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UMass trustees OK a public law school

But some see it as costly to state

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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The University of Massachusetts board of trustees approved a plan yesterday to open the state’s first public law school.

Under the proposal, UMass Dartmouth would acquire Southern New England School of Law, a tiny private institution nearby that is donating its campus and assets to the state. Yesterday’s vote by the full UMass board sent the plan to the state’s Board of Higher Education, which is scheduled to vote on it in February.

“A public law program will fill a conspicuous gap in the Commonwealth’s public higher education curriculum,’’ said UMass president Jack Wilson. “It will give our students the public law option that exists in 44 other states. . . . This is about students and about educational opportunity. It is not about which private law school may face more competition.’’

The proposal, which previously received the backing of two UMass board committees, was approved by a 14 to 4 vote despite opponents’ assertions that the move would end up costing the state millions of dollars.

UMass Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack had previously laid out plans that said the public law school would operate free of taxpayer dollars and eventually funnel millions into UMass Dartmouth and the state through expanded enrollment. Officials have estimated that the school would grow from 235 students to 559 by 2017.

The school’s primary source of revenue would come from tuition and fees, to be $23,565, nearly half the amount charged by Suffolk and New England law schools in Boston.

Opponents, primarily three private law schools wary of the added competition, remain skeptical of the financial figures and are going to great lengths to challenge the UMass plan as overly optimistic, a tactic that helped to defeat a similar plan in 2005 after it had advanced to the state Board of Higher Education.

“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,’’ Arthur Gaudio, dean of Western New England School of Law in Springfield, wrote in a letter to trustees Wednesday urging them to vote against the public law school.

Jennifer Braceras, a UMass trustee, said she voted against the proposal because it was being proposed at the wrong time with the wrong institution.

“The university is about to create a law school on the backs of an unaccredited and failing school,’’ Braceras said.

Southern New England School of Law is not accredited by the American Bar Association, but MacCormack said her financial plans include investing $13.8 million of nontax dollars in faculty, library resources, and academic support to bring the school up to national standards.

As a precaution, however, Beacon Hill lawmakers are crafting legislation that they say would prevent public funds from being funneled to the school.

Supporters of the public law school say they are confident that it has a real chance to pass the Board of Higher Education this time around.

A 2008 settlement between the board and a group of students from Southern New England School of Law lays out a more transparent process for vetting the law school proposal, in response to the students’ lawsuit contending that the 2005 review process had been tainted by behind-the-scenes dealings.

Material from State House News Service were used in this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.