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UMass wins approval for public law school

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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BRIDGEWATER - The state Board of Higher Education cleared the way yesterday for the University of Massachusetts to open the state’s first public law school, endorsing the idea of affordable law degrees and more students choosing public-service careers.

UMass, which overcame an acrimonious challenge from three private law schools and Beacon Hill detractors, wasted no time launching a recruitment drive: signs advertising the new law school were hung, a website seeking applicants went up, and 100 blue-and-gold baseball caps emblazoned with the school’s name were distributed.

“We’ve been trying to do this in Massachusetts for nearly half a century, and we’ve been beaten back several times,’’ Richard Freeland, state commissioner for higher education, said in an interview after the board meeting at Bridgewater State College. “If we hadn’t gotten this done today, it would be another 50 years.’’

The board’s unanimous approval opens the doors for the first class of students to enroll in the fall. Under the plan, UMass Dartmouth will acquire Southern New England School of Law, a private institution that is donating its campus and assets to the state.

Yesterday morning, a standing-room-only crowd at the board meeting greeted the historic vote with wild applause and cheers. Men and women in suits hugged as UMass officials and other law school supporters seized the moment to celebrate.

Governor Deval Patrick, who campaigned on the issue in Southeastern Massachusetts in 2006, called UMass president Jack Wilson and UMass Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack to offer congratulations.

“This is a quantum leap forward for the university,’’ said Education Secretary Paul Reville. “It was an easy vote.’’

The decision was an about-face for the board, which shot down a similar proposal in 2005. The surprise rejection left supporters crying political foul and spurred a lawsuit by Southern New England law students contending that behind-the-scenes dealings prevented a fair review.

To be sure, opponents - namely New England School of Law, Suffolk University, and Western New England School of Law - campaigned hard against the public law school this time around. Wary of the added competition, they lobbied legislators over the past four months and enlisted former state attorney general Thomas Reilly in an 11th-hour appeal that questioned the legality of the school’s financial plan.

But unlike in 2005, the UMass proposal gained momentum once the university’s trustees approved the plan in December.

“The politics were different,’’ Freeland said. “You clearly had a very supportive governor who wanted to make this happen.’’

The previous experience also helped UMass officials make better arguments promoting the school’s financial, academic, and societal benefits for the Commonwealth, Wilson said.

Several factors helped to ease passage this time. UMass cast the latest proposal as a $23.2 million gift from Southern New England School of Law, rather than a merger. Under the current plan, the law school will return a portion of tuition to state coffers. And the students’ lawsuit against the board, settled in 2008, paved the way for a more transparent vetting of the proposal.

Opponents still expressed doubt yesterday about the school’s financial blueprint, including UMass assertions that the new law school will not cost taxpayers a cent. The critics say they believe the state will have to cough up tens of millions of dollars to bring the school up to national standards.

Senator Stanley Rosenberg, Democrat of Amherst, said he is still pushing legislation that would explicitly bar the school from ever using state funds.

“I am working with a number of senators in Southeastern Massachusetts who have promised me that they will work to perfect statutory language to ensure that their commitment that this be a self-sustaining law school will be met,’’ Rosenberg said.

John O’Brien, dean of New England School of Law, criticized the board’s decision yesterday, calling it unfortunate and a “rushed action.’’

The public law school, which still faces the challenge of getting accredited by the American Bar Association, will focus on public-service law with a curriculum in civil and human rights, legal support for operating businesses, community law practice, and economic justice.

Most of the 965,000 Massachusetts residents eligible for free legal aid are turned away because there are not enough public service lawyers, according to a 2008 report by the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Expanding the Civil Rights to Counsel.

The school, which aims to make a legal education affordable, will charge $23,500 a year for tuition for in-state students, much less than most private law schools. It will offer 25 public service fellowships to new students each year that will cut tuition and fees in half, provided graduates serve in a public service law role for a minimum of four years.

It also hopes to diversify the legal profession in the state, where Hispanics and African-Americans make up just 3.5 percent of attorneys, even though they comprise 16 percent of the state population. UMass Dartmouth aspires to maintain the 34 percent minority enrollment at Southern New England, the highest among law schools in Massachusetts.

UMass Dartmouth expects to create a program to give students enrolled in any UMass campus the opportunity to earn an accelerated law degree, compacting their undergraduate studies into three years and beginning the first year of law school during their senior year.

The chancellor’s office has already fielded dozens of calls about the application process, MacCormack said. Students could apply starting yesterday, using Southern New England’s online application. Admissions will be rolling for the first year. The public service fellowship applications, due March 20, will be available next week, along with official brochures.

“We’re going to have to sell ourselves,’’ MacCormack said. “That starts today.’’

MacCormack said her admissions staff will begin visiting prelaw programs at colleges around the state. Robert Ward - dean of Southern New England School of Law, who will stay on as dean of the public law school - said he has already begun scouting star legal scholars to help bolster the profile of the new school. UMass Dartmouth expects to hire most of the current Southern New England faculty and review their credentials for tenure.

In the next two weeks, UMass will also invite about 130 current Southern New England students with at least a C average to transfer. The few who just barely make the cut would be eligible for a special summer program to help boost their academic skills, MacCormack said. By 2017, the school would grow to 559 students.

With yesterday’s decision, Massachusetts became the 45th state with a public law school. New Hampshire is in the process of creating one. That leaves just Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska as the only states without a public option.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.