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Board of Higher Education approves law school plan

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the creation of a public law school in the Commonwealth, to be located at the former Southern New England School of Law and overseen by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The school puts Massachusetts in company with 44 other states which already offer public law programs. The vote is the the final step in approving the law school proposal, and clears the way for students to enroll at the state’s first public law school this fall.

The Board of Higher Education met Tuesday before a packed house in a public forum at Bridgewater State College and voted 10-0, with one member not present, to approve the proposal.

According to University of Massachusetts system spokesman Robert Connolly, the moment was one of excitement and euphoria, as students, alumni of Southern New England School of Law, four of the five chancellors from across the UMass system, various state legislators, and other citizens burst out in cheer as the vote was announced.

There were people high-fiving, people bursting into tears, it was just an explosion of cheers when the board took its final vote,” he said.

John Hoey, assistant to the chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, said the Dartmouth campus is elated at the news and looking forward to opening its law program

“Obviously we feel great,” he said. “I think what people saw in this vote was two things,” he added, “one, the University was filling an obvious gap in its overall curriculum, and two, what happened really over the last two weeks, something that’s really never happened before in public higher education in Mass., support for this one academic program at UMass was crystallized throughout all of our public higher education; every chancellor of the UMass campuses supported it, all nine presidents of the state colleges, and all 15 presidents of the community colleges supported it because they saw this as a step forward for public higher ed in Mass.,” said Hoey. “No longer will private institutions have veto power over the ambitions of students in public higher education in Mass., and I think people really got behind that.”

Hoey said the transition from Southern New England School of Law to the UMass Dartmouth law program should be a smooth one.

“We’re beginning this program with a state-of-the-art, 75,000 square foot facility, 8.5 acres of land, a full library, a faculty,” he said. “We start with nearly 200 students, we start with a staff, people who have a lot of experience in running a law school, so now what we’re doing is working on a transition plan.”

Hoey also added that any student in good standing at SNESL will be offered admission to the Dartmouth program, and that UMass Dartmouth expects to enroll more students for next fall soon.

“We have to put in place the operational details necessary to accept students, any student in good standing at the school now will be invited to transfer into the UMass Dartmouth school of law, and we are starting a student enrollment effort right now,” he said.

In a statement released Tuesday by President Jack WIlson’s office, Wilson is quoted as praising the Board of Higher Education and expressing his optimism at the law school’s prospectus.

“The creation of a public law school means that Mass. residents will now have access to an affordable, high-quality legal education. Our citizens will have the same public law school opportunity that exists in 44 other states.”

Wilson noted that in tough economic times, the benefit of a public law school will be significant for students seeking a legal education but lacking the financial resources needed to pursue a private one.

“A public law school means that law students will graduate with less debt and have more flexibility in making their career choices,” the president said.

UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack called the decision an expansion of educational opportunities for the people of the Commonwealth.

“With the creation of the state’s first public law school, we have made history by once again expanding higher education opportunity for the citizens of the Commonwealth,” she said.

MacCormack also emphasized the importance of providing a public alternative for students who wish to enter law.

“From this day forward, students who couldn’t even consider aspiring to a law school education due to cost or geography will be able to pursue their dreams,” she said.

Last fall, the trustees of Dartmouth’s Southern New England School of Law made a proposal to donate their school and all of its facilities, estimated at a total value of $23 million, to the University of Massachusetts. The assets include the law school building, nearby real estate, $11.5 million in library assets, $2.5 million in furnishings, technology and infrastructure, and $1 million in cash reserves. The law school will be the largest ever donation to UMass Dartmouth.

The proposal hinged on several key points. MacCormack has promised that it will gain American Bar Association provisional accreditation by 2013, and proponents of the plan have stated that it will net the Commonwealth $673,576 next year, and more than $1 million annually within five years.

The new law school will open to 235 students for 2010-2011, and is expected to expand to 559 students by 2017-2018. With the enrollment expansion, the amount of revenue generated is also expected to grow, with those backing the plan estimating the school will generate $81 million in student revenue between 2010-2011 and 2017-2018.

The school will be entirely self-sufficient, operating on tuition revenue, and will also hire new faculty over time.

The UMass Dartmouth law program is set to open in September. Tuition and fees for in-state students will be $23,565. Out-of-state tuition is slated to be $31,000.

UMass Dartmouth also plans to offer students an accelerated law degree where they will condense their undergraduate studies into three years and begin law school in what would be their senior year.

The law school also hopes to be an avenue for bolstering diversity in the legal field in the Bay State. According to a report by the Board of Higher Education, just 3.5 percent of attorneys in Massachusetts are black and Hispanic, though they are 12.6 percent of the state’s population. The school also hopes to produce more public attorneys, as the state presently has just 272 public service attorneys, according to the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Expanding the Civil Rights to Counsel. That means there is just one public service lawyer for every 3,350 low-income Massachusetts residents.

MacCormack said Tuesday was a time of coalescence for members of the UMass Dartmouth and Southern New England School of Law Communities.

“The faculty, students, and staff of UMass Dartmouth and Southern New England School of Law are now part of the same family,” she said. “Teams from each institution are already working to assure a smooth transition for students and prospective students from Southern New England to the UMass Dartmouth law program.”

Several of the state’s private law schools ardently opposed the plan, notably Suffolk University, New England School of Law and Western New England School of Law.

New Hampshire is currently planning the creation of a public law school, meaning only Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware and Alaska will be without public law programs.

More information on the law program will be posted as it is made available. Board of Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland could not be reached immediately Tuesday. Dean Robert V. Ward, Jr. of Southern New England School of Law also could not be immediately reached.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at sbutterfield@dailycollegian.com

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