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BOSTON --The state's Board of Higher Education on Thursday rejected the University of Massachusetts' controversial plan to create the state's first public law school.
Board members voted 8-3 against the proposal to acquire the Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth, a plan that met with strident opposition by some lawmakers and by leaders of the state's private law schools.
UMass trustees approved the plan in December, but it needed the backing of the board to go forward. Thursday's vote effectively kills the proposal.
"It is the students who lose out here," said UMass-Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack, a key architect of the proposal. She blamed its failure on "outside interference," by the state's private law schools.
"I have never seen this level of scrutiny," she said.
Board members who voted against it said they had concerns about the legality of how the school would be financed. Specifically, they said a plan to use revenue generated by the school for operations, rather than funnel it into the state's general fund, appeared to be a violation of state law.
"What I heard today was strong support for the concept," said UMass President Jack Wilson, who said he was disappointed but hoped the plan could be resurrected in some form.
"We have to come away, analyze this and decide where we go from here," he said.
University administrators wanted to merge the 260-student law school, which is not accredited by the American Bar Association, with the existing UMass-Dartmouth campus. Southern New England agreed to donate its campus and other assets to the state, which in turn would accept $2.5 million in debt.
UMass said it could operate the school at no cost to taxpayers, a claim critics dismissed as unrealistic.
"I looked at this fairly," said board member Matthew E. Carlin, who voted against the proposal. "I think we have more pressing unmet needs."
In the weeks leading up to Thursday's vote, UMass officials tailored their proposal to respond to board members' concerns.
Wilson said officials would use private fund-raising to ensure lower tuition and fees for in-state students.
Initial projections called for in-state tuition and fees of around $19,000, which would have made it the nation's fourth most expensive public law school.
After Board of Higher Education Chairman Stephen P. Tocco criticized that figure as "much too high," university officials came back with a plan to lower in-state tuition and fees to around $16,000.
Administrators at the state's private law schools claimed the university eventually will need taxpayer support to get accredited.
"It stands to reason that if you're trying to recruit the best students, it's unlikely they're coming to your school if it's unaccredited," John F. O'Brien, dean of the New England School of Law in Boston, said in a letter to the Board of Higher Education.
Southern New England currently has regional accreditation allowing graduates to take the bar exam in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It was not immediately clear what would become of the school following the board's rejection of the UMass plan.
In a last-ditch effort to win state approval of a proposed law school, leaders of the University of Massachusetts yesterday submitted a revised plan with a new tuition structure and agreed to pursue major private fund-raising for the law school.
Leaders of the state Board of Higher Education, who are expected to vote this morning on the university's plan to acquire Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth, predicted a close vote and said many of the board's members were still weighing the plan's costs and benefits yesterday.
The UMass plan has faced fierce opposition from Suffolk University Law School and New England School of Law, whose leaders said a public law school was not needed and would burden taxpayers. Southern New England is not accredited by the American Bar Association.
The Board of Higher Education's chairman, Stephen Tocco, and vice chairman, Aaron Spencer, both described themselves yesterday as undecided. One member, Matthew Carlin, said he would vote against the proposal, and another, Kathleen Kelley, said she would vote for it. Several others did not return phone calls.
During several hours of meetings with Board of Higher Education staff members yesterday, UMass officials agreed to lower in-state tuition at the law school, as board members requested last week. Instead of charging all students $19,000, as first proposed, in-state students would be charged about $16,000 and out-of-state students about $23,000, UMass-Dartmouth spokesman John Hoey said.
University leaders also agreed yesterday to set an ambitious $5 million short-term fund-raising goal for the law school.
''We have always talked about doing significant fund-raising, and the thought is that this would give a comfort level to those who are concerned about cost," Hoey said.
UMass officials maintain that it would cost $1.4 million to win ABA accreditation for the school, a cost they say could be covered by increasing enrollment from 250 to 550 students. Leaders of private law schools have said that achieving the quality needed to win accreditation could cost more than $30 million.
UMass officials said yesterday that they have submitted a new accreditation blueprint that requires no more money but includes costs from elsewhere in their budget. Critics had linked those costs to the accreditation effort, UMass officials said. The reorganized financial plan shows accreditation costs of $10 million, Hoey said, including $600,000 in financial aid, which was always in the plan but wasn't defined as a cost of accreditation.
Critics of the plan have said its financial aid budget is insufficient to attract the high-achieving students needed to raise test scores. Other fledgling law schools have had to offer tuition discounts of 50 to 80 percent to attract enough top students, John O'Brien, dean of New England School of Law in Boston, has said.
Critics also said this week that by operating the law school under state rules for continuing education, UMass may jeopardize its chance for accreditation. UMass officials say the continuing education designation is a ''firewall" that would ensure no state money is used to pay for the law school.
Globe correspondent Jennifer Nelson and the Associated Press contributed to the report.