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Senator: Don't Quit on TSU Law School

By MICHAEL CASS
Tennessean Staff Writer
November 16, 2003

State higher education officials fear that state Sen. Thelma Harper could hold up $10 million that Tennessee State University would like to have so it can create new graduate programs, now that a proposed law school is off the table.

If merger negotiations with Nashville School of Law had been successful, TSU would have received $10 million from the state to establish a downtown law school campus. Harper says the proposed merger should still be a possibility and that she doesn't think TSU and Tennessee Board of Regents leaders tried hard enough to make it happen.

''To be perfectly honest, they haven't done anything,'' said Harper, a Nashville Democrat. ''What else can you believe except that they don't want it to happen? The Board of Regents and TSU have a responsibility to attempt to get a law school. How many days of the week does somebody hand you $10 million?''

The settlement of the state's higher education desegregation lawsuit in 2001 which was filed in 1968 called for TSU and NSOL to discuss a merger, though the private law school was not obligated to do anything. Supporters hoped a law school would give historically black TSU a new level of prestige, enabling it to attract a strong mix of black, white and other students, while NSOL would be able to earn American Bar Association accreditation.

After several months of talks, law school trustees voted in April 2002 to end the negotiations, saying the state's financial condition made a merger too risky.

Last January, Carlos Gonzalez, the federal court-appointed monitor of the settlement, wrote to the state attorney general's office that the window of opportunity had closed and that it was time for the state to explore other possibilities.

TSU and Board of Regents officials said they worked hard to achieve the merger.

''We went to great lengths to make that happen,'' said Charles Manning, chancellor of the Board of Regents system, which includes TSU and 44 other schools. ''That decree lays out that if it didn't work and it didn't we move to option No. 2.''

That option features a set of graduate degree programs that TSU would offer on its downtown campus at 10th and Charlotte avenues. The programs would be in business, health sciences and government fields and would try to draw older, working adults.

TSU also wants to enhance several existing programs in education, nursing and interdisciplinary studies, downtown campus director Evelyn Nettles said.

A Board of Regents committee voted last Tuesday to ask the state to add the $10 million, which the settlement had designated for a law school startup, to $4 million already set aside for improving the Williams campus. Gonzalez said the money is already in the consent decree budget and that officials want to move it into a new category.

But the State Building Commission would have to approve the change, and Harper has a key ally there in Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who serves as speaker of the Senate and has been involved in discussions with Harper and Board of Regents officials. Several people involved in the settlement said that if they can't convince Harper that it's time to forget about the law school, they could have trouble getting through the building commission.

Wilder said yesterday that he was ''anxious to have a law school at TSU.'' But he said he had just one vote on the building commission and wanted the other members to ''vote their convictions.''

Failing to get the $10 million would mean that the campus, built in the late 1960s for the former University of Tennessee-Nashville and mostly unimproved since UT-Nashville and TSU merged in 1977, would not get much of an upgrade, board officials said. The $4 million wouldn't do much beyond renovating the infrastructure, such as lighting and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

With $14 million, TSU could renovate about 32,000 square feet of space for the new programs, install up-to-date technology and upgrade all the major mechanical systems, said Jerry Preston, the Board of Regents' executive director of facilities. He said the improvements would amount to about $60 per square foot for the entire, 180,000-square-foot building, which ''is a reasonable target to try to hit for renovations.''

''We can turn this into a bonanza for the downtown campus,'' said Ray Richardson, a TSU math professor who has been involved in the lawsuit for about 30 years and is working to implement the deal.

But Harper, a TSU alumna, said the degree programs wouldn't match what a law school could do for the university ''for one minute.'' She said having a law school would put TSU in the ranks of Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee, and ''ordinary citizens could attend at a reasonable cost.''

''It would be the best recruiting tool there is,'' Harper said.

So she's reluctant to turn the $10 million loose. ''You can forget about having a law school once that money's released,'' she said.

TSU President James Hefner and Joe C. Loser Jr., dean of NSOL, could not be reached for comment.

Richardson and Manning said in a joint interview that they would keep talking to Harper, hoping to persuade her it's time to go ahead with the other programs.

''We're confined by the legal requirements of the agreement,'' Manning said. ''We're trying to do our best for the school within that. We know she's trying to do her best for the school as well.''

If the Board of Regents can overcome Harper's objections and win building commission approval, it will need to get the money placed in Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget request for the next fiscal year and approved by the legislature.

George Barrett, the Nashville attorney who filed the desegregation lawsuit in 1968, said the state had ''more than fulfilled its commitment'' to pursue the merger. He continued to criticize Hefner's leadership, saying it cost the university an opportunity.

Gonzalez said he believed the situation would be sorted out. ''I'm confident we'll be able to resolve the problem to everyone's satisfaction,'' he said. ''Whatever we need to get done will get done, and we'll get that campus renovated.''