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Plans to finance new UMass law school ‘seem too good to be true’

Last month, the University of Massachusetts’ Board of Trustees edged Massachusetts an inch closer to the creation of its first public law school in a decisive 14-4 vote. If the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education ratifies the Trustees’ vote in February, students could begin enrolling in a legal program at the UMass-Dartmouth campus as early as fall 2010.

But State Sen. Stan Rosenberg and several private law school deans have rancorously criticized the plan, using the state’s weak economy to chauffeur their opposition.

Though he has no formal say in February’s vote, Rosenberg is preparing to offer legislation that would bar UMass-Dartmouth from tapping into state taxes for support of the law school. He and other critics argue that the proposed $23,565 tuition, which, in theory, would support the program, is simply not enough.

As reported by the Boston Globe, Arthur Gaudio, dean of Western New England School of Law in Springfield, wrote a letter to the UMass Board of Trustees echoing Rosenberg’s concerns.

“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 the University of Massachusetts or the state,” Gaudio said in the letter.

But the deans of private law schools, like Western New England Law and Suffolk University Law School, have deeper reasons to fret the University’s proposed $23,565 tuition: It’s half the price of theirs.

Without a doubt, a UMass law school would steal many applications from private institutions on the grounds of affordability alone. It’s a relief for aspiring lawyers and a panic for the good ol’ boy law schools, whose elitism has historically defined higher education in Massachusetts.

Uproars throughout the state’s legal community show just how deep the monopoly on jurisprudence extends. Even legal tabloids are snapping venomously at the proposition. In an online article from “Above the Law: A Legal Tabloid,” writer Elie Mystal went so far as to say, “this is not about the students. And it’s certainly not about educational opportunity … we all know what this is about: money. Lenders have it, the state wants it, the financial future of citizens of the Commonwealth be damned.”

It all seems bizarrely ironic. But to be fair, there is a vestige of civic concern in all the lawyerly fire and brimstone. That is, can we really set up an accredited public law school without tax dollars?

Although a UMass law school might seem like a potentially pricy venture, Trustees Chairman Robert Manning maintains otherwise.

“The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees has examined this proposal very thoroughly. The academic and financial components of this proposal have undergone rigorous review. After much study, it is clear that we can create a top-tier public law school without placing financial demands on the state or the University,” Manning said in a statement from the University announcing the Trustees’ approval in December.

In theory, student tuition alone would finance the law program. By increasing initial enrollments of 235 students to 559 over a decade, a UMass law school  would generate nearly $81 million, hopefully enough to support its ambitions and gain accreditation from the American Bar Association.

Ironically, confidence in the fiscal soundness of the plan owes much to a floundering and unaccredited institution in Dartmouth, Mass., called Southern New England School of Law. SNESL recently donated its campus and assets to UMass for their public law school. The $22.6-million contribution undoubtedly supercharged the initiative, and with it the University luckily sidestepped the home-buying process.

Now those precious resources can go toward the costs of accreditation.

UMass-Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack, who authored many of the financial specifics, intends to spruce up SNESL’s facilities with some $13.8 million of non-taxpayer dollars, so that a UMass law school would compete with private schools.

According to MacCormack, a proper UMass law school would channel millions into both the Dartmouth campus and the state economy.

Both Chancellor Holub and UMass President Jack Wilson have endorsed MacCormack’s plan and expressed satisfaction with the Trustees’ recent vote.

“This is a major step forward for public higher education in Massachusetts,” Wilson said. “The creation of a public law program will afford citizens of the Commonwealth the same opportunity that exists in 44 other states.”

Besides Massachusetts, states without public law schools include nearby Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont, along with Delaware. Alaska has no private or public law schools.

Indeed it will. But despite all the chancellery cheer, the plan just seems too good to be true. Like financial quandaries of the past have shown, “paper budgets” don’t always equate to “working budgets.” Only time will tell whether or not MacCormack’s plan for a UMass law school is waterproof.

But if we’re really so sanguine about a UMass law school, Rosenberg’s legislation only confirms what we already know: So why oppose it?

Evan Haddad is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at ehaddad@student.umass.edu.

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