As the Dartmouth school’s first semester comes to an end, it’s clear that its detractors missed the mark
The Herald News, Sunday, December 19, 2010 – Page B1
DARTMOUTH — Dan Fierst’s parents were urging him to move back to Massachusetts to go to law school, but Fierst says there’s no way he would have considered the Southern New England School of Law as an option.
But the University of Massachusetts School of Law? That’s a whole other story.
After SNESL’s trustees decided to donate the law school campus in Dartmouth to UMass, Fierst found a way to leave California and move back to the state where he grew up for law school. He’s just one of many students who flocked to the law school campus this year because of the well-known UMass brand name — and the UMass muscle that could finally get the American Bar Association accreditation that has eluded the school for so long.
Massachusetts had been one of the few states without a public law school. With the UMass-Dartmouth campus a few miles south of the SNESL campus, a merger between the two schools seemed like a relatively easy way to solve the problem.
But the merger was dogged by critics, almost since the idea was first floated nearly a decade ago. You had the fiscal-watchdog types, wringing their hands over the potential financial drain that they said an unaccredited law school would cause to the state’s finances.
Then there were a few of the state’s private law schools, a politically connected bunch who feared the competition that a publicly funded law school could bring. They waged a fierce battle to discredit SNESL, unfairly depicting it as a luckless money pit off the beaten South Coast path, one undeserving of ever getting accredited by the industry’s largest trade group.
As the UMass law school’s first semester comes to an end, it’s clear that the naysayers missed the mark. There were 168 new students this semester, a 37 percent increase from what UMass had planned to meet its budget. The average incoming student’s LSAT score is up nearly 3 percent from a year ago. The school is easily on track to cover its $6 million in annual operating costs. And a UMass spokesman says the school will have sent a nearly $450,000 chunk — or about half of its “profit” so far — back to the state’s general fund by the end of the month.
UMass kept tuition and fees relatively stable for in-state students, at about $23,500 for the year, while raising it to about $31,000 for out-of-state students. Meanwhile, the university offered nearly 25 scholarships for students interested in pursuing public interest law, scholarships that shaved their costs in half.
The university is spending some money, too, with nearly $14 million in campus improvements and extra hiring planned over a five-year period to help get the school accredited. The UMass spokesman says those extra costs will easily be covered by the extra revenue generated by the anticipated surge in enrollment.
The merger between UMass-Dartmouth and SNESL can be traced back to discussions that began in 2000, as faculty members of both schools began to talk about ways to collaborate. UMass-Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack and SNESL dean Robert Ward were both new to their jobs, and eager to work together.
The critics, with an apparent last-minute assist from then-governor Mitt Romney, were able to short-circuit the merger plans when they were first presented to the state Board of Higher Education in 2005.
MacCormack says she redoubled her efforts, and tried to build a stronger case for the merger. The Dorchester native says she felt driven by the need to ensure that students from middle-class homes, and not just the well-to-do, had a chance to attend law school if they wanted.
The legal language for the merger was reformulated after SNESL trustees decided last year to donate the campus, valued at nearly $24 million, to UMass-Dartmouth.
The pieces began to fall into place. The state Board of Higher Education was now being closely scrutinized by an independent monitor, the result of a lawsuit filed by SNESL students who felt the previous merger proposal didn’t get a fair shake. In a major policy switch from his predecessor, Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to actively support the merger. And most of the higher ed board’s membership had changed by the time the UMass proposal won the board’s approval in February.
For Iowa native Natalie Kopp, the UMass brand was enough to put the campus on her radar screen. Kopp found the staff there to be helpful during the befuddling process of applying for financial aid.
She knew it was a bit of a gamble to attend without the ABA accreditation in place. But she was also optimistic that an institution the size of UMass would have the wherewithal to make sure the accreditation happens eventually.
Queens, N.Y., native Jean Louis, a second-year student at the law school, says he’s already noticed a big difference since the school joined the public university system. He says there are more professors and classes, and the student body is more diverse. Because the law school was financially self-supporting, Louis never understood the critics who argued that folding the school into the UMass system would harm the state’s finances.
Louis ideally would like to return to New York when he graduates in 2012. There’s no guarantee the school will have ABA accreditation by then, but Louis says he’s much more hopeful that will happen now that UMass is pushing it. The accreditation would allow him to take the bar exam in New York. Without it, Louis says he would need to practice in Connecticut or Massachusetts for several years before taking the bar exam in another state.
UMass is still in the process of hiring a consultant who would shepherd the university’s upcoming application through the accreditation process. MacCormack says SNESL failed in two attempts during the 1990s. But she says she’s confident the university’s financial strength and the rising academic prowess of the incoming students bode well for a future UMass application.
SNESL was able to cover its expenses, MacCormack says, but the school was never big enough to make the extra investments it needed to gain the accreditation.
The new students realize they took a risk when they agreed to come, especially with those two failed attempts with the ABA. But the support from UMass could be exactly what’s necessary to make sure the third time is the charm.
Sure, it may take another year or two before the accreditation issue is resolved, but UMass officials don’t need to wait that long to figure out whether the merger was successful. The verdict is already in.
Jon Chesto is a business editor for GateHouse News Service.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org