Governor Deval Patrick today formally endorsed a proposal by the University of Massachusetts to open the state’s first public law school, after the plan cleared another procedural hurdle.
"All along, I have believed we should accept the law school into the UMass system if it makes financial sense, and it looks like it does,'' Patrick said in a statement this evening. "Our students deserve the same access to opportunity as those in 44 other states and should have the option of a high-quality and affordable public law school.''
Earlier in the day, the UMass Board of Trustees' Committee on Administration and Finance voted 12-4 to endorse the financial aspects of the plan, in which the university’s Dartmouth campus would acquire the nearby private Southern New England School of Law.
Southern New England, a 235-student school that lacks national accreditation, is donating its campus and assets to the state, and its supporters hope UMass would be able to take the school to a higher level of achievement.
With UMass oversight, the law school would accept students starting in fall 2010. Under UMass Dartmouth’s projections, the school 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, has said 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.
UMass officials said one of the aims of the school would be to produce more public interest lawyers by halving the proposed $23,500 tuition for students who commit to serve in the public sector for four years after graduation.
UMass President Jack M. Wilson said in the statement after today's vote that UMass is poised to “seize a golden opportunity to provide the citizens of the Commonwealth with an affordable legal education program.”
A similar plan was shot down four years ago by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education after UMass trustees approved it.
Opponents, including some officials at rival private law schools, say Southern New England’s offer to donate its facilities and assets to UMass-Dartmouth threatens to become a taxpayer-funded bailout of what they call a failing law school. They question the faculty’s qualifications, allude to subpar facilities, and say bringing the school up to national standards would cost the state tens of millions of dollars, money the Commonwealth does not have.
The UMass board's Committee on Academic and Student Affairs approved the academic component of the proposal last month. The entire UMass board will vote on the proposal Dec. 10, before the issue goes to the Board of Higher Education.
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