Law School, UMass
Revive Merger Plan
By CURT BROWN, Standard-Times staff writer
January 5, 2004
NEW BEDFORD -- The chancellor at UMass Dartmouth has revived the idea of a merger with Southern New England School of Law -- an idea left for dead two years ago -- and said she is optimistic that it will happen this time.
Dr. Jean F. MacCormack said she feels the merger can be accomplished by September, and what would be the state's first public law school would be phased into the state's educational system over time. She made her comments last week during a meeting with the editorial board of The Standard-Times.
"I'm optimistic because I think the commonwealth needs a public law school," she said.
Robert V. Ward Jr., dean of the law school, said yesterday he and Dr. MacCormack have never stopped talking about a merger, nor have they stopped working together on projects of mutual interest.
"We have continued to work together, despite what happened two years ago. We both hope it can and would happen," he said.
But, he added, a decision rests with Dr. MacCormack and the law school's board of trustees, but he feels the board is supportive.
Efforts to contact Margaret D. Xifaras, a New Bedford lawyer and chairwoman of the law school's board of trustees, were unsuccessful.
Dr. MacCormack said yesterday in additional comments that SNESL, located on Faunce Corner Road, minutes from the Dartmouth campus of UMass, would give the state a public law school without starting from scratch.
She said the merger will require conversations with the Legislature, but she is not sure whether its approval is necessary.
She added that the law school's degree-granting authority, given to it by the commonwealth, and accreditation from the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges would have to be transferred to the university.
"I anticipate dialogue with all the affected parties, including the Legislature," she said yesterday.
In her comments last week, she said her view is that the state should not fund the law school and there should be no change in tuition, but the state should provide funding for the study of public service law.
She had added that the law school is attractive to UMass Dartmouth since it is almost debt-free and the university needs additional space.
Despite recognition of the need for a public law school in the state, the merger of the two Dartmouth institutions was hurt in 2001 by claims that the law school had serious financial problems and that the abundance of lawyers in the country would cause law school admissions to drop nationally and regionally.
The Legislature two years ago rejected a proposal to approve $50,000 to study a possible merger.
Mr. Ward said two things have changed since the idea of a merger was first discussed. The law school's finances are now in "very good shape," and its enrollment has doubled.
"Maybe it is time to revisit the idea," he said.
He said enrollment gains and financial improvements have proven wrong those who criticized the merger two years ago.
The enrollment at SNESL has jumped from 130 students two years ago to 260; it is anticipated that there will be 300 students in the fall.
He said the law school's finances are so good right now that it was in a position when it closed its books in June to have been able to write the university a check if UMass Dartmouth needed money to get through the tough fiscal times facing the state and its public universities.
Two years ago, lawmakers accused the law school of pursuing the merger for financial reasons.
"It wasn't a bailout. I said we would survive regardless, and we have," he said. "You tell me who had their facts straight."
He said he does not know how politics will factor into the merger talks. "There are always politics of some sort. I don't know."
He implied that the law school's board of trustees would expect compensation at some time for their building if there is a merger.
He said the law school is an entity and the university would derive a benefit from it, so it would be reasonable to expect compensation.
"We have a building that is worth $7 million, so why would we give it to the state?" he asked.
Rejected in the past in its efforts to win accreditation from the American Bar Association, the law school is in the first year of a five-year plan to seek its approval and will pursue it, regardless of whether there is a merger, Mr. Ward said.
"We have a plan for moving towards ABA. We are on schedule," he said.