Speakout: CU Law School needs building
to match its superb reputation

By Jim R. Carrigan
March 6, 2004
Rocky Mountain News

It's often said that no news is good news. Is it also true that good news is not news?

In recent years, nearly all the news about the University of Colorado Law School has been very good, but unpublished. This 110-year-old school always has enjoyed a solid reputation throughout the region.

Now it has soared to national and international stature. Its outstanding programs and accomplishments impress knowledgeable judges, lawyers, policy makers, and educators. The school would be a source of pride for all Coloradans if only its story were told.

Since last summer CU Law School has been prominent in the news. The news-making event was not the fact of its ascent to the top tier of national law schools, or publication of groundbreaking books by its faculty, or conferences that attracted thousands of people from around the state, nation and globe. Instead, Denver and Boulder media questioned whether the school will lose its accreditation, citing an American Bar Association Committee finding that the law building is inadequate by its standards.

One daily paper reported that CU wants to delay an "accreditation hearing \[to\] better defend the School of Law against charges that it is substandard." The article added that accreditation could be in danger without "a better library." Some Denver radio stations broadcast the misconceived notion that future CU graduates might not qualify to take bar examinations.

Clearly the ABA has not even implied that either the law school or the law library is substandard. The ABA's only concern is the building. After finding the physical facilities inadequate by its standards, the ABA asked CU to demonstrate progress in responding to that issue.

What the faculty and students do inside the Fleming Law Building - as uncomfortable and overcrowded as it may be - is first-rate. The library has the state's largest and best collection of print and electronic legal publications - albeit one-third is crammed into the basement. Last year it was used 250,000 times by lawyers, judges and scholars throughout the West.

The plain fact is that CU ranks among the Top 20 publicly supported law schools in the nation. By every statistical measure, it is not just good, but great! Some 85 percent to 95 percent of CU law graduates pass bar examinations on their first try. And 93 percent are employed within six months after graduation, many in prestigious judicial clerkships. In 2003, the impact of the law faculty's research ranked 15th nationally. U.S. News and World Report consistently places the school's environmental law program in the nation's Top 10.

And it keeps getting better! The 170 students selected for this year's entering class - from over 3,200 applicants - could have attended top schools anywhere. The average CU admittee scored in the top 12 percent on the national Law School Aptitude Test. The school has at least two nationally recognized centers of excellence, the Natural Resources Law Center and the Byron R. White Center for the Study of Constitutional Law. It has recently added the innovative Silicon Flatirons Telecommunications Program. Both the National Judicial College and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy began at the CU Law School. Both left because of inadequate physical facilities.

The law school building is a problem. It's dreary, overcrowded and too small for present programs. But the faculty and staff make it work reasonably well for a half-century-old structure.

Nonetheless, accreditation is not in jeopardy.

The building problem will be solved! Under former Dean Harold Bruff, the school planned a new, $40 million law building.

Students voted, for themselves and future classes, a $1,000-per-year tuition increase, to support $7 million of bonds. The state legislature committed about half the building's cost. Private fund-raising from alumni and friends so far has produced donations and pledges of $7.4 million. Many alumni and friends are contributing generously.

Unfortunately the state's financial woes aborted building planning, three weeks short of completing blueprints. With less than $2 million of state money spent, the balance of the initial appropriation was taken back. Since then the state's declining revenues have dimmed hopes for immediate major state appropriations.

But no one has given up. CU is becoming more like a private school, increasing tuition and raising funds from alumni and friends.

CU President Betsy Hoffman and the Boulder campus's provost and chancellor have been working on options to pay for a new building. The Board of Regents has made the building the university system's highest priority. I am enormously impressed by the dedication of these officials. If state money falls short this year, creative funding for construction must be sought. The present dean, David Getches, believes that legislators and the governor soon will join in supporting the building project. He and campus officials are committed to starting construction in 2004.

Nearly every option requires legislative action. Because there may be no concrete plan until May, when the legislative session concludes, CU asked the ABA to extend until June the deadline to report on progress. The ABA, knowing the school's excellence and wanting it to succeed, granted that request.

By summer, the university should be able to report on how it will fund the building so the blueprints can be completed quickly and construction can begin. Then there will be more good news to add to the great educational effort now going on at CU Law School. Let's hope the good news is spread!

Jim R. Carrigan is a former regent of the University of Colorado, as well as a retired federal judge and Colorado Supreme Court justice.