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Joan Vennochi

No law school for UMass

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / October 18, 2009

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LEMON SOCIALISM.

That’s what Thomas F. Birmingham, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate and a big public education booster, calls a plan by the University of Massachusetts to launch a public law school. It makes no sense, explains Birmingham, for a state college system with serious funding issues to take over the private, unaccredited Southern New England School of Law in North Dartmouth.

The original core UMass mission was simply to offer quality, affordable higher education to Massachusetts residents. Maybe there’s a place for a public law school in the UMass system; maybe there isn’t. The decision should be about what is best in the long term for UMass and all its students. It shouldn’t be left to the whims of politically connected, behind-the-scenes players.

The recent plan announced by UMass-Amherst officials to add thousands of higher-paying, out-of-state students to bolster the university’s bottom line already holds the potential to dilute the university’s core mission. Chancellor Robert Holub promises to hold the number of in-state undergraduates steady at about 16,000, as UMass begins enrolling an extra 300 out-of-state students a year. But those additional students will need housing. Over time, more faculty will be needed to teach them, and more labs and classrooms will be needed to absorb them.

How much of the overall expansion will Massachusetts taxpayers end up subsidizing? And will UMass keep its promise to maintain a steady number of Massachusetts citizens as students?

Over the years, the UMass system suffered from neglect and underfunding. Today’s tough economic environment puts added strain on it.

How can university officials justify investment in a new law school, given the current state of crumbling infrastructure? The garage at UMass-Boston was closed because it is unsafe to park cars in it. How about fixing that before starting up a law school?

Under the proposal, UMass would take over the law school and any cash assets free of charge, a package supposedly valued at $22.6 million. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch or property acquisition. Once UMass owns the law school, taxpayers become responsible for faculty salaries, student housing, and all other infrastructure and resources needed to support the campus.

Jean MacCormack, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth, argues that it would provide “an affordable public law school option for students.’’ But that raises another question. Why does Massachusetts need a new law school, even a more affordable one, given the eight private Bay State institutions that are already churning out graduates?

“There are so many unemployed lawyers coming out of law schools. Where are the jobs for all these people?’’ asks Peter Berlandi, a former UMass trustee. He also notes that systemwide, the UMass infrastructure is presently “in dire need of funding.’’

Stephen Tocco, a current trustee of the UMass board, told the Globe that he is “open-minded, but I think there are some serious questions that need to be addressed.’’ Tocco said he is skeptical of the school’s financial feasibility and wants to see the facts and figures that prove the investment return is worth it for the Commonwealth. But it’s interesting that Tocco is even willing to consider the proposal; he voted against a similar proposition in 2005, when he was chairman of the Board of Higher Education.

Given the way things work in Massachusetts, facts and figures will probably have little to do with the final outcome. This will be a political decision that goes straight to the governor’s office.

The current chairman of the board of the Department of Higher Education, Dr. Charles Desmond, was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick in September 2008. Margaret Xifaras, chairwoman of the board of trustees at Southern New England School of Law, was an early Patrick supporter who served on one of Patrick’s transition team.

Sometimes a mission, such as the UMass mission, can and should be rebooted. But in Massachusetts, the rebooting always seems to take place behind closed doors.

A trial balloon is launched. A lack of transparency and candor feeds cynicism about the end goal.

It’s true you can make lemonade out of lemons. But how many lemons does Massachusetts want to buy?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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