The University of Massachusetts passed the first test today in its bid to open the state's first public law school, as a board of trustees committee approved UMass-Dartmouth's proposal to acquire the nearby private Southern New England School of Law.
The board's committee on academic and student affairs voted 11-to-5 to accept the plan after a vigorous debate, during which several opponents raised concerns about its fiscal feasibilty and impact on the UMass brand.
The majority of trustees, though, said a public law school would give working-class students access to a legal education they would otherwise be unable to afford. They praised the UMass school's intent to turn out more public interest lawyers by cutting its $23,500 tuition in half for those who commit to serving in the public sector for four years after graduating.
The acquisition, several trustees said, is a wise entrepreneurial venture that could also help position UMass as a leading university system. Massachusetts is one of only six states without a public law school.
"I can't make a rational case for not offering the citizens of the Commonwealth an affordable public law option," said Henry Thomas, III, chairman of the committee on academic and student affairs. "Big, strong, viable companies buy companies that are struggling every day. It's a business strategy, oftentimes one that works out well."
Southern New England, a 235-student school that lacks national accredidation, is donating its campus and assets to the state in hopes that UMass will be able to take the school to a higher level of achievement.
With UMass backing, the law school, which would accept students starting fall 2010, would be able to increase its enrollment to 559 by 2017. It also would 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 the American Bar Association accredidation, said Jean MacCormack, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth.
MacCormack emphasized in her presentation to the board today that the acquisition would not cost taxpayers any money. Investment made in the school would come from tuition and fee revenue. According to the school's, UMass Dartmouth would also remit $1.3 million in tuition to the state and build a $10.2 million cash reserve for the campus by 2017.
"Here's an institution that for argument's sake, doesn't meet all of the standards of our university," said trustee Victor Woolridge. "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 approval by UMass trustees. A key difference this time is the public law school would return a porition of tuition revenue to the state.
Stephen Tocco, a UMass trustee who had voted against the plan in 2005 when he chaired the Board of Higher Education, said he is more open to it now that changes have been made. "It is a better proposal, and I appreciate that,'' he said.
But Tocco voted against the plan today. "I don't believe for a minute that this is not going to cost the university money," he said.
Also today, the proposal received an endorsement today from three members of the state's congressional delegation.
In a letter to Governor Deval Patrick, US Senator John F. Kerry and US Representatives Barney Frank, and James McGovern said converting a public law school would "expand learning opportunities and educate a new generation of highly productive citizens.''
"The creation of this law school ... will greatly aid the region's workforce, employers, and residents,'' the lawmakers said in their letter. "This law school will give many more highly motivated and talented students the opportunity to further their education.''
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