Saturday, November 21, 2009

Public Law School in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts is one of only six states without a public law school. I suspect it is a combination of the fact that there are so very many private law schools here, and that (at least some of them) have lobbied so assiduously against the idea every time the issue has come up. I work at one of the schools that certainly has lobbied against the idea. And I will try to present an even-handed report here despite that fact.

The Boston Globe just reported that a panel of the University of Massachusetts trustees approved the first step of a plan to acquire an unaccredited private law school, Southern New England School of Law, and recapitalize it as a public law school. This plan has been proposed several times over several years. Southern New England (SNESL)is not a bad law school, but it is seriously under-capitalized, and I think this is the most serious barrier to its being accredited by the American Bar Association. Despite huge efforts by various creative and innovative librarians, the library, as well as the rest of the school, requires a big infusion of cash to meet ABA standards, if what I hear is correct. According to the Globe article, the current plan promises that the new arrangement will not be a financial drain on the University of Massachusetts, or cost any taxpayer money. The graduates of SNESL had the second-lowest graduation rate for first time takers on the last Massachusetts bar exam. This is actually not a terrible indictment because, as a law school not accredited by the A.B.A., they are not usually getting the best students -- the best law students are tending to choose the accredited law schools first. So, take that figure with a grain of salt.

Southern New England, a 235-student school that lacks national accreditation, is donating its campus and assets to the state, and its officials hope UMass will be able to take the school to a higher level of achievement.

With UMass backing, the law school would accept students starting in fall 2010. It would be able to increase its enrollment to 559 by 2017; generate more revenue to invest in its students, faculty, and library; and raise graduates’ low passing rates on the state bar exam - issues it needs to address to receive American Bar Association accreditation, UMass-Dartmouth’s chancellor, Jean MacCormack, said.

MacCormack told the board the acquisition would not cost taxpayers any money, a concern raised by opponents. Investments made in the school would come from tuition and fees, she said. According to financial projections, UMass-Dartmouth would also remit $1.3 million in tuition to the state by 2017 and build a $10.2 million cash reserve for the campus by then.

“Here’s an institution that for argument’s sake doesn’t meet all of the standards of our university,’’ trustee Victor Woolridge said. “This is an opportunity. You buy low and grow.’’

A similar plan was shot down four years ago by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education after UMass trustees approved it. One difference in the current effort is that the public law school would return a portion of tuition revenue to the state. (snip)

The UMass board’s committee on administration and finance will take up the issue Dec. 2. The entire board will vote Dec. 10, before the issue goes to the Board of Higher Education.
The most recent proposal looked as though it was going to sink again. A completely disinterested blogger at AbovetheLaw wrote that he opposed the idea of a public law school in Massachusetts, not for any of the reasons raised in the 2004 debates, but because the employment market for lawyers was already super-saturated in the state, and what the hell were we thinking about, starting up a new law school, anyway? This seemed to be a pretty strong argument, and was carrying the day for a while. But then, the Chronicle of Higher Education came out with its annual report on the compensation of university presidents. As last year, the president of Suffolk University, David Sargent, shows up with the highest compensation in Boston, (this year, he dropped to the second highest in the country). But even better, the university trustees voted to extend the 78-year-old president's contract for another five years. The story ran as a local story, in the B section, and was commented on. But the Globe ran it a second time, two weeks later on its front page, with a beautiful photograph from inside the fifth floor of my library (how did they get it?!)(and doubly interesting, the online link only shows the headline and graphics that went with the story, not the story itself or the photograph or the comments). That was the only beautiful thing about the article. The rest was a detailed, outwardly even-handed coverage that went on for 3 pages about Sargent's pay and new contract, looking at the history, the explanations offered by the Trustees, and tearing those apart. They also interviewed disaffected alumni. I happen to know that they interviewed happy alumni as well, but did not include those quotations in the article. The article ran both in print and online. The online version of course, makes it easy to add comments and BOY! did they get comments. Many of the comments were from more disaffected alumni. I cannot help but think that the timing and prominent placement the second article had a profound effect on the vote. But perhaps I am displaying wishful thinking. Maybe the deciding factor is the promise that the new public law school won't cost either the University of Massachusetts or taxpayers anything.

I have to say I do have mixed feelings... The Globe article linked above promises a basic tuition of $23,500, which would be cut in half for students who would commit to public service jobs for four years post-graduation. That would be a wonderful boon to law students who now stagger under huge debt loads. It would allow people to pursue public service jobs in a way they really struggle with now. Even with the new student loan provisions with caps on repayments based on income and ending repayment after so many years, with shorter time spans for public servants and a lower percent of income as well, it can be a huge struggle to take those public service jobs. And I'm enormously frustrated with the trustees and the president at my university who seem to have the public relations sensitivity of oatmeal.

But I certainly do not believe that upgrading Southern New England School of Law is going to be no cost to either U. Mass or to the taxpayers of Massachusetts.

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