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First public N. Texas law school gets OK

Senate clears way for UNT to open Dallas facility this decade

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN The first public law school in Dallas and North Texas would be established by the end of the decade under legislation passed Monday by the Senate.

The measure by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would clear the way for the University of North Texas to open a law school in downtown Dallas and begin accepting students by fall 2009.

Approved on a 27-3 vote, the bill now goes to the House.

"When you begin to look at it, there is no public law school in one of the fastest-growing areas of the state," Mr. West said of his motivation for the bill. "We can't wait until we need it to begin planning for it."

The senator said the law school proposal "is yet another step in developing a greater presence for institutions of higher education for Dallas and the surrounding cities." And he cited the previous establishment of a UNT campus in Dallas.

Texas has four public law schools the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University (Lubbock), Texas Southern University (Houston) and the University of Houston. There are five private law schools, including Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.

Mr. West predicted that the new law school would have an enrollment somewhere above the enrollment at Texas Southern nearly 800 students.

Before passage of the measure, Mr. West was forced to accept an amendment that transferred responsibility for a feasibility study on the law school from UNT to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The senator had designated UNT to conduct the study after coordinating board officials previously opposed creation of the law school in Dallas.

But Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the approval process essentially allowed the University of North Texas to decide whether it should receive additional state funding to operate a law school in Dallas.

"This is like the fox guarding the henhouse," Mr. Duncan said. "I have a concern that we're going to appropriate money based on a feasibility study by the institution that stands to benefit and receive the additional money."

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said he assumed the higher education coordinating board would weigh in on the proposal when he agreed earlier to support the legislation.

"I'm finding out today for the first time that the feasibility study for this school is being done by the University of North Texas," he said.

That brought a sharp response from Mr. West, who said, "If you don't want to support this bill and go back on your word, that's fine."

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, also questioned resistance to the bill, saying, "It disturbs me when I go to a place like Texas Tech and they're putting up new buildings everywhere" while Dallas has had trouble getting higher education opportunities for its residents.

Mr. Duncan offered an amendment to switch responsibility for the feasibility study to the coordinating board, which oversees and supports higher education institutions in the state.

Sensing a drop-off in Senate support for his bill, Mr. West agreed to accept the Duncan amendment.

Later, Mr. West said the coordinating board would not be able to come back and kill the law school bill with its feasibility study.

"The coordinating board is supposed to look at the feasibility of the steps necessary for accreditation. They cannot come back and say there should not be a law school in Dallas," he said.

Under the bill, about $600,000 would be appropriated over the next two years for UNT to begin planning for the law school. The feasibility study would be due by June 1, 2006.

The law school would be in the old municipal building in downtown Dallas, located at 106 S. Harwood St. The project will be developed jointly by the UNT system and the city of Dallas.