the UMass proposal. Ann Marie Maguire of Keches Law Group in Taunton, who also graduated from UMass, said UMass’s projections for the law school are “dead-on” and that WNEC’s criticism is “off the mark.”

UMass Dartmouth spokesman John Hoey said most critics of the school become supporters after they sit down with university officials and go over details of the proposal.

The UMass law school has a sizable roster of higher-education and legislative supporters, too. Last month, the presidents of the 15 community colleges announced their backing in a letter to UMass President Jack Wilson.

If Rosenberg files legislation, he wouldn’t be the first. State Rep. John Quinn, a Dartmouth Democrat, filed a bill in October that calls for the state to review how it helps private colleges by giving money for scholarships. The bill was co-signed by representatives David Sullivan of Fall River, Michael Rodrigues of Westport and Stephen Canessa of New Bedford, among others.

Quinn said when the bill was filed that it was being done in response to an “assault” on the UMass proposal from private law schools and their supporters.

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