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Opponents yesterday lashed out at a plan for the University of Massachusetts to take over an unaccredited law school in Dartmouth, a day after the president of UMass said he supported the disputed proposal that would create the state's first public law school.
Senate Minority Leader Brian P. Lees, R-East Longmeadow, weighed in on the law school proposal for the first time, calling it a "ludicrous" plan. Lees said having the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth take over Southern New England Law School is not needed and would drain money from Amherst and other campuses of the UMass system.
Lees said the university has other needs, including repairing buildings on the Amherst campus, restoring university programs cut during the state's fiscal crisis, and funding $28 million for six months of retroactive pay increases for higher education employees.
Rep. Gale D. Candaras, D-Wilbraham, who along with Rep. Thomas M. Petrolati, D-Ludlow, filed a bill that would require the Legislature and the governor to approve the plan, said there are more than enough law schools in the state.
"The fact of the matter remains that there are seven accredited and two unaccredited law schools in Massachusetts," said Candaras, who is a lawyer. "It is not a priority."
Candaras said there are also plenty of lawyers in Massachusetts, with one in every 143 state residents being a lawyer.
During a Tuesday meeting of the university's trustees, Jack M. Wilson, president of the UMass system, recommended that trustees approve the proposed merger. James J. Karam of Tiverton, R.I., chairman of the trustees, said the merger is supported by "a large majority" of the 19 trustees with voting power.
But Lees said the law school is "just a pipe dream," and he expressed strong disappointment in trustees and Wilson.
"I'm very concerned that someone of his level would be so naive on this subject," Lees said. "It's impossible he can be so out of touch."
Robert P. Connolly, an associate vice president at the university, said that Wilson has been acclaimed as a strong leader for the university.
Wilson said the law school would be part of the continuing education program at UMass-Dartmouth, meaning it will receive no state money. Under state law, continuing education must be self-sustaining and cannot receive state money, Wilson said.
In a brief interview yesterday, John V. Lombardi, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, also expressed support for creating the law school.
"The law school proposal has been thoroughly reviewed," Lombardi said. "It's clear it's a good acquisition for the Dartmouth campus."
The law school, assessed at $9.7 million, would be transferred to the Dartmouth campus at no cost. The university would assume $2.5 million in debt, but receive a 77,000-square-foot, decade-old building, 5.6 acres and a law school that is operating in the black, according to Jean F. MacCormack, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth.
It would cost an estimated $900,000 to win accreditation for the law school from the American Bar Association in Chicago, according to MacCormack.
Plans call for keeping tuition at $19,000 a year. The law school would specialize in immigration, maritime and public service law.
Candaras said one of the reasons she and Petrolati filed legislation was because officials were trying to conduct the merger in secret.
"This plan is what I call the midnight express, which is fast track at midnight under cover," she said.
John T. Hoey, a spokesman for UMass-Dartmouth, rejected that assertion.
"This has been a conversation for literally three years," Hoey said.
The proposed merger first surfaced in 2000.
Trustees have set no date for voting on the law school. However, a vote could come sometime in the next three months, Karam said.
Arthur R. Gaudio, dean of Western New England College Law School in Springfield, said creation of a UMass law school would "have little effect on us." WNEC is the only law school in Western Massachusetts.
Gaudio also said he does not believe the current merger proposal can work.
"I think they're overly optimistic. They do not realize the expenses that are really involved in running a law school, particularly a state law school," said Gaudio, who from 1990 to 1996 was dean of the law school at the University of Wyoming.
Gaudio also said the proposed $19,000 tuition figure for a UMass law school would not prove attractive, because students can get better deals nearby at the University of Maine and the University of Connecticut.
Among the seven ABA accredited law schools in Massachusetts, in-state tuition for 2003 ranged from $21,325 at New England School of Law in Boston to $32,392 at Harvard Law School.
Tuition at WNEC is $26,000 a year.
Candaras received her law degree from WNEC, and her husband, Arthur D. Wolf, is a member of the law school faculty there.
"It's absolutely irrelevant that I'm married to Art Wolf," Candaras said in talking about her opposition to a UMass law school.
Southern New England School of Law and Massachusetts School of Law, located in Andover, are the two law schools in the state not accredited by the ABA.