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Bailout of failing school

By Jennifer C. Braceras and Lawrence F. Boyle  | 

The Boston Globe

October 24, 2009

WHEN SOMEONE offers to “donate" a fourth-rate, unaccredited law school to a great state university, taxpayers should guard their wallets.

Last week, Margaret Xifaras, chairwoman of the board of the unaccredited Southern New England School of Law and political backer of Governor Deval Patrick, offered the failing law school to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth as a gift. As lawyers and members of the university’s board of trustees, we are skeptical and can’t help but wonder why Xifaras is so eager to offload her institution.

This is not the first time the law school has sought to drape itself in the cloak of UMass. In 2005, a similar plan was rejected by the Board of Higher Education on the grounds that the proposed financing would not be enough to “achieve ABA accreditation within the next five years.’’

Since coming to office, the governor has quietly stacked the higher education board and the university’s board of trustees with individuals sympathetic to the idea. Apparently, having now obtained critical mass on the relevant boards, merger supporters seek to ram the plan through before the political winds change again.

As trustees, we were shocked to learn about the revived proposal from a press release from the UMass president’s office. The timing of the proposal, and the urgency with which it is being thrust upon us, raises questions as to whether this “gift’’ is in fact raw political pork.

We are particularly concerned that the “due diligence’’ work on the proposal is being performed by those with a vested interest in its success, and not by an objective group of bar leaders and UMass trustees.

On the merits, we worry that absorption of Southern New England School of Law would pose significant financial challenges and prove to be an academic embarrassment to the university.

If the plan made little sense when the economy was humming along, how can it possibly make sense now? Since the financial collapse, UMass has had to make difficult budgetary decisions. Fat has been trimmed from the budget of each campus, and trustees were told that a fee increase was necessary in order to avoid cutting into the “bone’’ of the university.

Upgrading facilities and services to achieve American Bar Association accreditation will cost tens of millions of dollars. Even accreditation won’t guarantee quality worthy of the UMass name. The law school does not have a single distinguished faculty member. Indeed, the quality of the education is so poor that in a recent administration of the Massachusetts Bar Exam,only 6 percent of Southern New Englad Law School grads passed.

It is difficult to see how we can salvage this mess and create a law school to rival Boston’s excellent private law schools

In any event, we cannot fathom how UMass can add any value to an already cluttered legal academic marketplace. Massachusetts already boasts seven well-regarded, accredited law schools. As the Globe has reported, Massachusetts has the fourth-highest concentration of lawyers in the country - 14.5 lawyers for every 10,000 residents.

In the economic downturn, many law firms have cut back in hiring and are laying off employees.Prospective students of “UMass Law’’ may have difficulty finding work either with private firms or the government. They may simply “hang out their shingle’’ and offer “Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’’ justice for the people of the Southeastern Massachuetts. Our economy does not need more ambulance chasers educated at taxpayer expense.

We may not have the votes to stop this irresponsible maneuver. But proponents of the plan owe it to the taxpayers to answer these questions: Is this the right time for the university to enter the legal market? If so, is Southern New England Law School the best vehicle for doing so? Who is driving this proposal and what do they stand to gain from the merger? What explains the governor’s interest?

Only when we know the answers will taxpayers be able to determine whether this “donation’’ is good for the Commonwealth or whether it is simply a taxpayer-funded bailout of a failing law school.

Jennifer C. Braceras and Lawrence F. Boyle are trustees of the University of Massachusetts.