Public Law School Proposal in Action

By Tim Jones

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees voted 14-4 Thursday to approve a proposal to establish a law program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The vote is the last in a series of Trustee committee votes which have cleared the way for UMass Dartmouth to absorb the Southern New England School of Law, creating Massachusetts’ first public law school.

Now the only obstacle standing in the way of the creation of a public law school in the Commonwealth, one of just six states without a public law program, is the approval of the State Board of Higher Education, which will vote on the law school plan next February.

“This is a major step forward for public higher education in Massachusetts,” said UMass President Jack M. Wilson in a Thursday release. “The creation of a public law program will afford the citizens of the Commonwealth the same opportunity that exists in 44 other states,” he furthered. “The University of Massachusetts exists to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth, and this action opens the doors of opportunity to students seeking an affordable, high-quality legal education.”

Chairman of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees Robert J. Manning said that the Board made a solid decision for the future of public higher education in Massachusetts.

“The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees has examined this proposal very thoroughly,” he said. “The academic and financial components of this proposal have undergone rigorous review,” Manning went on, “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.”

The Board of Trustees Committee on Administration had previously completed a review of the University’s financial proposal of the plan to establish the public law school at UMass Dartmouth, and gave it a stamp of approval, as well.

The proposal, authored by UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack, states that the financial aspects will not draw from any state or University funds. Previously, the law school plan gained an 11-4 vote from the Committee of Student and Academic Affairs.

UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack said in the proposal that the law program would help to bridge a hole in the state‘s higher education system.

It would “fill a gap in the state’s public higher education curriculum,” said MacCormack, “be on course to gain American Bar Association provisional accreditation by Fall 2013 [and] generate $673,576 for the Commonwealth in tuition revenue next year and more than $1 million annually within five years.”

MacCormack also stated that the school would “produce a University cumulative cash balance rising from $1.8 million in fiscal year 2011 to $10.2 million in fiscal year 2018.”

MacCormack’s proposal also calls for increasing enrollment at the law school from 278 students in the 2010-2011 academic year to 559 students by 2017-2018. With this enrollment increase, the proposal states that the program will generate $81 million in student revenue between fiscal year 2010-2011 and fiscal year 2017-2018. Those funds will assist the school in winning ABA accreditation, a crucial step in bolstering the school’s profile.

After the vote, MacCormack told the Board that she appreciated its support and that it had helped broaden the University’s horizons.

“The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees has come down on the side of students and in favor of opportunity,” she said. “This vote advances our historic mission and demonstrates that the University’s future will be determined by the public interest rather than by private institutions,” she said at the meeting.

The Southern New England School of Law, a private law school in Dartmouth located about three miles from UMass Dartmouth, has offered more than its share of support to the proposal, making available the school itself and all of its assets, an estimated donation of about $23 million in total.

The assets included are the law school building and abutting real estate, recently appraised at $8.2 million, $11.5 million in library resources, $2.5 million in furnishings, technology and related infrastructure and $1 million in cash, making this donation the largest in the history of UMass Dartmouth.

According to the proposal, UMass Dartmouth will “create a public alternative, built on the major assets that will be donated by SNESL to the University once UMass Dartmouth is successful in gaining authority to offer the Juris Doctor (law) degree.”

“After the transfer of assets,” the proposal continues, “SNESL will no longer offer a law program.”

UMass Spokesman Robert Connolly said the proposal would be entirely self-sufficient and would involve rehiring of faculty.

“The current plan calls for tuition to be around $23,000 and for the school to be self-sufficient” in terms of funding. As for staffing and faculty, Connolly said that “we would invite the current faculty to come and teach, but they would have to go through the application process again.”

The school will actually bring money to the Commonwealth through this process. Tuition for a state school goes to the general fund of the Commonwealth, and the proposal’s authors estimate that between $500,000 and $1 million will be returned to the Massachusetts general fund this year.

In 2005, The Trustees of the University of Massachusetts voted to purchase SNESL and operate it as a public law school, but the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education voted against the proposition.

UMass Spokesman John Hoey said the reason for the proposal was mutual objectives. “Our missions have been very similar, there is a great synergy of mission,” he said. 

Hoey also said that a public law school would provide more opportunities to those who cannot afford a private school.

“You have to live or be near Boston and be willing to spend about $50,000 a year, and that places you into tremendous debt and narrows your options,” he said of the state’s current law offerings.

There are currently 44 states with public law schools, with education-rich Massachusetts absent. Presently there are nine law schools in the state, all of which are private with SNESL set to fall from that number if the proposal passes the Board of Higher Education. If the proposal passes through all reviews and gains final approval, students will be able to enroll as soon as September 2010.

This proposal for the public law school is not to be confused with the Massachusetts School of Law, a private institution located in Andover. 

Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry have also given the plan their support.

Tim Jones can be reached at [email protected] Sam Butterfield can be reached [email protected]