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UMass pushes for law school

Debate rekindled by plan to acquire private institution

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / October 15, 2009

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University of Massachusetts officials have revived a controversial plan to open a public law school in the southeastern corner of the state as soon as next year, in a proposal that is likely to cause a new round of sparring in the politically charged realm of higher education.

The plan, rejected four years ago by the state Board of Higher Education but pushed anew by state officials, would remove Massachusetts from the list of just six states without a public law school. It calls for UMass-Dartmouth to take over the private Southern New England School of Law in North Dartmouth.

Under the terms released yesterday, UMass would be given the campus and any cash assets free of charge, a package officials valued at approximately $22.6 million.

“Law is a missing piece of the UMass curriculum,’’ said Jean MacCormack, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth. “This would fill in that gap and provide an affordable public law school option for students.’’

A UMass-Dartmouth law school would charge $24,000 a year in tuition, fees, and for books, far lower than the $40,000 it costs to attend Suffolk University Law School or the New England School of Law in Boston. UMass-Dartmouth would also provide 25 students a year with fellowships that would cut tuition in half if they commit to serving in public interest law for four years upon graduating, MacCormack said.

But critics of the plan say that another law school is not needed in a state that has eight other private institutions. Others point to the perilous economy and the cuts that are being made at UMass and question why the plan is being revisited now.

“I’m open-minded, but I think there are some serious questions that need to be addressed,’’ said Stephen Tocco, a trustee of the UMass board who, as chairman of the Board of Higher Education in 2005, voted against the plan.

UMass-Dartmouth officials have spent the last year studying the financial, legal, and academic feasibility of opening a public law school and say they are optimistic about enrolling its first class starting in the fall 2010. They hope to submit a proposal to state higher education officials by the end of December.

UMass president Jack Wilson, who received a letter last week from the chairwoman of the trustees of the 235-student law school offering to begin discussions leading to the donation of its assets to UMass, emphasized yesterday that a new law school is far from a done deal. He wants to ensure that UMass-Dartmouth proceeds with due diligence, especially during challenging economic times.

“It’s a reasonable thing that Massachusetts will one day want to consider having a public law school,’’ he said. “I certainly hear from students and others who feel disappointed that they don’t have the option in Massachusetts.’’

The step to acquire the 28-year-old private law school, which is not accredited by the American Bar Association, threatens to rekindle the bitter dispute of 2005. The most vocal opponents of the plan were Suffolk, New England School of Law, and Western New England School of Law in Springfield. They said at the time that the new school would cost taxpayers millions while burdening the state with more law schools and lawyers than it needs.

Officials at Suffolk and New England School of Law declined to comment yesterday. Representatives at the Springfield school could not be reached.

Richard Doherty, president and chief executive of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, questioned the timing of refloating the idea, given the dismal state of the economy.

“I don’t know how or why anyone would want to be taking on the cost and responsibility of the creation of a public law school when we’re trying our hardest to make ends meet with the higher education systems and institutions that we currently have,’’ Doherty said. “A fair study would reveal really significant costs associated with getting a law school up and running and fully accredited.’’

MacCormack said taxpayers would not have to shoulder the cost of a public law school. UMass-Dartmouth would pay for the costs of accrediting the school by increasing enrollment to 585 students over five years. In addition to tuition revenue, it plans to use its investment of $12 million from the equity of the donated building to win accreditation, which the university would begin seeking after two academic years, she said.

Tocco said that he remains skeptical of the school’s financial feasibility and the need for another law school in the state.

“The question is, does the market need this type of profession based on where our economy is headed?’’ he said. “It’s an interesting opportunity, but one that’s complicated in many ways and needs to be completely vetted. Is the investment return worth it for the Commonwealth? I am willing to let this play out in facts and figures.’’

A spokesman for Governor Deval Patrick did not return a call seeking comment on the plan.

A key difference in the new proposal, compared with the one in 2005, is that the public law school would return a portion of tuition to the state, said John Hoey, UMass-Dartmouth spokesman. The coastal school would also add an elective curriculum that could help the state’s southern economy, creating programs in environmental and maritime law, as well as immigration and public interest law.

In her letter to Wilson, Margaret Xifaras, chairwoman of the board of trustees at Southern New England School of Law, said the body decided at its Sept. 9 meeting to donate its real estate and assets to UMass-Dartmouth after “long and detailed consideration.’’

“We agreed to take this unusual step as we are persuaded that the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth . . . has the leadership commitment and management experience, particularly in the area of accreditation, to responsibly shepherd the establishment of a public law school program.’’

Along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Alaska do not have public law schools.

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